Diving Grave Wrecks: How Great the Difference?

Posted on 07/28/09 No Comments

lagarto-flagWhen it comes to diving shipwrecks, some feel there’s a distinct difference between diving wrecks sunk as artificial reefs (or insurance payouts) and wrecks on which people died. Many of these underwater tombs are only accessible to technical divers who both feel the thrill of seeing history close-up, but feel the weight of the events that lead countless seamen to their depths.

The U.K.’s Diver magazine has a great take on diving grave wrecks in its July issue. Author Michael Sawyer said he doesn’t dive grave wrecks to be a “ghoul,” but simply because “I’m drawn to wrecks. Period.”

“It would be foolish, however, as a diver, not to address the moral aspect while adding the (ship) to the logbook, considering that it’s a tomb, and a relatively recent one at that,” he wrote.

In Thailand, Sawyer’s feelings are shared by the select few divers that have visited the USS Lagarto, the World War II submarine found by Jamie Macleod and Stewart Oehl of the MV Trident in 2005. Only the Trident staff knows exactly where the wreck lies and works hard to prevent it from becoming a tourist attraction.

Utmost Respect

““The Lagarto is a war grave and is therefore treated with utmost respect,” tech instructor Ayesha Cantrell wrote in her 2007 report of her first trip to the Lagarto. “The (Trident) team see themselves very much as caretakers – curators if you will – of this piece of history and fiercely protective. “I can only begin to imagine the keenness and intensity of feeling when the USS Lagarto revealed herself to human eyes for the first time in 60 years.”

Richie Kohler of Deep Sea Detectives fame also felt the weight of what diving the Lagarto meant as he prepared to make his own documentary on the ill-fated sub. In an interview last year, he said he was contacted by a family member of one of the sailors lost in the wreck.

“As I was heading out to Thailand I received a phone call from Nancy Kenney. Her father died on the Lagarto when she was three years old – she has nothing to know him by but some black and white photos. She knew that the diving was very dangerous and we would be filming the documentary. What she wanted me to do was rap on the side of the hull and say to her dad that she and her mum were OK and that they loved him very much. And that I did for Nancy.”

Despite the somber feelings divers may share when embarking on dives like the Lagarto, Sawyer, in his Diver magazine piece, says its hard to deny the thrill of the dive.

I have no objection to diving a wreck that holds dead people, be it sunk in 1941 or 1991, whether I know there are remains or not, whether they were soldiers, or as on the Salem Express, pilgrims. It’s the wreck itself I dive for, rather than any sentiment attached to it. But you can understand that this is a decision for the individual, and I would always respect a diver who says: “No thanks”.

Such polarization within the diving community raises yet more questions. Is there a difference in attitude when exploring wrecks lost through different circumstances? For example, natural causes, as with the SS Yongala, lost in a cyclone off Bowling Green Cape, Queensland, Australia in 1911, with all 122 on board. What about a tragic accident, as was the case with the Liban, which collided with the steamship Insulaire off the coast of Marseilles in 1903, taking nearly 200 down with it.

And what about acts of war? Is there a perceived difference between the loss of men on a fighting ship, which not only had the means to protect itself but was designed to send others to the bottom, and the merchant vessels of Truk, or Coron, which were essentially sitting ducks?

Rightly or wrongly, we rate loss on a daily basis every time we hear the news. Who? Where? When? How, and how many? What is our proximity to the event? What is an appropriate reaction?

As technology enables wreck hunters like MacLeod, Kohler and others to unearth more and more of our history lost at sea, these are questions divers may find themselves asking more often.

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