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Wreck mystery solved

Published Mar 21, 2013


A shipwreck that has vexed maritime archaeologists for more than six decades has been solved with the finding on Wednesday of HMS Otus, a submarine from World War II, off the coast of Durban.

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Two Durban deep sea specialist divers, Patrick Voorma and Allan Maclean, found the Otus 8km south-east of the Durban Harbour entrance.

The vessel, deployed first in the Mediterranean in the war, was launched in 1928 and scuttled in 1946 after it was decommissioned.

Voorma, who owns Calypso Dive Centre at uShaka Marine World, said the vessel was found at a depth of 105m. He and Maclean had been looking for it for nine years, and they used five gas bottles each to reach it.

“She was upright, in good condition with a large explosion impact in the middle in the tower area,” he said.

The Otus served in the British Navy after being commissioned with the 4th Submarine Flotilla at the China Station. When war broke out in 1939 she was deployed to Hong Kong and the following year sent to the Mediterranean where she took part in fleet exercises.

In 1943 she was deployed to Simon’s Town for training duties, and two years later ended up in Durban where she was sold and scuttled.

Voorma and Maclean read about the submarine in an old naval record and made it their mission to find it.

“We weren’t sure where exactly it was, because they did not keep detailed records as they did not have GPS and things like that back then,” Voorma said.

“For scuba divers a wreck is quite special – it does not belong in the water and there is some sort of history attached to it, whether it be a tragedy or if it was sunk on purpose. There is some sort of mystery,” he said.

“This one was especially special because there is no other submarine that we know of that had been sunk and has been discovered off the coast of South Africa.”

Over the years, Voorma and Maclean have searched various spots along the coast, but in the past year have doubled their efforts, with significant success.

The search was a long process with the divers labelling the co-ordinates of places they had investigated as they explored grid by grid.

In the past month they have found three wrecks, the Otus being the latest.

“We found a ship called the Namaqua in a depth of 65m, that was sunk in 1932. There is another one which we have not identified yet but it is a big ship, probably 80m long,” Voorma said.

“They call it Durban’s ghost fleet. After the Second World War there were a whole lot of ships that, in addition to the collapse of the whaling industry, just stood.

“What they ended up doing was towing these ships out to sea and sinking them. No records were kept on this.”

He said that they almost did not go out on Wednesday, they were close to calling off the dive due to bad weather.

“But we decided to go anyway. When we identify an area we usually drop an anchor line down with a buoy where we can mark the area. (Yesterday) we dropped the anchor... and the current was so strong it literally just pulled the anchor away,” Voorma said.

“We decided to drive 100m up-current of where we thought the wreckage may be and rolled backward. With the strong current, we weren’t entirely sure that we would even land where the wreckage was,” he explained.

“It is quite a long way down. You face each other as you are going down – the two of you in the middle of the ocean and you can’t see the bottom and you can’t see the surface. We dive with five cylinders because you have got to carry the gas with you,” he said.

“You have also got to switch on the different cylinders on the way down because you can only breathe with certain ones at certain depths. We hit the bottom at 105m.”

Voorma said that when they reached the sea bed they noticed a particular little fish, pink grunters, which usually congregate around shipwrecks.

“We knew we were close to something. We drifted 40m and eventually just swam straight into it and had a ‘wow’ moment right there. It was the most amazing feeling ever because you know the wreck hasn’t been seen in 70 years.”

Unfortunately for Voorma and Maclean, they did not have their camera with them as it had been sent in for repairs last week.

“That is the one regret but we are going back next week and will definitely have it with us then,” he said.

Voorma said the small maritime archeological community was buzzing with excitement.

“People have been looking for it for so long everyone has been going crazy,” he said.

“There are only a handful of recreational divers in the world who go to these sort of depths, so it’s quite a small community of people doing these dives.

“You feel like an explorer, like Sir David Livingstone finding the source of the Nile.”

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