Divers go deep for unexplored UAE wrecks

Shipwrecks including a German U-boat, cargo ships and many other vessels are among the mysteries being uncovered by divers off the UAE.

May 27,  Deep diver Peter Brett steadies himself on the anchor line while he waits on his Mandatory Decompression Obligation, a stop in the water at a certain depth based on the depth and the time of his dive, after coming up from a depth of 70 meters. He carefully monitors his dive computer to calculate his decompression tim . May 27, 2011 Fujeirah, United Arab Emirates (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National)
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DUBAI // They have to go deep, these divers, sometimes 100 metres or more below the surface.

Links: More on deep sea diving

Last Updated: June 5, 2011 UAE

How can they dive so deep?

Technical diving to depths of 100 metres and more is a dangerous endeavor that takes special equipment.

VIDEO: Diving deep in search of wrecks

Travel to the bottom of the ocean in search of sunken ships.

Conditions can be bad down there, so dark they sometimes do not know they have found what they are looking for until the darkness opens suddenly revealing the prize: an unmistakable V-shape of a shipwreck.

"It's just an absolute blast when you see one of the wrecks," said Nick van der Walt, a diver from New Zealand.

"You go down and you go through these layers of water and then you get a dark layer of plankton, and you go through that and then it's like a theatre curtain opening as you look down on the wreck with the divers' torch beams flashing across it."

Dr van der Walt is part of an informal group of a dozen divers in Dubai - a group that includes two women, a teacher and an airline pilot - working on a project that would see them find and dive every deep shipwreck in the Gulf of Oman, off the coast of Fujairah up to the tip of Musandam. The project, launched back in November 2009 through team leader, Bill Leeman, requires them to dive deeper than conventional equipment can take them, more than double the typical 40 metres below the surface.

These wrecks lie at 100 metres or more, requiring technical diving that involves adept skills, a special mix of gases and complicated equipment.

"Currently there are five brand new wrecks that had never been dived before, which we've dived, and there are three or four left that we haven't found yet," said Mr Leeman. "When you're the first one to see one of these wrecks, and to physically touch it, it's fantastic. You've achieved something, you've found it, you've dived it, and then everybody can go after you."

They are able to go so deep because they breathe mixtures of helium, oxygen and nitrogen, known as trimix.

The wreck-finders are amateurs with day jobs, "to pay for the diving", said Mr Leeman.

A five-day boat trip, the usual length of their wreck excursions, costs about Dh4,000 per person. They have all undergone a considerable amount of special training, led by Mr Leeman, who was trained in the UAE as a technical diving instructor.

They are all members with the Desert Sports Diving Club, the Dubai branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club, and work closely with the local companies Coastal Technical Divers and Scuba Dubai.

Ali Fikree, an Emirati service supervisor for a district cooling company in Dubai, is another member of the team. His interest in underwater exploration is a continuation of an Emirati tradition. In the past, many families were involved in the pearl diving industry.

In addition to putting previously undiscovered wrecks on the map, he wants to place an overlooked part of the UAE's maritime heritage firmly in the history books. He plans to carry out a full survey of one of the wrecks the divers have explored, a German U-boat called the U-533.

He hopes it will stimulate interest in the part the region played in the Second World War.

Mr Leeman was the first to locate and dive on U-533, which was sunk by the British and lies 105 metres deep.

"If you type WW2 and the UAE into a search engine nothing much comes up, and hopefully the survey will change that and basically broaden the history," said Mr Fikree.

"I want it to go into the textbooks, I want it to be taught in schools, that - yes - this region had a part to play in WW2.

"Something I really want to do is contribute to the historical side, that's been my biggest aim for quite a while. Hopefully there is going to be a World War II chapter written into all the history books and that will become part of the UAE's heritage and history."

Mr Fikree has made determined efforts to research what happened here during the Second World War, but has had difficulty obtaining official documents.

"I can't find any records because no one will give me any," he said.

"I'm not sure what role this region played but clearly it played an important part. Whenever I've tried to find out the history of the region in World War Two I can't find anything and anyone who has the details won't give them to me, I always come to a dead end."

"The idea was to investigate the region's history a lot more than it has been, there's nothing being done in that era. I'd like it to be part of the region's history."

Mr Fikree has carried out a considerable amount of research into the U-533 already. He plans to undertake a full video and photographic survey of the site later this year.

He will have to acquire a special camera housing that will remain waterproof at the depth where the vessel lies - at present the team cannot film or photograph the very deep wrecks because they do not have the expensive equipment required.

The U-boat's snorkel and gun are intact, and the hole caused by the depth charge explosion that sank her can be seen."The outer shell casing has collapsed considerably, the armour around it," said Mr Fikree. "But I've seen the conning tower."

The group has already tackled many of the shallow, known wrecks, which is why they moved to a "whole new chapter" of deeper, unseen wrecks, said Mr Leeman, a British engineer.

"There's no one else doing this here and that's how we came to find so many wrecks".

The vessels they have located so far include the Sagheera, a Saudi supertanker that sank in 1989 following an explosion and is lying on the seabed in two sections. The team found the bow and stern separately as they are some distance apart.

