Remember those seabirds struggling in their coating of oil The Amoco Cadiz disaster was the first marine environmental catastrophe to be covered by the worlds media in real time and to be recognised by the public. This oil spill was the most voluminous flood of hydrocarbons to be registered in the old millennium.
The Amoco Cadiz ran aground on 16 March,1978, polluting 240 miles of Brittanys coast with 223,000 tons of crude oil. There were no more illusions about super-tanker shipping being safe after that day. Perhaps the story is already forgotten, but the Amoco Cadiz, a third of a kilometre long, is still down there to remind us of what shouldnt have happened. Now it seems as if the sea has taken its revenge by crushing the giant ship like waste paper, reducing a symbol of man-made technical supremacy to ridiculous junk, dominated by forests of seaweed.
As if we hadnt learned anything about her in the past three weeks... It is our last chance to dive the worlds biggest shipwreck, and we are about to miss it for the third time today, despite D-GPS positioning, visible landmarks and clear sonar detection.
Were too late: one hour after the tide turns, the current is simply too violent. Here in Portsall, the slackest water does not make for easy diving. You can get as much as 8 knots of current speed at the entrance of the Channel or, as the French say, La Manche - The Sleeve.
On the horizon the sky is darkening and we receive warning over the radio of an upcoming storm. We have one final opportunity. Once again, we drop the heavy anchor as the sonar silhouette of the Amoco Cadizs stern section appears.
We are diving the wreck to carry out a photographic survey of the site and have hired a special low-decked diving trawler with a skilled local skipper for three weeks, now coming to an end. We had to obtain special permission to come here. Shipping and diving is prohibited in the area, as some of the explosives on the wreck have yet to be detonated.
Some 16 waterbombs were dropped by French Navy helicopters in 1978 to open the hull and free the oil rapidly, at a time when it seemed that prevailing wind conditions would blow the main part of the oil away from the coast.
In the water, it takes us half a minute to be handed several camera housings, strobes, cables and the booster, a heavy 24V/600W focus light combined with two powerful electronic flash units. My lighting assistant Steffen Scholz carries the boosters big accumulators and the light assembly itself - he hardly needs a weightbelt.
Our diving equipment consists of the latest Dräger semi-closed circuit rebreathers and we have a 40/60 nitrox mix in our 3 litre tanks. We can stay for about 45 minutes at a maximum depth of 35m without long decompression stops becoming necessary. It would not be possible to decompress in the current with all the equipment were carrying. Also, the underwater distances on the wreck site are too great to allow us to get back to our point of departure, the anchor.
For many long-range exploration dives on this wreck, we have simply dropped ourselves from the boat close to a known piece of wreck and later used SMBs to signal after surfacing, to make sure we are picked up before floating into the nearby Portsall Rocks. This is a wild geological formation, and it was one of these rocks, just below the surface, which finished off the Amoco Cadiz.
After a rapid descent we hit the seabed at 34m. The anchor is chasing in the sand, and there is no way we can hook on to the wreck. Its business as usual. We let it go and crawl against the current in the direction from which the anchor came, following the traces it has left.
After 15 minutes there is still nothing to see but sand and flying particles. The photographic equipment we are transporting is getting awfully heavy - there is nothing hydrodynamic about it in this situation.
Then, slowly, I believe I can discern the weak shadow of something far away, like a mirage in the desert. It becomes darker and taller - it is real. We are approaching the remains of the stern section of the Amoco Cadiz, still almost 30m high.
In fact it is a part we want to visit, to take pictures of the hydraulic installations inside the rudder machine room. This is where the defect occurred which compromised the manoeuvrability of the Amoco Cadiz when the crash occurred.
Once we are protected from the current by whats left of the stern section, we swim upwards and encounter the inscription on it: AMOCO CADIZ. The white paint is still intact. Some days before, we cleaned the letters in a two-hour brushing session.
