Following our Lebanese adventure we were back in home waters last weekend. The main dive was postponed until Saturday because a few of us had other business to attend to – in my case kicking a spherical bit of leather around some artificial turf at the American University of Sharjah (lost in the semi-final if you’re interested - I thought not).
But Friday was not devoid of action, as Geoff tells it:
"With the clubs’ main dive set up for Saturday, Derek, Andy and myself headed over to the East coast on Friday to hook up with Sami and Oli of Freestyle Divers. After an update on Max’s mishap with his chopper (a radio-controlled helicopter that he had managed to ditch in the sea), we set out for Inchcape 1, which proved a popular choice. On arrival, four dive boats were tied to the buoy and a fifth circling, so we waited for about 30 minutes before kitting up and dropped in up-current of the buoy rather than face a long surface swim from the rear of the flotilla. On descending the line we were greeting by four lion fish of various sizes hovering just behind the starboard engine hatch. A quick foray into the engine room was followed by entry into the cabin but visibility inside was not as good as it normally is suggesting it had been visited by some of the previous divers. Visibility outside was around 5m with a mild current. Marine life was in abundance as usual with the two large resident morays in view and large shoals of catfish and snappers around the bow. No sign of the sea-horse this time but the wreck remains a healthy habitat and great dive spot.
"The second dive was around Dibba Rock. Dropping in to the north of the island near ‘the Aquarium’ we immediately saw a lion fish and pipe fish on the bottom. However, these were quickly overshadowed by the 1.5m black tip shark that circled us for about 30 seconds before swimming off. The rest of the dive around the east coast of the island and then along the submerged wall heading south was just as interesting and revealed a great variety of marine life including needle fish, more lion fish, 3 different types of moray, harlequin shrimps, flounders, broom tailed wrasse and two scorpion fish to name a few. Two enjoyable dives that contributed to a full on dive weekend!"
For the Saturday dive, Brian Lugg wanted to tie a permanent buoy to “Wreck X” which is often difficult to hook due to its orientation in relation to the currents. The tides and weather forecast were looking co-operative so it seemed like a good weekend to try it. It would also be a change from “Victoria Star” which we’ve been diving almost continuously for a couple of months.
The wreck is about 50km offshore so the sea needs to be reasonably calm or it takes forever to get there. It turned out to be not quite as flat as advertised but we still made reasonable time and got there in about 90 minutes. “Wreck X” is a fishing trawler that went down in the mid 80’s, about the time they were outlawed in the Gulf, though whether that’s coincidental or whether someone wanted the insurance money is not known. Also unknown is the real name of the vessel though there may be some artifacts left on board that would give it away. It lies on its port side in 35m of water and is about 40m long.
Brian’s cunning plan was as follows:
· Send shotline on to wreck. Divers descend to make it secure.
· Boat picks up buoy and ties off.
· Using shotline as a guide the chain is sent down with 50-gallon drum left floating on surface.
· Divers secure chain to vessel.
· Using a pulley system and the boat engines, the drum is taken down to about 6m depth, out of reach of fishermen.
Simplicity itself! Mike Dalton did identify one potential problem – “Is the chain and rope long enough?” – but Brian assured him there was no problem.
The first part of the plan went remarkably well. A DSMB was the signal that the shotline was secure so we tied off the boat and sent the chain over the side. At this point the Brian discovered to his embarrassment the chain and rope was indeed too short by about 3m and he, Derek, Peter and Geoff had to return to the surface. During the surface interval some more rope was added to the line which would hopefully now reach the wreck. Brian also livened up our lunch by recounting some of the work of the pioneers of decompression theory and their experiments on live goats: “They knew the ascent was too fast if the goat exploded”. Charming.
On the second dive we found to our relief the chain could now be fixed around the vessel’s prop shaft. With this secure the engines were started we found that on about three-quarter throttle, the buoy could be hauled below the surface. Brian secured it and the operation could be declared successful, even if the buoy ended up a bit deeper than anticipated. This may be because the chain became wrapped around the vessel and might sort itself out with the changing tide. We’ll find out next time we go.
In between times, we did a couple of normal dives on the wreck. There was no current to speak of and the water was warmer at depth than at the surface - with a definite thermocline at around 18m. There are one or two holes that could be explored although time is short at that depth and care must be taken. On air we managed 12 – 13 minutes bottom time although nitrox would have given us longer. It’s also the jellyfish season and there were plenty of them down to about 10m causing safety stops to consist of intricate dances as we tried (successfully) to stay out of their way.
The sea had flattened noticeably by the time we set off home so trimmed about 15 minutes off the journey. Eventually, sitting by the pool we could raise our glasses to a job well done.
