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We are sinking! (Or are we?)

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My exploits on Filitheyo in the Maldives reminded me of a funny story about the German Coastguard misinterpreting a mayday call. Fortunately there was no one actually ‘in distress’ throughout my escapade. I would probably say extremely frustrated was a better description. The other slight difference was the fact that our boat wouldn’t sink. Werner Lau dive centre had acquired the perfect fishing boat for a new artificial reef project. Unsettled weather had caused a few problems with the delivery dates but this was the ‘chilled out’ Maldives so nobody really minded.

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The boat eventually appeared 2 weeks later so operation code named ‘we are thinking’ finally began. The task was to simply position the boat over the drop zone and sink it upright. Surely German ingenuity combined with hard working Maldivian labour could easily sort this task out? Well, think again. When does anything go as planned? In true Paparazzi style I witnessed the whole watery exclusive unfolding before me, warts and all…

Filitheyo Resort is the perfect apparition of paradise; a beautiful triangular shaped coral island complete with dreamy white sandy beaches and azure hued seas rich in marine life. There are 110 thatched roofed luxury Bungalows dotted amongst the swaying palms and a further 15 more located out on the water. Werner Lau set up the diving centre in 1999 coinciding with the opening of the resort. Regional Manager, Christian Machler, had handpicked an experienced crew to run the diving operation. They were a really friendly bunch and exuded plenty of positive vibes. In true Werner Lau style the daily boats always left on schedule. Any latecomers would be towel whipped and staked out in the sun as punishment!

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The island offered some great shore diving opportunities. Werner Lau had marked the entry/exit points of every site with a numbered post that protruded out of the water in the sandy shallows. Underwater there were buoyed and anchored guide ropes placed vertically down the reef wall indicating where divers should get in or out (and also to hold on to in strong currents). On the beach, shaded under the palms, they had placed wooden benches for de-kitting. The benches were also used as drop-off points for any empty cylinders. Dive centre staff rounded up any empties during the day and took them back to the centre for refilling. The whole set-up had been well thought out and as expected ran extremely efficiently. As a further attraction Werner Lau had sunk a fishing boat, Koimas.2, on November 30th 2009. This was to be complimented with a second fishing boat, Koimas.1, just over a year later.

stu 10stu 4Christian had liaised with the Resort Management team and the 17th December 2010 (give or take a day for any contingencies) was set as the date of sinking. I turned up on the evening of the 16th just in time to witness the fishing boats arrival. At 23 metres long with a 6.5 metre beam the boat was bigger than I had expected. Christian had specifically asked the boatyard to ‘clean’ the boat before delivery. We hopped aboard for a quick look around and there was still rubbish all over the deck, loose rotting wood, protruding nails and even some diesel fuel left in the tanks. There was no way the boat could be sunk in this condition. I started to wonder whether my 7-day trip would be a fruitless exercise.

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The idea was to follow the same game plan used for Koimas.2 just over a year ago. This meant positioning the boat at the designated drop zone (between marker posts 5 and 6), filling the boat with sand until the gunnels (sides) reached sea level and then pump in sea water until the boat finally sank. Being so heavy the boat should stay in an upright position and descend to the seabed in one piece. Christian was told that the boat had a gross tonnage of 89 tonnes. So we basically needed to shift around 89 tonnes of sand from the nearby sand bank and plonk it into the holds before adding any water. This meant there was still a lot of hard work left to do before the boat would be ready for sinking. My absolute deadline for any diving activities was the 20th December. Serious pangs of doubt began to creep into my mind.

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Local labour and resort staff were supposed to be helping from the outset but only a handful turned up for work on the 17th December. It was mainly Werner Lau staff that ended up cleaning the fishing boat ready for sand bag loading. Two days were spent filling sand bags, transporting them to the fishing boat and dumping them inside the holds and engine compartment. Even I started to help out and believe me humping heavy bags of sand in the midday sun was no easy job.

stu 18stu 11In between time I managed to take a good look around the first wreck, Koimas.2. Joint Base Leader, Astrid Poelzl, guided me around the 25 metre long fishing boat starting by the prop at 32 metres. I had to watch my positioning as there were a number of stingrays lying in the sand. A few inquisitive jacks cruised by as I took a picture of Astrid posing by the colourful blades. We finned along the hull towards the bow. The wreck was still fully intact and had become home for many species of reef fish. The crucifix shaped foredeck mast was definitely the most photogenic feature. We stopped momentarily when a shoal of around 10 devil rays passed overhead. I then followed Astrid through an open hatchway down into the cargo hold. The fishing boat only had a 2.2 metre draft so we didn’t have very far to descend. The hold interconnected with 2 more holds and came out next to the bridge. I had a quick look inside the engine compartment (without engine). This was just a huge wide open space completely open and accessible. Another shoal of jacks darted in and out of the gaps between the wooden panelling. I managed to jam myself inside the small bridge area to get a shot of Astrid looking through the doorway at a small shoal of resident glassfish. This looked quite effective against the deep blue backdrop. I had noticed the current picking up throughout the dive. After 40 minutes the rate had increased to around 3 or 4 knots and was impossible for me to swim against. Astrid started power finning for exit point no.5 but with a camera in hand and being a chubby unfit diver I much preferred to take the easy option and drift back to exit no.6 even if it did mean a longer walk back to the dive centre.

