Saturday, October 18, 1997

Into the Bermudian sea I dive deep

The 1,000 sunken vessels in the waters off the islands are inexhaustible for a diver


For the Financial Post BERMUDA'S SHORELINE  

Bermuda is a wreck. Those perfectly kept pastel houses and cottages, the fine hotels and the golf courses that seem as green as Ireland are surrounded by 500 years of twisted and rotting wreckage no one is cleaning up.
 It's shipwrecks we're talking about, of course, and no one is cleaning up this vast collection of at least 1,000 sunken vessels because they're protected by Bermudian law.

 The islands' geography might have been contrived to create a great place for diving; it's also the perfect place for a shipwreck. The country is a little group of islands sitting on the rim of a submerged extinct volcano. On one side the water drops off to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean; on the other, reefs and shoals go on for miles with just a few outcroppings to hint that these waters are rife with sharp fossilized coral.

 The islands are 1,000 kilometres from the nearest land at Cape Hatteras, N.C. The Atlantic is most often benign, but can whip itself into a gale on short notice. It's a bad place to be lost at sea on a dark and stormy night.
 The sea is never more than three kilometres from wherever you are in Bermuda. Past those bankers in blue blazers and shorts, beyond the pink beaches and hotels, lies one of the major graveyards of the sea. The view from my window at the Sonesta Beach Hotel is of the southern waters, the deep side of the island, and I could not wait to get out there and see what lay under the waves.

 The Marie Celeste was everything a wreck should be. She sits in a sand hole, nearly 17 metres beneath the surface and within swimming distance of the shore. You reach her by swimming down the openings in the coral reef and she materializes like a vision from the blue-green waters.

 At that depth the colors are starting to weaken, making it even easier to concentrate on the form and structure of the old ship. Over here a relatively complete paddle wheel climbs up from a jumble of parts; over there the other paddle wheel lies flat on the sand, virtually intact with all its parts. A short swim away, the boiler lies in the sand. It has rusted open at one end and in the middle so I actually swim into it and out the other side.

 The Marie Celeste (not the one found floating abandoned in the Atlantic in 1872) was a U.S. Civil War blockade runner that had several successful voyages outrunning Union ships and delivering supplies, including weapons, to the Confederacy. She was probably scuttled, likely through treachery. During the eight minutes it took her to sink, the cook drowned when he went back for personal belongings; the rest of the crew swam safely ashore the night of Sept. 13, 1864. They would have come up on the beach below my hotel, likely near where the white plastic chairs are lined up now.

 On the same diving excursion, we visit a completely different sort of wreck -- the Hermes. Scuttled by the local diving club a few years ago to make a good underwater playhouse, all the doors, sharp edges and potential hazards have been removed. Our group is told a Saudi prince was on this site recently; his bodyguards stood by each doorway and hatch, covering the corners with their hands lest His Royal Wetsuitedness accidentally brush against something unpleasant. The thrill on the Hermes is breezing up and down the stairways and checking out the ceilings and open hatches, all in complete, well-regulated weightlessness.

 The next day, on the other side of the island, we look into "The Blue Hole." Not a ship this time, but a circular clearing in the coral reef, about the size of the lobby in a big, old hotel. Around the perimeter of the "lobby" all manner of marine life was coming in and out of the crevices. A barracuda swims overhead, en route to what seemed to be urgent business, sea urchins arrange themselves in corners, brushing the water with their tendrils. Angel fish cruise around the perimeter of the grotto as if looking for an acquaintance to chat with or for a cocktail snack. In the midst of all this is me.

 The bulk of a wetsuit, a tank, fins, tubes everywhere, and a buoyancy device on top of it all look and feel awkward. In the water, each piece of gear has a purpose, and the relatively tame underwater population accepts me as just another traveller passing through their lobby.

 On the same dive is the wreck of the Constellation. The four-masted schooner went down in 1943 with 2,000 tons of cargo, including bagged cement, 700 cases of scotch, and drugs for the war effort, many of which were encased in glass ampoules. The cement has hardened and lies on the bottom in lumps shaped just as the bags were when the ship went down, broken ampoules glisten along the bottom, but don't look for the remains of the scotch. Miraculously, it was the one item of cargo that was salvaged intact.

 Back on land, I share a dram of his own special rum with long-time diver and venerable Bermudian, Harry Cox. Harry has found real treasures in real Spanish galleons out there, and has more stories to tell than would fill a year of this newspaper. He brings out a few ancient treasures and recounts the drama he endured to reach them.

 As a visiting, recreational diver, I'm not nearly in Harry's league. Harry has lived most of his life in Bermuda and I remark on how small the country is, just 52 square kilometres. Harry adds that the reef, the places where the wrecks lie revealed and hidden, is an area at least 10 times that size. The underwater part of Bermuda, the part that's got the wrecks, is big enough to have kept Harry busy for a lifetime.

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