View
View of the funnel looking back towards the stern deck and the rear open steering position

A mysterious ship adrift in the Caribbean, the surprise discovery of a cargo of illicit drugs, and an alleged scuttling of the ship for commercial gain - sounds like a script for a Bond movie. Mark Webster explores the wrecked coaster Hilma Hooker in Bonaire.

The deliberate sinking of redundant shipping for exploration by scuba divers has become increasingly popular in the Caribbean and Continental USA. However, one of the first wrecks to have been sunk to the advantage of the local diving industry didnt quite fit the accepted pattern of purchase and decontamination before she went to her final resting-place on the seabed.

The tale of the Hilma Hooker is now part of the local diving folklore in Bonaire, in the Dutch Antilles. The vessel was variously called Doric Express; Anna; William Express; Mistral and Midsland before being given her final name. Built in the Netherlands in 1951, her gross tonnage was 1027 and she was 72m long with an 11m beam.

In April 1984 the Hilma Hooker was apparently on route from Panama to Venezuela when, passing Bonaire, she anchored close to the small island of Klein Bonaire. The captain informed the harbour authorities that the vessel had engine problems but, suspiciously, did not request assistance.

Now depending on which local sage you believe, the customs officers on Bonaire were either naturally suspicious or there was a tip-off that they might want to investigate the cargo of this rusty-looking ship.

Whatever the catalyst, the authorities impounded the vessel and towed it into the port of Kralendijk.

A detailed inspection of the cargo holds soon revealed a false bulkhead concealing close to 12 tons of marijuana! This resulted in instant arrest of captain and crew, and the ship and drugs were impounded as evidence.

The Hooker was moored alongside the town pier, in a decidedly poor state of repair. In fact the hull was leaking so severely that the bilge pumps could only just keep pace. Naturally, the owners were not rushing forward to demand the return of the vessel, and the authorities soon became concerned with what they might do with this liability.

Meanwhile, the potential value of this hulk had not been lost on the local dive operators. They were soon lobbying for the vessel to be cleaned up and sunk as a diver attraction to complement Bonaires superb reef diving.

The authorities were in a bind. They could not release the vessel, as it was evidence in the enquiry and eventual prosecution of the smugglers, but they feared that she might sink alongside the pier, which would be a minor disaster.

It is at this point that the conspiracy theorists get to work, but whether you believe it or not, it makes an excellent end to the tale.

It was decided to move the ship to a safer location, so that if she sank she would pose no hazard to local shipping activities. Consultation between the harbour authorities and local dive operators produced the preferred location just to the south of Kralendijk, which, coincidentally, was close to a popular dive site.

The area selected is where the fringing reef divides to produce a double reef system. On 7 September 1984, the Hilma Hooker was anchored over the broad sandy plain between the two reef lines, where the water depth is 30m, an ideal maximum depth for recreational divers.

More conspiracy theories emerge at this point regarding the ships pumps, but it is clear that the pumps that had kept the ship afloat alongside the pier now either couldnt keep pace or had been deliberately isolated. The fuel and oil tanks were also emptied prior to the move - good fortune, or good planning

Over the next few days the ship began to list, and by the morning of 12 September she began taking in water through her lower portholes, which, strangely, had been left open.

At 9.08am she sank without fanfare and settled in a perfect location on the sand, adjacent to the inner reef line. The wreck lay on its starboard side with the shallowest point at 16m, ideal for local boat activities and no hazard to larger vessels, as it lay so close to the reef.

The authorities were rid of an embarrassing problem and the dive operators had a perfect wreck dive. It couldnt have been planned any better.

I like the thought of unnamed divers boarding the ship and leaving the portholes open to hasten the Hilma Hookers fate. We all love a conspiracy theory, and whatever the truth, we have been left with an excellent wreck dive.

The site is now extremely popular with visiting divers and is clearly marked with three Marine Park buoys, one on the bow, one on the stern and one on the adjacent reef top. Many divers arrive by day-boat, and some operators may advise that this is the best way, as its a long swim from the shore.