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stu 21stu 22Getting back to the sinking of Koimas.1 we finally mustered full mobilisation on the 20th December. Locals and resort staff turned up in force but in my mind this was 3 days too late. The locals collected 4 boat loads of sand (200 bags per load) and the resort staff also managed to collect 4 boat loads (150 bags per load). The bags were brought alongside and then emptied into the bow holds and into the engine compartment amidships. Christian estimated that each bag weighed approximately 30kg which meant there were 1,400 bags totalling 42,000 kg’s of sand dumped onto Koimas.1. But the boat still wouldn’t sink. Even though there was a slight list to starboard and a small leak in the engine room she was still bobbing away quite nicely above the waterline. We had humped and sweated more than 80 tonnes of sand and cement onto the damn boat.

Werner Lau paid the resort $20,000 USD for Koimas.1. This fee also accounted for the cleaning and sinking of the vessel in the agreed timescale. But the whole situation had got quite frustrating. Whether it was down to politics, mis-communication or dare I say bad management we would surely miss my deadline. Christian advised that they should start pumping in water but frustratingly ‘the powers that be’ insisted we first pile on another load of sand bags.

My last diving day had come and gone and still the boat was defiantly floating. On the 21st when I left for home the locals added another 1,400 bags so the total weight of sand was now up to 84,000 kg’s. Resort staff had also made other preparations including drilling holes in all the decking to release any air trapped below and tying 12 empty oil drums around the bridge supports to help stabilize the boat and keep it upright on the way down.

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Ironically the boat sank at 7-15pm on the 23rd of December in the dark with only a few people watching and without any pictures being taken. Werner Lau Divemaster, Ibi Didi, was conducting a night dive at the time. Even though he was just 100 metres away he didn’t hear any unusual noises underwater. On surfacing he was surprised to find that Koimas.1 had disappeared beneath the waves. A guest sitting on the beach said that the boat sunk engine room first and then the bow. From start to finish the whole performance had taken less than a minute. Over the new-year celebrations Werner Lau invited guests on a complimentary clean-up dive. More than 14 guests and 3 staff collected 100kg of loose wood, fibre glass, plastic etc lying around the wreck site.

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stu 17stu 16I decided to go back to the island 2 weeks later too finish the job I had started. Christian explained that when he dived on the new wreck for the very first time all was not as expected. First the good news: the boat had landed on the bottom upright and was lying in the correct position. Then the bad news: no one had time to slacken off the 8 mooring lines that were holding the boat in position. The lines had pulled so tight that they had ripped the bow apart and toppled the foredeck mast. In some ways this gave the wreck more character and it looked more like a real ship wreck and not just an artificial reef. I managed to wriggle in through the gap at the bow and take a picture of Christian surrounded by the refrigeration pipes once used for freezing the fish stored in the holds. A sizeable Moray hovered above my head during the whole escapade, probably wondering what all the fuss was about. The prop was the deepest point at 34 metres. I fired off a few shots of Chris next to a massive parrot fish nibbling on the steelwork, which I’m sure couldn’t have been very tasty.  It was a strange feeling to ‘fly’ around the boat and not worry about climbing stairwells or ladders to get from one level to another. Just by breathing out I could drop down into the engine compartment. 2 weeks earlier I had been throwing sand bags into this huge void. I noticed that the oil drums had been removed from the bridge area. Christian said that they had imploded on the way down and when they were untied and sent back to the surface they had expanded back to their original shape.

stu 23stu 19So operation ‘we are thinking’ had ended up as a complete success. The fishing boat eventually went down in the right spot without too much damage. The job just took a little longer than anticipated. I really enjoyed diving on both wrecks and I’m sure that Koimas.1 will be a big attraction for divers. The new wreck sits just 50 metres away from Koimas.2 and they are actually facing bow to bow. Due to the depth (and the currents) I would recommend exploring the wrecks on separate dives rather than try and rush around both wrecks on a single dive.

I was pleased to see that this battered old fishing boat had been used in such a positive way. What was once a floating wooden hulk had now been transformed into an underwater haven perfect for fish and corals. I had well and truly left my mark on Koimas.1 and would always have a bond with the wreck. I even broke a finger nail emptying out sand bags! I am really looking forward to going back in a few years time just to see how much the wreck has flourished.

