So you want to be a Wreck-Finder
I DROPPED DOWN THE shotline in great visibility, and the ghostly shape of the wreck appeared. I felt a rush of excitement. Our hard work had paid off – no-one had seen this wreck since the day it had sunk.
Reaching this point had involved months of work, sifting through books, sinking reports, captains’ logs and information from fishermen, mixed with a small pinch of luck!
Now we were being rewarded with a pristine site covered in artefacts – a time capsule from the past.
The only thing we recovered from the wreck was the bell, brought to the surface to confirm the identification. Nothing else was taken.
At the surface, the name on the bell, Kilsyth, didn’t match anything in mainstream books. Sometimes even raising a bell off a wreck isn’t enough to confirm its identify.
In this instance, it is likely that when the ship changed owners, the new name was never inscribed onto the bell. We had to dig through the books again for a while.
The vessel turned out to be the ss Burnstone, a World War One steamer that was torpedoed by UB62 and now lay in around 50m of water, 40 miles from Eyemouth.
Diving wrecks in the UK can be very easy. You book your spot with a local charter operator or dive shop, or just turn up on a club trip.
You take your gear down to the boat, load up and away you go. Plop into the water, down the shot, big rusty bits with marine life. Perfect!
Sometimes an easy dive is all you need – enough to get a pressure fix without having to think about it too much. However, in my opinion there are only so many times you will want to dive the same sites and the same wrecks with the same folk.
What I am advocating is a bit of old-fashioned research and a bit of effort. I guarantee that the rewards are sweet!
Wreck-diving for me has always been about discovery. Growing up around an iron-bottomed coastline, the many tales of war from books, relatives and friends all fuelled my explorations of local relics and buildings.
Once I started my diving career as a teenager, I was able to explore the other realm and find those hidden underwater time capsules. As I progressed in years and experience, the stories took on new meaning. More information became available – along with GPS and the Internet.
I wonder how many people would consider diving an open-water wreck with nothing but land transits nowadays That used to be a regular occurrence, but we did find the wrecks, and we did dive them!
Although perhaps I’ve just put all the dives on the seabed around HMS Vicinity to the back of my mind.
The old ways have now been forgotten, and well-known wrecks are visited regularly by divers. Just round the corner, however, there could be another wreck, perhaps an undiscovered one, or one off the beaten track.
We do have some 60,000 wrecks around the British Isles, so we’re not short of subjects.
It also depends on what you define as a wreck. Do you count things like bottle dives, which can be a bit of a rummage, or even car wrecks in quarries Or the likes of flooded mines, where the workings have lain in situ from the day the pumps were turned off or broke down.
Once you start thinking about how they ended up in their present position, they take on a whole new relevance.
Just remember that all parts of a wreck and its cargo belong to someone, so if you do find one, before lifting anything you should consider whether it is really necessary and how it will be restored, and report it to the relevant authority – the Receiver of Wreck!
You can find information about wrecks in a variety of ways, but no single source is likely to find you a wreck – you usually have to piece together different bits of information.
Here is my Top 10 guide to ways to go about research that will help you to solve the puzzle:
A number of wreck dive guides are available, and don’t think that because they are mainstream publications they don’t hold golden information.
Many of these guides refer to hard-to-reach or interesting wrecks that are included for interest only.
Books written a few decades ago didn’t benefit from the resources we have nowadays, and there may have been little chance of getting to the wrecks mentioned.
Sometimes the authors might not have visited the wrecks themselves but still undertook a lot of research, so this can give you a good starting point.
2. Reference libraries
Although having huge archives to study might seem daunting, there are many institutions and libraries around the UK that can provide both historical and location information.
Documents such as sinking reports and accident investigations can break down the last actions of skippers or movements of vessels, and these can be plotted on modern charts to get you homing in on a specific location.
Old newspapers and image libraries are also useful, especially if wrecks are close to shore and you can perhaps identify a pattern of rocks.
In my own research, after doing a large-scale archaeological survey on the wreck of the ss Taupo I went in search of documents in a reference library.