Dont be put off by this advice, as it is also a very easy shore dive and allows you to visit the wreck later in the day, when the day-boats are gone. This is normally a first dive of the day due to the depth, so you are then likely to have the wreck to yourself.

From the beach, as you descend from the reef-top mooring you can see the wreck immediately at the bottom of the reef slope. If you arrive by boat you are likely to moor on one of the wreck buoys and perhaps descend directly to the stern, where the single propeller and rudder are still intact at around 18m.

Under the keel and rudder the hull is encrusted with tubastrea corals, sea whips and rope sponges, which explode with colour under torch or camera flash light. The ships accommodation is at the stern of the vessel, where there is an entry point and swim-through.

However, unless you are experienced you should be accompanied by a guide, and it is best not to penetrate the engine-room, which is full of debris and unstable. The funnel is still in place and intact, and just to the stern of it is the open rear steering position, with most of the wheel still intact.

All the life is of course on the outside of the wreck, slowly being populated by sponges, corals, anemones and invertebrates. Large yellow and purple tube sponges reach out from the decks and superstructure, with schools of silversides and reef fish swimming among them.

There is all sorts of small reef life to be found in the nooks and crannies among the steelwork, and the darker recesses are ideal for nocturnal species. In the centre of the ship is the wheelhouse, with its empty bridge windows. There is one feature you may notice - as the sinking was unplanned, many of the ships small fittings and equipment are still in place, and Marine Park control ensures that souvenir-hunters are not tempted to strip the wreck.

Moving ahead of the wheelhouse towards the bow brings you to the main hold, which is wide open and empty.

In the gloom, look out for schools of hatchetfish and some very large tarpon. They will let you get close before they sidle off out into open water to join some large lone barracuda and keep an eye on you until you finally depart.

Toward the bow is the weather deck and chain locker and another small deckhouse. The main mast stretches out from here to touch down on the crows nest, some 20m or so from the decks at a depth of 30m. Tube and rope sponges decorate the mast and lookout platform, and stopping here to look back reveals the whole wreck before you.

You can remain at this depth to follow the mast back towards the bow and then along the anchor chains out to the seabed to where the anchors are still firmly in place. Watch your bottom time, as it is all too easy to lose track and run into deco in clear water at this depth.

The chains are covered with colourful invertebrate life, and the links are home to blennies, hawkfish, the odd frogfish and many small shrimps and crabs.

Returning to the bow, you can retrace your fin strokes at a shallower elevation along the decks or up onto the port side and the shallowest point on the wreck, to watch parrot and surgeonfish grazing on the hull.

The best way to finish the dive is to cross to the reef and swim slowly up the slope, which is covered with hard corals, orange elephant-ear sponges, sea-fans and numerous branching gorgonians.

Any fish species you have missed on the wreck are here in abundance, and the reef tops out at 6m, ideal for either a safety stop or to complete any decompression penalty. From there it is a gentle fin back to the shore or to your boat to wait for the next dive.

Some divers dismiss the prospect of diving a deliberately sunken ship, but for me the fact that this wreck is so intact and so accessible makes it an easy and exciting dive with masses of picture opps.

The intrigue surrounding her loss adds to the attraction, and if you visit Bonaire it is certainly worth putting high on your list. Who knows, if you buy enough beers in the local bars you may get to the bottom of this mystery!

triple-fin
triple-fin blenny
fairy
fairy basslet
tube
tube sponges and sea rods compete for space on the upper loading gantry above the main hold area
many
many species shelter in the sponges on the wreck, like this tiny arrow crab
Sponges
Sponges and other growth on the anchor chains provide ideal camouflage for this longlure frog fis
and
and for tiny species such as this secretary blenny
the
the loading gantries make ideal swim-throughs and attract all sorts of marine life
the
the propeller and rudder are encrusted with tubastrea corals, sponges and sea whips