Stuart has spent the past 26 years taking pictures and writing stories for diving magazines and other publications. In fact, this equates to more than a year of his life spent underwater. There have been plenty of exciting moments from close encounters with crocodiles and sharks to exploration of deep wrecks and more recently rebreathers. He lives in Poole, Dorset and is very much an advocate of UK diving.

Marine Life & Conservation

Exhibition: Protecting UNESCO Marine World Heritage through scientific research

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From now until 30 October, the photo exhibition “Protecting UNESCO Marine World Heritage through scientific research” features 21 photographs at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, as well as a digital edition.

Exceptional photographs highlight how innovative marine experts and scientists take the pulse of the ocean by exploring ecosystems, studying the movement of species, or revealing the hidden biodiversity of coral reefs. Scientific discoveries are more important than ever for the protection and sustainable conservation of our Marine World Heritage. This memorable exhibition comes ahead of the launch, in 2021, of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (“Ocean Decade”). The exhibition was jointly developed by UNESCO and the Principality of Monaco.

The 50 marine sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, distributed across 37 countries, include a wide variety of habitats as well as rare marine life still largely unknown. Renowned for their unmatched beauty and emblematic biodiversity, these exceptional ecosystems play a leading role in the field of marine conservation. Through scientific field research and innovation, concrete actions to foster global preservation of the ocean are being implemented locally in these unique natural sites all over the world. They are true symbols of hope in a changing ocean.

Since 2017, the Principality of Monaco supports UNESCO to strengthen conservation and scientific understanding of the marine sites inscribed on the World Heritage List. This strategic partnership allows local management teams to benefit from the results obtained during the scientific missions of Monaco Explorations. The partnership also draws international attention to the conservation challenges facing the world’s most iconic ocean sites.

The exhibition invites viewers to take a passionate dive into the heart of the scientific missions led by Monaco Explorations in four marine World Heritage sites: Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (Philippines), Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (Colombia), Rock Islands Southern Lagoon (Palau), and the Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems (France). It is also an opportunity to discover the work of a megafauna census; the study of the resilience of coral reefs and their adaptation in a changing climate; the exploration of the deep sea; and the monitoring of large marine predators through satellite data.

To visit the Digital Exhibition click here.

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Dive Training Blogs

Deptherapy returns to its Roots – Part 7

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Join Richard Cullen from Deptherapy for the final part of his Blog about the charity’s recent expedition to Roots Red Sea, El Quseir, Egypt.

Deptherapy expeditions do not just magically happen, they need planning and they need funding.  This expedition was funded by our long-term partners the Veterans’ Foundation.  The funding is part of a grant they awarded us for programmes this year, which were then put on hold because of COVID.

All charities in the Armed Forces’ Sector are struggling for funds. Deptherapy desperately needs support going forward and every penny counts.

We know what we do works and at the end of this blog you will find details of the research studies into Deptherapy’s programmes and how they impact on the lives of our beneficiaries.  This includes details that are hot off the press about the latest study that reports that what we offer through scuba diving and 24/7 support has benefits beyond those found in other sporting rehabilitation programmes.

Well tomorrow we fly home, late in the evening with the journey home for some of the guys who live up North taking around 15 hours after leaving Roots.

We want to make the most of today but with the tide running we are not going to be able to dive until later this morning which means only two dives today.

Oatsie and Swars about to start their sidemount dives

Things, however are really busy over at the dive centre with Swars and Oatsie putting their sidemount kit together for their training dives with Steve Rattle leading to their RAID sidemount qualification.  It has been nice to be able to offer the guys this extra training, given the amount of work they have put in this week.  They have needed to get through their theory quickly but given the RADI online learning system this has not been too arduous.

Steve came diving with us yesterday to get some more photos and was really amazed at the progress that Corey had made. He was quite open in his praise, as in his view Corey has gone from a non-diver to being a very competent OW diver capable of diving, unsupervised, with a buddy.  Praise indeed.

Other than the sidemount course we are diving as a group today: Corey, Keiron, Michael, Moudi and me. Corey has been given some tasks – SMB deployment on both dives and the afternoon dive will be a ‘naturalist dive’.  Guy Henderson has set Corey a task: ‘to identify three species of fish and record the time into the dive and the depth at which each one was spotted’.  Guy runs Marine Biology courses on the reef and knows where the fish are to be found, how long into the dive, and at what time.

The two Toms are getting put through their paces. They have walked their cylinders down to the entry point, but Steve sends them back to the dive centre to collect other kit they should have brought with them.

Our general dive goes well and the sidemount guys appear from their sidemount dive some 90 minutes after dipping their heads under the water.