Last week being Eid Al Adha, a few of us set off on what has become an annual expedition to foreign parts in search of new experiences or at least different from normal. This year we opted for a return to the Lebanon, the scene of last year’s adventure. That was an excellent trip but rather disrupted by the short Eid and inclement weather causing some of us to miss out on the submarine that had been prime objective in the first place. In short, we had unfinished business and with Sami helping out with local arrangements, we headed once again for Beirut.
We travelled mostly separately and Peter arrived a day ahead of the rest of us. He filled the time with a trip to the Roman ruins of Baalbek in the Bekaa valley about 85km north-east of Beirut. Being close to the Syrian border this is not a popular destination at the moment, a fact reinforced by a number of refugee camps that he passed en route. Sure enough, the normally busy site was all but deserted apart from Peter, three tourists from Bahrain and a solitary Japanese visitor. Politely declining to buy a Hezbollah T-shirt, he returned to Beirut the same afternoon.
The rest of us arrived on Monday after experiencing various degrees of trauma from the journey. The gold medal goes to Andy: having failed to confirm one flight in time and having arrived too late to board a second, he finally made it third time lucky. As last year, we stayed at the Mozart Hotel in Al Hamra district which is conveniently placed for the dive centre. The locals tend to pronounce this “Moz-ar-rat” which should be kept in mind when ordering taxis or great confusion will ensue. We convened in the hotel bar for a few glasses of the local brew (Almaza) before retiring to for the night.
Unlike last year, the first morning dawned bright and sunny. Sami joined us after breakfast and we made our way down to the Solidere Marina, home to NISD, the dive operation who were taking us out. Currently run by Marwan and Nasser, NISD has been operating since 1980 although the wet-suits and BCD’s we hired were a bit younger than that. It took around 30 minutes to reach the dive site: the wreck of the “Souffleur”. “Souffleur” was a Vichy French submarine that was sunk by the Royal Navy in June 1941 with the loss of 52 of its crew and which currently lies in two sections at a depth of 35m.
We were please to find that the viz was very good – of the order of 15-20m – which is not uncommon but can’t be guaranteed. There is a permanent buoy attached to the bow section of the wreck which is fixed at the break between the two halves just behind the conning tower. From there we swam along the length of the vessel. Some torpedo tubes are visible and although we didn’t reach it there is a stray torpedo lying in the sand about 20m away. It is possible to get inside the vessel for a short distance at the break but this is mostly a tangle of wreckage. In any case, being a war grave, this is strictly look but don’t touch. Part of the outer hull has peeled away revealing the inner hull beneath.
The stern section was just visible and a short swim of around 20m took us there. Some ballast tanks can be seen and again the outer hull is damaged, partly due the sinking and partly due to dynamite fishing in the years after the war. Fish life generally was very sparse as is common in the Med these days. After about 30 minutes we headed for the line and back to the surface. Altogether an amazing dive. What sets the “Souffleur” and similar wrecks apart is the sense of history that goes with them – something you just don’t get with the likes of the “Victoria Star”, however much fun they might provide on normal club dives.
On surfacing it was a bit disconcerting to find that our boat had gone missing. It was apparently picking up some divers that had been dropped on to a shallower site whilst we were under water. I’m not sure that was strictly out of the Dive Boat Skipper’s Manual but anyway we were picked up after about ten minutes of bobbing around.
After a short break changing tanks at the dive centre, we were back out for the second dive. This was the “Macedonia”, a vessel that wrecked itself sailing too close to shore in the early 1960’s. Most of the vessel was salvaged leaving only some nondescript wreckage behind. We nearly didn’t find the ship as there was a current pushing us away and the Dive Master went missing with a student who couldn’t equalize her ears. After about ten minutes swimming against the current and following the edge of the reef and we found the ship but after the earlier dive it was inevitably something of an anticlimax and the viz wasn’t as good either. Apparently there is more wreckage a short distance away but we only found out about that after the event. Not to worry, an excellent day – many thanks to Marwan and Nasser.
There followed a much needed meal at a pavement café on one of the quieter roads not far from Al Hamra Street. Later that evening we had a stroll around the area, settling eventually at Danny’s Bar on a very lively street, ten minutes walk from the hotel.
There had been much discussion about what to do on Wednesday. We finally decided to dive the “Lady M Air Cave”, a site 40km north of Beirut. This turned out to be something different to say the least. We dived with Dive the Med Club out of Batroun, one of their two centres. It is run by Kamal Greig and has not been going very long, hence the smell of fresh paint and the new equipment.