Reaching the bow section was a challenge as it lies 115 metres deep, which meant the divers were operating at the limits of their range.

"That's 115 metres maximum on the bow section," added Mr Leeman. "I've dived them both, the other one is about 112 metres. It's massive, it's a fantastic wreck on two completely different sites.

"The visibility on some of these wrecks isn't always that good, this is always the problem. It's not like the Red Sea with blue waters and huge shipwrecks appearing out of nowhere. It's hard work, you can get some horrendous currents and it's quite dangerous so we have to be careful. We take a lot of precautions and there's a lot of planning together with extensive training."

At times visibility can be so poor that team members have been known to bump into a wreck while descending through the murky water.

It can also get boring. At the final decompression stop on the way up, they breathe pure oxygen for up to two hours. Some divers read paperbacks to pass the time, others go into what Mr Leeman describes as "semi-sleep mode".

One wreck he visits regularly is the Innes.

"It's 11km from Fujairah and 70 metres deep - that one I've dived a couple of hundred times."

Although Mr Leeman had been looking for the ship, it was not until he heard that another vessel had located it when dropping anchor that he was able to dive it, and be the first one to do so.

"There's another one that's called the Anita, I found that one with some co-ordinates from the British Navy. It's a supply vessel, probably 50 metres long, at a depth of 90 metres, it hit a mine and sank. We dived that the week after we first dived the sub, so it was a very good week."

The divers received help from the UK's Hydrographic Office, which gave them details about some of the wrecks and their co-ordinates. But the details are often imprecise and it can take years to locate a wreck.

"The co-ordinates I got from the Hydrographic Office are not exact - even though it says position exact, it's position with a wing-and-a-prayer, you have to be a little bit lucky to find them," said Mr Leeman.

"When I went looking for the sub I went down and there was no sub there, but there were loads and loads of fishing pots, so I went over to the pots and that's how I found the wreck, because the pots had become caught on it."

Some of the wrecks are a bit too close to the coast of Iran for comfort.

"There's the Norman Atlantic, a 100 metre-deep-wreck which I've dived, but you can actually see Iran from the dive boat there and it's right in the middle of a shipping lane. We've dived that one just once - once was enough, it was a rough day out and it's a long way to get to.

"That's out of bounds now, the family of the boat's captain had a meeting and said they didn't want him to go out to it any more as the boat could be impounded.

"There's more stuff out there that we know about. There's the Galvani, an Italian submarine, I've been out on its location twice but we haven't found it, but I reckon we're not far away. We're within a few metres probably. That's at 100 metres, but it's undived.

"There is a tug but we haven't found it, I've been out a few times. There are ones we're trying to find that are all nicely within a diveable distance of Lima Rock in Musandam, ideal for a weekend. Anything that's out there we'll look for it, but it takes time and money."

Some information comes from the British Navy, which carries out surveys of the seabed.

"It's all been mapped because a nuclear submarine doesn't want to bump into a big supertanker that's sat on the seabed. They know where everything is, and when they do a sweep they're checking to see if anything has moved or if there's anything new there."

There are also some deep wrecks in the Arabian Gulf, notably the Energy Determination, a Liberian supertanker that split in two in 1979 after an explosion as it passed through the Straits of Hormuz. The rear section lies 64km off Ras al Khaimah.

"It's at 83 metres with the deck at 27 metres," said Mr Leeman. "It's only the back end of it but it's still a huge wreck. I found the propeller."

Mr Leeman tends to hang back when a new wreck is located so other team members can have the thrill of being the first to touch it.

The divers believe there could be older wrecks waiting for them to explore off the east coast.

Dr van der Walt, the executive director of a business school in Dubai, said: "All along that coastline, if you look at the topography, there are a lot of islands and inlets and so on and very unpredictable currents. So if you take that and you take that there's been about 8,000 years of civilisation here, you can imagine what's actually down there waiting to be found.

"There could be vessels from the Mesopotamians right the way through to the Portuguese, French and British presence, and so on. You have anoxic mud which preserves metals and some normally perishable things.

"The challenge with a lot of wrecks is that they happen in shallow water, the first five metres, but hopefully here you could have archaeologically important stuff that's tumbled down underwater slopes and is preserved."

The theory that ancient wrecks lie in the waters around the country was bolstered in 2006 when Iranian fishermen found a Sassanid vessel lying 70 metres deep close to the port of Siraf in the Arabian Gulf.

Mr Leeman added: "It's a Persian cargo vessel that's about 2,000 years old. They haven't given us permission to dive that yet. If we flew over to Iran with a permit and got a visa we could then take a boat out and do it under their archaeological guidance."

The divers have never encountered human remains, which may be because they generally do not enter the wrecks.

The divers go so deep that they have to make many lengthy decompression stops on the way up to avoid potentially lethal decompression sickness, also known as the bends.

A 24-minute stay at a depth of 105 metres can involve spending four hours in the water.

This means they have to eat and drink while under water, and have experimented with various types of food - not always with success.

"I tried having toffee but that glued my jaws shut," said Mr Fikree.

"Mars bars work - you take a few bites, chew it really quick, swallow it and put the regulator back in your mouth."