When we arrive at the railing, which is completely covered by seaweed, the current blasts us off it and then changes direction to pull us onto the 45 inclined rear deck of the tanker.
We are 30m deep, but the Atlantic swell is bouncing us and we have to bite strongly on our regulator mouthpieces to hold them in position. Whatever you do, you must not lose your mouthpiece when using a rebreather. Water-entry can cause serious burns if the mixture of seawater and CO2 absorbent is inhaled.
Pulling ourselves forward between outsized bollards and the immense rear winch, we enjoy breathtaking views of the sterns superstructures. Looking upwards, the wreck is covered with green-brown Laminaria hyperborea kelp, swaying to the rhythm of the waves.
We want to enter the interior by an opening leading directly into the rudder machine room. Or, should we say, machine hall. Slowly, Steffen unrolls the 12m cable which connects my cameras with his lighting equipment, and we start to penetrate the darkness. We use an indirect lighting technique, because there are too many particles in the water, but we have to be very careful to avoid getting the cable hooked onto the wreckage.
A dust layer lies under the ceilings, and if we were using open-circuit scuba equipment this would immediately be dissolved by our bubbles and cloud the water. Our rebreathers generate hardly any bubbles, allowing us important extra minutes in which to work before the curtain falls and visibility vanishes.
Inside the hull, there is no water movement at all. Its just a large, black space. Then we see the bottom: its sand. A massive section of propeller is standing there in the dark. It has penetrated the hull, which is constantly sinking into the seabed. Giant rudder mechanisms and hydraulic cylinders protrude from the sand. There is almost no marine life in here.
Swimming upwards, we can see the rusty ceiling, with cloth-like material hanging from the pipes. We visit the electrical installations, where the fuses are still in place, and we photograph pressure gauges on the control panels for the hydraulics.
Some big oxygen cylinders are scattered around. These were used in the last phase of the Amoco Cadiz rescue operation, when specialists tried to weld together a shattered bar from the rudder mechanism. Their efforts were in vain, and an engineer was knocked down by a swinging section of the bar.
Leaving the darkness of the sterns interior, we orientate ourselves to the south-west, the main direction in which the tankers remains lie.
The Amoco Cadiz was 65m longer than the Titanic, with a volume five times greater. Today, the dislocated hull is mostly torn to shreds, creating fantastic underwater sculptures of rusty steel, dominated by marine life.
There are no more visible traces of the oil spill; in fact the sand of the seabed seems cleaner than anywhere else on the Brittany coast. Swarms of fish cover the destroyed tanker.
The whole wreck area measures more than 500m in length and the field of rubble has still to be explored. It takes quite a number of dives to explore even a small part of the Amoco Cadiz. On one dive we swam in the same direction for 45 minutes and found no end to this underwater scrapyard.
The areas beside the main parts are as interesting as the wreck itself. Many almost unidentifiable, deformed pieces of the hull and deck installations are drowning in the sand. They resemble masterpieces of modern art. Each one is an oasis for fish, typically wrasse, which create their breeding areas under the protecting debris. Flatfish like plaice are common and large shoals of anchovies and lesser sand eels crowd over the sands.
Today we want to reach the rear midships section and finish our dive at a mast which we discovered two days before. It is not charted in the maps, although it comes up to a depth of only 2m at the deepest low tide. In this part of the wreck, the hull has sunk about 20m into the sand, but in some places we find the decks well preserved.
The hull here is still 52m high, with cracks and slits in it. In these long, deep fissures, we find moving fragments of wreckage, hundreds of tons of steel in the grip of the swell. The remains of the Amoco Cadiz rub and bow, creating strange rumbling noises under the sea.
When we finally reach the big mast, the dense seaweed growing on it is streaming in the violent current like the hair of a giant. We climb up the brass steps, holding tight for protection from the flow, then let ourselves go with the current, like skydivers jumping from an aircraft. We hope it will not be our last dive on the Amoco Cadiz.