Do you long to explore undived wrecks and face new challenges? You may have been under the impression that it has all been done, and that there are few UK wrecks left to discover. You couldn’t be more wrong. Right now, the opportunities for finding your own virgin wreck have never been greater.
DIVING HAS CHANGED.
Some of the old gits will say for the worse – that once it was all a big, new adventure, but that these days the adventure has gone and it’s all over-regulated, with nothing on offer but bog-standard dives on the same dived-out wrecks.
There may be a grain of truth in this pessimistic view, but diving is evolving, opening a wider range of opportunities for today’s UK diver.
We aren’t necessarily better divers than the pioneers of 40 years ago, but we have infinitely more reliable equipment, access to a choice of breathing gases, and a host of gadgets and technologies that would dazzle Thunderbirds.
Dive-boats have evolved from flimsy inflatables and barely recycled fishing vessels into custom-designed dive platforms with diver lifts and state of the art wreck-finding technology. Throw into the equation some helpful changes in the way that UK divers organise their diving, and you have the perfect recipe for exploration diving.
Every weekend during the diving season, UK divers are discovering virgin wrecks, and there are literally thousands of them around our shores.
The changes that made this possible
- The decline of club diving.
Most UK diving used to be club diving, and the sites on offer were chosen to please all divers on the trip, experienced and less-experienced alike. Diving officers had to play it safe, going for known marks and wrecks that were easy to reach and find in an inflatable.
These days, many clubs have fast RIBs and wreck-finding technology, but still have to keep a range of divers satisfied.
RIBs are fast, but distances are limited by the need to refuel, and the lack of shelter (and toilets) can make long trips uncomfortable.
Riding out to sea for hours to conduct an exploratory dive on a pile of rocks will lead to whinging from the punters!
On top of that, the modern requirement for risk assessments encourages clubs to play it safe: visiting an undived site leaves a dive marshal with minimal information to put into a dive briefing. No wonder most dive club itineraries tend to follow a predictable yearly pattern of familiar sites.
The escape from compulsory club diving has led to a growing market for hardboat diving – faster, more comfortable boats than a club could afford, skippered by a professional, often with advanced wreck-finding technology.
Groups of divers now find each other based on common diving interests, rather than the fact that they live in roughly the same area as the dive club. Diving opportunities can come through email groups, Internet sites and mobile texts.
Divers who opt to explore new sites know the score (and the risks) and are less likely to throw a tantrum if a dive ends in disappointment. More personal responsibility and choice means that it’s no longer feasible to blame the club’s DO if you’re not getting the diving you want – which is better all round!
Those faster, custom-designed dive-boats enable divers to explore offshore areas that were previously barely visited. Divers and skippers can be as adventurous as they want.
- Better diving equipment
Early diving kit was home-made, and you were fortunate to get to 15m and back without something falling to bits – not exactly conducive to exploring the unknown though, amazingly, that’s what many early divers did: that is, explore the unknown in less than 15m.
If today’s regulators gave a laboured breathe at 50m, divers would feel seriously aggrieved. Most of the kit on sale is now specified to work under conditions that few divers will ever reach, on the basis that it’s better to be over-specified than to push the limits.
Divers going further offshore to look for new wrecks in deeper waters have the kit for the job, and where most people were once limited to a single cylinder of air, divers today can choose twinsets, rebreathers and mixed gases.
Knowledge about decompression procedures has been revolutionised in the past decade. Decompression software is freely available over the Internet, and you can plan dives that were previously unthinkable on your PC. And there are ever-more sophisticated dive computers, such as the VR3, to monitor your dive and calculate your stops.
Video equipment and underwater housings are of a higher quality, simpler to use and cheaper, enabling divers to record and share the dive.
Another very helpful advance for UK divers has been in thermal protection. Once, drysuits were regarded as strange, experimental and possibly dangerous. A certain amount of leaking was viewed as inevitable and “dampsuits” would have been a more accurate description.
Now everybody dives with a drysuit, and undersuit technology is a science in its own right, because there is little point in having the kit and gas for a three-hour dive if you become hypothermic after 45 minutes.
In 1994 there was a major fuss when Polly Tapson organised an expedition to dive the Lusitania (at 93m) on trimix: people claimed it was reckless, unsafe and impossible. Controversy continued even after the dives had been completed without incident!
Today you can explore a 100m-plus wreck on a dive weekend and it isn’t regarded as particularly noteworthy or unusual.
- Advances in wreck- finding technology
A knackered fish-finder on your inflatable used to make it a bit of a guess whether that blob was a wreck or a rock, and whether you were over it when the shot was deployed.
Now, Global Positioning Systems and satellite navigation are more accurate and widely available. You can buy a hand-held GPS for Â£100.
Charts are supplied in electronic versions on CD, a format more easily updatable than print, and these digital charts integrate with other wreck-finding technologies.
Sophisticated electronics have become available for dive-boats. Taking frequent depth readings, they record and build up a profile of the seabed which is rendered as a 3D image on screen. A skipper can locate and view wrecks with far greater accuracy, and when he says the shot is in the boilers, he knows that for sure!
Before, you needed to be diving a fairly substantial wreck to be sure that you were on target. Today’s skippers can find much smaller targets, such as older, more historic wrecks that may now stand only a metre or two off the seabed.
The full implications have yet to filter through to many divers. Most of the wrecks we visit are 19th and 20th century, but there are stacks of older wrecks, with fascinating histories and likely to yield interesting artefacts, just waiting to be discovered.
Many of these are close to shore, in less than 20m, so you don’t have to be a tekkie to find yourself a virgin wreck.
What you may need is an interested skipper with the right technology and a circumspect approach – patience, some sound wreck research and a reasonable eye to identify the structure.
- 4. Changing expectations
Once, the mere act of submerging and seeing stuff – kelp! sea urchins! a fish! more kelp! – was enough. These days, divers have stacks of information about the best UK diving available, from books, magazines and the Dive Shows.
Most divers have dived abroad, and are less easily impressed. Diving as a sport has matured, and the number of experienced divers has increased.
This all leads to higher expectations and demands. While this is a useful motivating factor for skippers, requiring investment in better boats and equipment and better standards of customer care, it works both ways. UK divers need the capability and discipline to respond to the new opportunities.
Modern life and our consumer society seduce us into believing that we can have it all, now, as long as we have enough credit on our Mastercard.
“I can certainly put people on undived marks, but if you come here expecting a virgin, intact Titanic in 30m, you’ll be disappointed,” Bill Ruck told me, echoing the sentiments of many other skippers.
Newer divers may also have unrealistic expectations. Buying a regulator or computer that can take you to 200m does not magically enable you dive to 200m.
A skipper can take you to the best available site but getting the best underwater experience and returning safely depends on your diving skills.
With plenty of opportunity to build up wreck-diving experience and the wider availability of advanced diving courses – even PADI offers technical training now – UK divers have every opportunity to rise to the challenge.
Making the most of all this opportunity may require a new attitude – greater attention to detail and awareness of history for people exploring older, inshore virgin wrecks; better discipline and more openness from divers exploring at depth.
We have the skippers, the technology, the kit and the skills. If only we could sort out the weather, we’d all be laughing!