The dive site was a short boat ride from the centre during which we passed a sea wall still standing from Phoenician times. There are two entrances to the cave – one wide, one narrow. There was a five minute swim to the entrance during which time Kamal concluded that we were safe to use the narrow way so in we went, single file. Half way along the salt water of the sea meets the fresh water coming off the land resulting in a halocline giving some seriously weird optical effects. These could be avoided be moving to one side although this meant letting go of the guide rope. Once inside the cave you can surface and remove your regulator – the air is good – although there’s absolutely no light, something we confirmed by switching off torches. A statue of the Virgin Mary (“Our Lady M”) has been erected inside the cave, giving the cave its name. The fresh water inside the cave was crystal clear. We exited the cave via the wide opening – blue light at the end of a dark tunnel which was a dramatic image to remember.
A few metres from the cave exit is a sort of added bonus, the remains of an unnamed WW2 shipwreck. Like the Macedonia, it has been partially cut up for scrap but still has a bit of scope for exploration, although penetration is discouraged as Cathy discovered to her cost, getting half way through a hole before being hauled out by her ankles.
Out of the water, Sami did a dance on the back of the boat and I think we all felt a bit like that. Many thanks to Kamal, Su and Anthony and also to Ena, a young lady from Ukraine doing the boat cover. Peter’s attempts to take her home along with his dive gear proved a tad optimistic. I’ll make no mention of her obvious good taste.
After the dive we moved on to Byblos, reputed to the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world, dating back 8,000 years. The architectural site contains Phoenician and Roman remains as well as the 12th century Crusader castle. We had a most welcome meal at an Italian restaurant in the old town before exploring the town and the castle in particular. The journey back was marred by heavy traffic as people returned to the capital after the Eid holiday. Think Ittihad Road at its most catastrophic. Lebanese driving is something else – you need nerves of steel, instant response times and judgment of your vehicle width accurate to the millimeter. Back in Beirut, Derek, Emma and Brian felt up for an excursion into town but the rest of us were content with a few drinks at the hotel bar before hitting the sack.
Thursday morning meant a lie-in and no diving – instead we had invites up to Sami’s inland retreat on the slopes of Mount Lebanon. Both the house itself and the afternoon’s barbecue defy description but it’s fair to say that both were equally spectacular. Enormous thanks to Sami and Vivienne for their generous hospitality not to mention Sami’s assistance with the arrangements before and during the trip.
Friday morning, as some of us were heading for the airport, saw our first rain, and it was quite heavy. Derek, Emma and Andy spent the day exploring the spectacular Jeita Caves north of Beirut after which Andy went around the National Museum. Peter in the meantime met his former Arabic teacher, Abir, and her family for Friday lunch, before leading an English-speaking workshop for Abir’s teaching colleagues. Thus a diving holiday became a busman’s holiday for Peter (though he wasn't complaining - see pic above!).
So there you have it – another successful journey. Lebanon remains a fascinating place and at least this year I left feeling I’d seen a bit more than bars and dive sites. As a diving destination the place has its limitations – the “Souffleur” and the “Lady M Air Cave” are worth anyone’s time but the “Macedonia” was probably not worth crossing oceans for. A combined diving / sightseeing tour is probably the best approach which is essentially what we’ve done particularly this year.
For those interested, there are other sites such as the “Alice B” which we dived last year and is a good wreck – also apparently a profitable one for the military who sank it to claim the insurance. There are also some deeper wrecks for the techies such as HMS Victoria (sunk 1893) and a British freighter called the “Lesbian”. How it came by that name one can only speculate. The idea of diving on the Lesbian conjures up images that perhaps… no – don’t go there. What the diving is like on other parts of the coast I don’t know but might be worth investigating although the border regions have to be avoided as they are currently very sensitive both in the north (Syria) and the south (Israel).
This year’s team was: Sami Kyriakos, Ian Hussey, Cathy Terry, Peter Jackson, Derek Roberts, Emma Roberts, Andy Balthrop and Brian Larkin who couldn’t dive having shaken hands with the Victoria Star a couple of weeks previously but came along for the ride anyway.
While all this was going on, Mike Anthony has been off on another motorbike adventure to Morocco. You can follow his progress on his blog:
Being still in the UK, I missed out on Friday’s events but there’s always a budding Tolstoy to fill the void – in this case Rob Gill who tells the story:
"Compared to recent dives the turnout on Friday morning was somewhat depleted. Nevertheless, the magnificent seven arrived on time at the club on Friday morning for a 7.30 start. Geoff was our dive marshall for the day with his motley crew made up of Brian, Derek, Peter, Andy, Rob and Yuri.
(Absent was Mike Anthony who could not dive as he was due to be flying out on Saturday. I don’t know whether or not he went to the airport but his actual flight turned out to be on Sunday.)
