Photos by Jeff Goodman and Kam Arya
As all divers know, ship wrecks of all types make great habitats for all kinds of marine life. Unfortunately they are often not protected against fishing and pressures of careless diving. Now there are four new wrecks in the Algarve, Portugal, which have been put on the sea bed to act as sanctuary for marine life and are to be protected by the Portuguese Fisheries Department and the Navy.
I was a guest of Luís Sá Couto, the project leader of Ocean Revival and owner of the SUBNAUTA Diving Centre. I had been invited to see the last ship of the four become a future reef. The Hydrographic ship Ex-NRP Almeida de Carvalho was to be submerged into 30 metres of water where her top decks would only be 15 metres below the surface.
The evening before the event, Luis gave me a tour of the ship while she was still in dock. By the time I saw her she had been fully prepared for sinking. All toxic and dangerous materials had been removed. Doorways opened and passageways all made accessible for the safety of future divers. Whole sections of flooring were removed for easy access to the lower decks and hold areas.
Luis then checked with the demolition crew where the on-board cameras were to be mounted. They would capture the entire sinking from the ship itself. Known to be reliable and produce high quality images, sixteen Gopro were mounted in various parts of the ship on deck and inside the hull. While each camera was being set up we were able to monitor their output on Luis’s iPhone via a Gopro app. Fantastic! (Scubaverse will be showing the actual Gopro videos soon.)
The next day we were in a rib dive boat heading out to the site of the sinking. As we got near the Almeida de Carvalho it was obvious the people on board were making the final preparations for the explosions which would send her to the sea bed. The ship’s hull was filled with tons of concrete so that she would sink in an upright position and not roll over on the way down. This would also give stability to the wreck and minimize any movement during winter storms.
The tugs made their final adjustments to the ships position and the anchors were dropped. Cameras were clicking constantly as the anticipation rose and we were told by the Pilot boat to now head away to the safe perimeter. There would be a five minute warning over the radio to let us know the sequence for detonation of the explosives was about to start.
I looked over to the mainland where I knew Luis was holding a press conference in one of the hotels. It was there that Luis was able to verify from the Minister of the State of the Sea, the Fisheries Department and the Navy, that these four Ocean Revival ships, with a limited area around them, would be a marine reserve and so protected by legislation and enforcement. This was indeed great news for marine conservation and the future.
Then it all happened. Three fireballs rose from the decking. A series of explosions cracked through the air as debris from the ship flew into the sky. All went quiet as the ship sat still in a small pall of smoke. Gradually the bow started to sink. It was very slow, but then it gathered momentum and within a minute the entire ship was swallowed by the blue water, leaving only a tell-tale footprint of froth and air bubbles. Almeida de Carvalho had gone.
A group of Navy divers now had to go down and make sure all the explosives had detonated. Two hours later we were able to dive the ship ourselves. With trapped air bubbles still rising to the surface we made our way down the shot line tied off near the bow. It’s quite surreal seeing a ship on the sea bed that was only a few hours ago sitting up at the surface. The shiny metal looked out of place and there were no fish to ease the desolate feel of the wreck. But that would change in time.
The three previous wrecks, only a few months old, have already become home to marine wildlife. Fish shoal around the rigging and railings while an octopus finds sanctuary in an old vent. Trigger fish patrol the forward decks; smaller fish browse the fast growing algae.
The wrecks will not take long to become mini reefs and as such should sustain a good diversity of life. Before having to return to the UK I had a chance for a dive on one of the local reefs in about 15 metres of water just off a nearby headland. The water temperature was a pleasant 20C and the visibility was an adequate six metres. At first it seemed very similar to diving on a reef at home in Cornwall, but without the kelp. Gradually I started to realise there was an interesting mix of species, both of temperate and warmer waters, Conger eels living next to Morays eels.
On this dive there were no great shoals of fish to see but the small species where abundant.
It was a great dive and only slightly marred for me by the body of a dead fish on the sea bed with wounds from a spear gun. It no doubt suffered before dying but will now go to feeding a host of other marine animals.
The Algarve is not high on the destinations of many divers but after my visit I certainly look forward to going back again. In my next article I shall be interviewing Luís Sá Couto about diving in the Algarve and the high standard of facilities divers can expect.