Not only did I find reference material but also letters from the late 1800s. These discussed the shipping deals and ship specification at the time. To see the vessel’s name written on a 130-year-old document written in fountain pen after all those hours of research and diving surveys was unbelievable – hairs on the back of your neck stuff!
3. Charts and OS maps
Don’t overlook these important documents, because sometimes even the names of local features give clues to the location of wrecks.
Names such as Frenchman’s Rocks or Port na Spaniagh refer to previous shipwrecks, in these cases those of the French fleet driven onto Islay rocks in 1760, and the Spanish Armada ship Girona, which sank in 1588.
The latter was famous for recovered treasure near the Giant’s Causeway, on the Antrim coast in Northern Ireland.
4. Local information
Sometimes the best information comes from locals, especially in remote areas of the country. I’ve even found information hanging on the wall of a local pub!
You can also find wrecks on beaches, ranging from fishing-boats to midget submarines (above), so sometimes you can dive a wreck without the diving part.
I’ve often thought about diving these wrecks when the tide comes in, just to compare the experience with walking along the beach and looking at them!
Local information doesn’t even have to come from human beings. Recently we found the wreck of the ss Meldon on south Mull by watching an otter hunting. It marked the wreck for us by sitting on top of the exposed part of the stern-post, which sticks up only a few centimetres above the water.
Who needs GPS
Never underestimate how much information fishermen possess. They know the exact whereabouts of wrecks, either because they make a good area for pots (that is, lots of crabs and lobsters) or because they are places to avoid when trawling.
Although you need to win a bit of trust to glean such information, these hardy folk know the sea like the backs of their hands. A few cans of beer or helping to recover lost gear will often pay dividends in your quest for info.
After all your research you may still not be sure where the wreck is, and that’s when you have to just go for a look.
You might think that interesting wreck dives have to be miles offshore in pristine conditions. However, some of my most interesting dives have been in shallow water and at obscure locations.
I’ve walked a couple of kilometres to shore-dive wrecks, just going by shoreline transits. I have even hiked 125 miles to dive a remote highland loch while looking for things (above), although in that case I must admit that I was greeted with 25m blue water and didn’t find anything.
Even unusual sites such as rivers can be really interesting, especially around built-up areas.
Another recent dive of mine was in a river plunge pool during low rainfall.
The vis was again excellent, but the only things I found were rounded river stones).
As it was Easter, I took a lovely egg-shaped one home as a present. It wasn’t rusty, but at least it kept the peace!
7. Old DIVERS!
How can we forget all the great wreck articles written by John Liddiard and others These are a great source of information – probably the easiest way is to look through Divernet.com!
8. Sidescan & magnetometer survey
Scanners are serious toys, and while there are some that are diver-friendly if you want the best equipment you need to go to the companies that hire it out.
Armed with this gear, you then need a suitable boat and skipper with survey experience.
Even then, you need to be able to analyse and interpret the data you are getting out of the sensors. It’s not just a case of seeing a wreck pop out on the screen. The deeper the wreck the harder this gets, with every image needing to be stronger and backed up.
This is for serious missions only, but this hi-tech approach is sometimes the only way of getting solid wreck marks.
9. Admiralty & Hydrographic Office
You can pay for information from hydrographic surveys, which include wreck marks. While some of these details are accurate, including information about wreck size and seabed type, from personal experience there is quite a large margin of error.
Finding a wreck 20m deeper than reported, for instance, is not great when you are committed to specific trimix gases. However, these reports are just another part of the toolkit.
Putting all the pieces together, getting out there in decent weather, having all the correct marks, diving equipment working, perfect vis and ambient light, all play a part in finding that holy grail.
It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does it makes up for all the hard work and effort. Good luck with your own missions! There is plenty out there still to be discovered.
- Data on more than 140,000 wrecks www.wrecksite.eu
- Hydrographic Office for official enquiries, charts and wreck positions www.ukho.gov.uk
- National Maritime Museum www.rmg.co.uk/researchers
- Survey equipment hire www.gsrentals.co.uk
- Receiver of Wreck www.dft.gov.uk/mca,
- email firstname.lastname@example.org
- or call 02380 329474
- Wreck articles www.divernet.com