Launching from Al Khan gave us an easy 15 minute trip out to the Victoria Star where we met up with the DSDC boat already tied up to the mooring line that has floated up from the bow of the wreck. This is an especially interesting route onto the wreck as it takes the diver past a leaking fuel tank and the streams of diesel bubbles emanating from it.
The first wave consisted of tooled up wreckie techies Geoff and Brian who headed straight for the engine room followed closely by Rob and Derek who’s dive plan had been carefully worked out the previous day. This involved the recovery of some important marine archeological artifacts seen on a previous dive attached to ceiling of the walkway on the starboard side of the accommodation deck.
Everything was going to plan with one artefact liberated and good progress being made on the other when the entire wreck was suddenly shaken by a loud bang followed by the unmistakable sound of escaping air and an entire ship’s worth of silt being blown into the surrounding water. Outside of the wreck visibility was reduced to less than a meter so heaven knows what it was like inside. Unknown to the those divers out for a pleasant bimble on a new wreck or engaged in the recovery and preservation of important historical objects, the wreckie techies had been playing in the engine room and had pulled the wrong bit of rope. This had then immediately opened a the valves on a bank of emergency air cylinders so releasing their contents into the entire ship. Oh such fun.
Brian adds in his own defence:
“Geoff and I swam into the room with the oil bottles and the big emergency breathing air bank. After studying the plumbing I figured out that the tank valves are all daisy chained to a single pull cord. For a moment I was tempted not to pull the pull cord, but "quoting Rob" like a child in a sweet shop I just had to pull it... Boom!!!!!!! The air bank off gassed instantaneously! The plumbing was connected to the bridges ventilation system. Derek and Rob were unfortunate enough to be inside the wreck at this time. (Rob has some good descriptions to add here).”
Before the second wave, PJ asked what was obviously a rhetorical question: ‘Should I take my camera?’ Well of course you should Peter. That’s what you do! Camera in hand Peter, Andy and Black Ops Yuri disappeared beneath the waves to reappear 50 minutes later with two “solid silver” chrome platters that had been liberated from the galley.
One feeding of the fish due to the nauseous fumes emanating from the diesel coated surface of the sea later and the team were just about ready for a second dive. Brian and Geoff emerged with two whole bags of artifacts while Rob and Derek used a lifting bag to raise more important finds.
One object raised by Geoff deserves particular mention. This was the IMO number for the ship and was truly an object from the end of the "hand crafted" period in maritime history. It clearly predated the more modern and uniform designs that are now churned out in their thousands by CAD and millimetre precise machinery and exuded an artisanal quality that is impossible to find on newer ships. This should be displayed proudly in a place of prominence. “A thing of beauty”, as they say, “is a joy forever”.
With Peter sitting a second dive out, Andy and Yuri performed a fully comprehensive buddy check followed by a couple of perfect backward roll entries. Yuri in particular managed to enter the water in a wonderfully streamlined fashion unencumbered by the inconvenience of fins.
All was well on the boat with the sun shining. The sea a beautiful azure blue and a wonderful clear sky. All was right with the world with ships sedately going about their business out on the on the horizon or lying at anchor. Just as our friends on the DSDC boat were just recovering a couple of divers, one particular ship however was also spotted heading straight towards us at a range of mile or so. It didn’t take long for this to become a ship heading straight towards us at a range of half a mile as it loomed ever larger in our field of view.
“Has it turned?”,
“Nope it hasn’t”.
With a an extremely ugly 10,000 tonne ship bearing down on us, DSDC recovering divers and Yuri and Andy still in the water, the BSAC 406 boat bravely cast off and went forward to fend off impending disaster. Cursing a lack of white flares to fire towards its bridge the plucky 406ers resorted to hand waving and other gestures which eventually persuaded our new visitors to change course to starboard and come almost come to a halt. Seeing the stern close up we noticed that like the Victoria Star, it was another ship from Zanzibar leading us to postulate that this particular position must be programmed into the on board GPS of all vessels hailing from that East African port. Either that or were diving in the Zanzibar triangle where massive and unknown forces attract Zanzibar registered ships to either their doom or the doom of other smaller vessels.
All in all, an entertaining trip, with good fun had by all."
Thanks to Rob for that entertaining account. There were some vicious rumours circulating in regard to Rob’s equipment (or lack thereof) on this dive and I’m happy to publish his disclaimer:
Please note that should anyone contact you with their own “unofficial” versions of what happened on Friday, I would suggest you ignore them completely. I would for never, ever, ever remember to bring essentials such as an entire bag of tools on a dive but forget optional extras such as my BCD and have to borrow one from PJ. It is a nonsense to suggest that I could be such a dick by forgetting such a vital piece of diving equipment and any suggestion that this could be otherwise will not only be vigorously defended but will also be met with a demand for substantial damages.
Ian Hussey and guest writers.