|Greetings from Grenada proclaims the postcard. It is one of a number that feature the safe anchorage of St Georges and a beautiful white Italian cruise liner, the ss Bianca C, which regularly visited Grenada on her way between Naples and Venezuela.|
You could never accuse the Grenadians of shifting their stock of tourist merchandise too aggressively. The Bianca C has not been seen afloat at St Georges for more than 37 years, but she is a permanent resident. She has been sitting on the seabed a mile off Grand Anse beach since 22 October 1961.
That quiet Sunday morning, the peace of St Georges was shattered by the repeated and urgent sounding of a ships siren. It came from the 600ft passenger vessel lying at anchor in the harbour.
The ship was the Bianca C, and her distress was caused by a massive explosion, presumably in the main boilers, had wrecked the engine room, killing two crewmen before setting the whole vessel on fire.
Local newspapers of the day reported the bravery of one customs officer who leapt from his own boat into the water to help secure lines to the many lifeboats that launched to evacuate the 400 passengers and 200 crew.
There must be many other tales of the bravery and selflessness of local people who flocked in their own little boats to aid in the rescue.
Not only that, but 600 people found themselves stranded unexpectedly and without their possessions. It was the generous locals who took them into their homes until they could be repatriated.
Today you can see a statue with a plaque on the quay, donated by the Costa shipping line as a permanent thankyou to the people of Grenada.
The vessel burnt fiercely for several days. The paint on her massive hull bubbled and flaked, and the water around her began to boil. The port authorities became anxious that she would sink and become an unsurmountable obstruction in the harbour.
Visiting British warship HMS Londonderry took the stricken vessel in tow. Her anchor chains were severed with explosives and she was dragged out into open water, but by this time the Bianca C was taking on water and had become exceedingly heavy. The tow parted and, issuing violent columns of steam, what was left of the magnificent liner slipped away into 50m of water.
The Bianca C is now the biggest shipwreck in the Caribbean. She had never been a lucky ship. Built during World War Two, she was sunk by allied action before she had even completed sea-trials. After the war she was refloated, refitted and relaunched as La Marseilles.
Operating in the heyday of cruise liners, she carried 700 passengers in three classes. In 1957 she came under new ownership and was renamed Arosa Sky. Two years later another owner, G Costa of Genoa, renamed her after his daughter, Bianca.
The Bianca C sank upright on an even keel, and only her bronze propellers were subsequently salvaged. However, this is not an easy dive.
The wreck lies between 33m and 50m deep and every year it becomes deeper as it settles in the sand. It is often swept by powerful currents.
Local dive centres have been in the habit of taking visiting leisure divers down for a quick glimpse before hurrying back to the surface to keep within no-stop times. Two years earlier I had been given a couple of cursory glimpses of the Bianca C in this way. This year I had the chance to go back and dive her properly, and I was extremely enthusiastic about the idea!
We would be the only divers prepared and equipped to make dives of any appreciable duration something that would be essential on a wreck of this enormity.
We chose a period of half-moon when the tides would be at their least vicious. By judicious clock-watching we were able to determine when the current would be at its most manageable, so that we could get in two good dives each day.
We dived with Scuba World, sometimes accompanied by one of its divers, either Rob from south London or James, soon to join the Royal Navy as an officer-cadet. When they used single cylinders, they had to ascend long before we were ready to finish our dive.
We spent a week concentrating on this single dive site, because it is one that deserves at least that much attention.
Our first dive was designed primarily as a recce, and to fix a line topped with a substantial buoy. This item, borrowed from the harbourmaster, was big enough to discourage any passing fishermen from taking it for his own use.
While tying off the buoyed line, three eagle rays cruised over our heads, oblivious to Robs struggle to tie a suitable knot while at depth!
Scuba World is based at the Rex Grenadian Hotel, which is so close to the Bianca C that we could keep an eye on the buoy with the aid of binoculars from our hotel room. It took only minutes to reach the site.
Evidently other dive centres expressed surprise at our audacity in fixing our own marker, but we noted that they were not averse to using it as a descent line themselves!
I followed one dive guide with a group of obviously inexperienced and under-equipped divers down the line and wondered what they were doing there. I think they were wondering the same before they hurried back to the surface!
The Bianca C looms up out of the gloom. Not much tropical sunshine penetrates down here, and visibility is less than perfect.
Grenada is a mountainous island with tropical rainforest and rivers, and our visit was in June, at the beginning of the rainy season.