Corey enjoying being a RAID OW20 Diver

Lots of bubbly chat at lunchtime, a group of really happy divers. Corey really has benefited from the week and over lunch thanked the team for making him a diver. He has very quickly become part of the family and after returning home he published an amazing post on Facebook about his experience.  Corey really gets Deptherapy and had soon realised that we see past mental and physical injuries and see the person inside and work with that person.  He also realised that we want beneficiaries to see their fellow beneficiaries in the same light.  He knows he now has another ‘family’ – a family of brothers in arms who have two things in common, they served their country and they have suffered life changing injuries or illnesses.

Back into the water for the afternoon dive and Corey identifies the fish and records the details on a slate.  The two Tom’s complete their second dive and qualify as RAID Sidemount Divers. Great!

Kit packed away and it is time to return to the camp for a few well-earned last night drinks.

I am often asked why we use Roots as our exclusive base for diving. I have mentioned before that it offers us an ideal retreat, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We are secluded and there are no distractions such as late-night bars etc.

Roots Accessible Room

The second reason is the amazing welcome we receive from Steve, Clare, Moudi and the team.  We have been going to Roots since 2014 and many of the staff have become good friends, they understand our needs and are the friendliest people you could ever wish to meet.

The third reason is the huge investment Steve and Clare have made in making the resort and dive centre accessible for those with physical injuries including those who need to use wheelchairs.  All our beneficiaries can enjoy Roots and, in fact, love it here.  The reef is perfect for us and in non-COVID times we can travel to the Salem Express and other dive sites to enjoy more of the Red Sea experience.

Accessible toilet on the Roots beach

After discussions with the team I was very proud to be able to tell Corey that his progress had been such that we were inviting him on the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust sponsored two-week Marine Biology Course at Roots in June 2021. There is lots of homework to undertake under the guidance of Dr Debbie McNeill of Open Oceans and Corey will be sent the Red Sea Guide which is the basis for study.

While on that programme, Corey with fellow beneficiary Dale Mallin, will complete his RAID Advanced 35 course.  This all builds to a 10-day Red Sea liveaboard in 2022, onboard Roots’ new boat Big Blue where 18 beneficiaries will compare the coral and aquatic life on the wrecks of the SS Thistlegorm and the less known SS Turkia that is to be found in the Gulf of Suez and is rarely dived.

Paul Rose, our Vice President, is supporting the programme and is seeking the support of the UN and the Royal Geographical Society. A comprehensive report will be submitted to our partners in the project and to the Egyptian Authorities.

Last night and chill

What we do works:

In recent years there have been three academic studies into our work:

2018 – A study by a team from the University of Sheffield Medical School.

2019 – A study by The Centre of Trauma at Nottingham University.

Both these studies reported very positively on Deptherapy’s work both underwater but also in terms of the provision of 24/7 support.

The following is from our press release which was issued on 26th October:

‘A new study into Scuba Diving Rehabilitation Charity Deptherapy’s approach to supporting Armed Forces veterans with psychological injuries such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through the medium of scuba diving has been carried out by Petra Walker in conjunction with Hanna Kampman of the Posttraumatic Growth Research Unit at the University of East London.

This study, which used Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), demonstrates that scuba diving has rehabilitation benefits beyond those found in other forms of sporting rehabilitation exercise. IPA is a qualitative methodology that examines the experiences of participants and has been used in previous studies of Posttraumatic Growth (PTG) in para-athletes.

Petra is an experienced diver herself and was exploring the wellbeing aspects of scuba diving as part of her Masters in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology when she came across a previous study on Deptherapy. Past studies have mainly focused on the medical aspects of diving, so the opportunity to examine the mental health side of rehabilitative scuba diving was impossible to ignore. The full study is currently embargoed until it is published at a future date in an academic journal, but it follows similar academic research into the work of Deptherapy by the University of Sheffield Medical School (2018) and the University of Nottingham (2019).’

This is amazing news and sets us apart from other sporting rehabilitation programmes.

We are currently working with our VP Richard Castle who is a Consultant Psychologist and our Dive Medicine Advisor Mark Downs to identify further areas of psychological and physical dive related research.

We end the week on a happy note.  A young man who has learned to dive properly with a RAID OW 20 certification, a new RAID Master Rescue Diver, two new RAID Sidemount Divers, 5 new RAID O2 Providers, many assessments for our DMs but most of all a week of learning, of making new friendships, renewing old friendships, and building on our family ethos.

Until we meet again…

For us, Deptherapy is a journey, a journey that continues to push boundaries in the use of scuba diving in the rehabilitation of those suffering life changing mental and/or physical challenges.  On our journey we want to change the way the scuba diving industry views diving for those with disabilities.

In the new year, we will be launching, with our diver training agency partners RAID, a new and exciting adaptive teaching programme that will offer diving to the disabled community. We can’t wait to share it with you!


Find out more about the work of Deptherapy and Deptherapy Education at www.deptherapy.co.uk

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