Ten of the Best Recreational Wreck Dives
USAT LIBERTY • JAMES EAGAN LAYNE • UM EL FAROUD • FUJIKAWA MARU • YONGALA • ZENOBIA • AKITSUSHIMA • PRESIDENT COOLIDGE • SUPERIOR PRODUCER • SS THISTLEGORM
Every coastline in the world is littered with the remains of mankind’s attempts to traverse the seas and oceans of our world. Conflict, storms, uncharted reefs and pure bad luck have led to the loss of hundreds and thousands of vessels over the course of human history, yet much of it remains just below the surface of the water, where divers have the opportunity to explore the often fascinating and tragic stories behind the loss of some of these magnificent vessels.
Aside from their historical importance, shipwrecks provide a haven for aquatic life that can often become more abundant than even the nearby reefs. Many ships have been deliberately sunk for exactly that purpose, providing new opportunities for exploration and conservation.
Many wrecks are beyond the reach of recreational divers, and as with any ‘Top Ten’ list, there are far too many to list them all, but here are ‘ten of the best’ recreational wreck divers that are consistently ranked (and in no particular order) by some of DIVE magazine’s readers as being among their favourites.
The Liberty began service in 1918 as an animal and cargo vessel during WWI, her first voyage transporting horses from America to France. She was returned to military service in the Pacific during WWII but was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in January 1942. Despite attempts to tow her to safety, she was eventually beached on the shores of Tulamben in Bali, where she later slipped into the water where she lies between 7 and 30m of depth. Easily accessible from the shore, in water that is usually calm and clear, she makes a perfect wreck dive for all experience levels, and her shallow depth is also ideal for snorkelers.
SS James Eagan Layne is a class of cargo vessel known as a liberty ship, of which several thousand were built during the Second World War. In 1945, the 129m-long ship was heading towards Belgium when she was torpedoed not far from Plymouth. She was towed to Whitsand Bay, Cornwall, where she eventually sank in around 25m of water. Much of the wreck was salvaged in the 1950s but she otherwise remains mostly intact. James Eagan Layne is located not far from HMS Scylla, a British Navy frigate that was sunk as an artificial reef in 2004 in a similar depth of water. Together, they make up two of the most popular British wreck dives.
Um El Faroud was built in 1969 in the UK, but operated under Libyan ownership. In February 1995, the 115m-long tanker was severely damaged by an explosion and, after being declared a write-off, was towed out to sea and sunk as an artificial reef near Qrendi in southern Malta. She broke in two during a storm ten years later, but both sections remain otherwise intact. Lying in 35m of water and with her deck at 25, she has become one of the most popular wrecks in the Mediterranean, and her configuration makes her perfect for penetration dives.
The Fujikawa Maru was a Japanese armed freighter used by the Imperial Navy during World War Two. After being damaged by an American torpedo, she was returned to Chuuk (also known as Truk) Lagoon, the main base for the Japanese fleet, where she was eventually sunk during Operation Hailstone, a campaign launched in February 1944 by the Americans which all but eliminated the Japanese naval threat. The Fujikawa now rests on the seabed at 33m, with her 6-inch gun still mounted on the deck at around 18m, and the easily-accessible holds contain the remains of Zero fighter aircraft and ammunition.
SS Yongala was a passenger ship that sank during a tropical storm on her way from Melbourne to Cairns in 1911, with the tragic loss of all souls on board. The wreck was not found until 1958, and over the years it has become one of the main scuba-diving hotspots along Australia’s Eastern coast, accessible from Townsville in Queensland. Mostly intact and 110m in length lying on the seabed at 30m, she is renowned as much for the impressive array of abundant marine life that surrounds her, as much as she is a wreck.
The Zenobia is a huge roll-on-roll-off ferry which capsized during her maiden voyage in 1980. She was heading for Syria carrying 104 lorries with an estimated cargo value of some £200 million. Due to a malfunction in the ballast system, she began to list heavily after leaving the harbour at Larnaca, Cyprus and although all the passengers were safely evacuated, the Zenobia – along with her cargo – eventually sank, coming to rest on her ports side on the seabed at 42m. At 178m long, there is plenty to explore and the Zenobia is a favourite with all levels of divers. The deck at 16m is perfect for entry-level divers and the deeper holds are a favourite for advanced techies.
Coron Bay is the site of another bombing campaign by the US Navy against the Japanese Imperial Fleet, and like Chuuk Lagoon, is home to the remains of a number of sunken ships. One of the most highly regarded is the Akitsushima, a 115m long, heavily armed seaplane tender sunk by a torpedo during the raid in September 1944. She lies on her side in 36m of water rising to 22m on the other side of the hull, and is noted for the huge crane used to lift the seaplanes, as well as the remaining armaments and supplies. Conditions and the depth of the wreck make it more suited to experienced recreational and technical divers, but there are other ships in the bay such as the much shallower Okikawa Maru which, rising to 10m can be visited by Open Water divers.
SS President Coolidge was an ocean liner commissioned in 1931 and requisitioned as a troop carrier in 1941, until – with the captain, unfortunately, unaware of the danger – she ran two mines while approaching the harbour in Espiritu Santo, site of a large allied military base. She was beached and all but two of the 5,340 personnel she was carrying managed to escape before the massive, 199m-long ship slipped down the reef to her final resting place, between 20 and 70m of depth. Its size and easy shore accessibility makes it a whole week’s diving vacation in one ship, with plenty to see in terms of both the military hardware (guns, trucks and jeeps) and the immense amount of aquatic life that surround her. Another wreck perfect for the novice and the hard ore techies.
The Superior Producer left Willemstad harbour in 1977 and managed to sail just a couple of hundred metres before – overloaded with cargo – she sank, providing Curaçao with one of the Caribbean’s favourite wreck dives, and enterprising locals with a steady income through the sale of blue jeans in the local market. At only around 50m long, she’s small but easy to dive, standing upright on the 30m-deep sandy bottom. Covered in coral, surrounded by a rich marine life and just a short swim from shore, she makes for an excellent, almost intact wreck with a couple of swim-throughs and a wide open cargo hold.
Regarded by many as the best wreck dive in the world, the SS Thistlegorm was sunk by German bombers in October 1941 while she lay at anchor not far from the Sinai Peninsula, waiting to re-supply the British army in North Africa. Her exposed holds and easy swim-throughs bring divers face-to-face with hundreds of trucks, jeeps, arms and ammunition and the world famous collection of motorcycles, not to mention the two steam locomotives she was carrying. There are very few wrecks that are so accessible and yet hold so much interest for divers and historians alike. With the main deck at 18m and the propeller at 30m, the ship can be prone to strong currents, so most dive centres recommend 20 or more dives before visiting. Years of plunder by uncaring divers have caused untold damage to the wreck, but she remains intact and full of ghostly charm. An absolute must-dive even for those for whom shipwrecks are not a priority.
See our special reports on the 75th anniversary of the Thistlegorm’s sinking.