When it rains in Grenada, it rains! With large amounts of sediment washed out of the rivers and into the sea, we could rarely see further than 20m under water.
The wreck of the Bianca C is as big as two football pitches, and it is easy to get disorientated and lose your way. You find yourself traversing the beam of the wreck when you thought you were swimming along its length. The semi-permanent buoyed line allowed us always to descend at the same spot, just aft of the swimming-pool, so after a couple of early wrong turns we were able to learn the layout of the vessel.
Without stopping to take photographs we found we could swim the length of the wreck, from the screwless shafts under her stern in 50m to the prow at 33m, in about 20 minutes.
Because Scuba World was not then a nitrox facility, we went in with twin 12 litre cylinders charged with air. We used four computers between two of us, always ascending our own late-deployment surface marker buoy line at the rate of the most cautious, and were careful to overstay the stops required.
A richer nitrox mix would have added extra safety to our decompression, but it was not to be. A great site for a closed-circuit rebreather!
The stern lies on its side, a chaos of twisted metal. Crashing stern-first to the bottom, this was the area that took the greatest force of the eventual impact of 18,000 tons of hot metal with the seabed. Some lifeboat davits and elements of the superstructure are clearly identifiable, but it looks as if a bomb has hit it!
It is not until you reach the swimming-pool (still full of water!) and enjoy doing a few lengths that you really get your imagination into gear. I held on to the rail and ordered a ghostly passing waiter to get me another piña colada!
But the white-coated stewards have gone. Only reef fishes browse the companionways. Black coral and hydroids crowd the areas swept by regular supplies of nutrient.
Pass over the rail and view the hull from the outside. See endless portholes and an open doorway that once gave access for the passengers to pass down a gangway to waiting jolly-boats and a trip ashore.
Further along the deck, the once proud funnel has collapsed on to the topmost superstructure, but it is still possible to stand where the ships master once stood and survey the forward scene.
The standing foremast is cruised by numbers of great barracuda, and the forward hold lies with its hatch covers gone, ready to be explored. The deck beneath the forecastle is crowded with coral growth and fish life, and ropes and chains lie among the winches, encapsulated when the Bianca C was consigned to her fate.
Inside the cabins the furniture lies in disarray. Eighteen thousand tons does not fall 50m without something of an impact.
The foredeck is bigger than many complete wrecks I have dived. It is smothered in coral and the flagpole marks the ultimate forward point.
Looking back at the ship from here, it reminded me of that famous moment in the film Titanic when Leonardo de Caprio and Kate Winslett rode romantically in the bows. The Bianca C is often referred to as the Titanic of the Caribbean.
Looking over the edge emphasises the hugeness of this vessel. Although we are neutrally buoyant, our stomachs churns with the fear of falling from this great height.
The top of the foremast makes an ideal launch point for the late-deployment SMB. Shoals of silver fork-tailed pompano jacks anxiously cling together in a tight silvery shape.
Endless shoals of yellowtail snappers and kingfish cruise up to investigate the strange sight of two divers creeping up towards the surface.
A safe ascent can take 30 minutes or more. The last view of the wreck as the current takes us away leaves us with the impression of a great ship forever steaming along the seabed. n
GETTING THERE: British Airways and Caledonian offer direct flights from London. Caledonian (from£350 return) gives a handy 40kg baggage allowance, though it rigorously enforces a 5kg cabin allowance. So pack all equipment securely, including underwater cameras and videos, and check it into the aircrafts hold. Prices for a 14-night package including flights, transfers and room-only accommodation start at around£700.
ACCOMMODATION: There is a wide range of holiday hotels, most offering all-inclusive meals and drinks packages. Food in some can be international and rather dull.
WHEN TO GO: Grenada is a 365-day-a-year destination for diving. It is not in the hurricane belt. Major rainfall occurs from July to November.
WATER TEMPERATURE: 24-28C.
DIVE CENTRES:There are a number of dive centres on Grenada. Check that they will let you take a technical approach to your diving before you book. We dived with Scuba World, tel 001 473 444 3684, which charges around£175 for a ten-dive package.
CULTURE:Grenada is the Home Counties with palm trees. The locals have strong connections with the UK and even seem able to switch into a British regional accent when they want to be understood by you. Many expats have established homes here. Traffic drives on the left. Locals enjoy a British legal system and the larger part of British culture.
CURRENCY: East Caribbean Dollar.
HEALTH & SAFETY: No special medical precautions required. There is no recompression chamber.
MORE INFORMATION:Grenada Tourist Office 0171 370 5164.