Durban - The video embedded in this story contains some of the first images of the HMS Otus – the British submarine scuttled off the coast of Durban six decades ago – taken by three local specialist deep-sea divers who have been to its watery grave.
Patrick Voorma, Allan Maclean and Justin Jennings dived 105m to reach the shipwreck, located about 8km south-east of the Durban Harbour entrance.
“Every time we get to it is a ‘wow’ moment,” said Voorma, who owns Calypso Dive Centre at uShaka Marine World.
“To say it is awesome is putting it very mildly,” added Maclean.
It was the third time Maclean and Voorma had been to the wreck after first stumbling upon it during a dive in March. They were not able to record the wreck then as they had not planned on finding anything. And two weeks ago the pair, armed with a video recorder, went down to the bottom to capture the wreck, but their recorder did not work at those depths.
On Saturday, May 18, they roped in fellow diver, Jennings, who has a video camera with superior recording abilities, and together went back to the shipwreck to finally record it for the world to see.
The video, which has been loaded on YouTube, shows the divers’ torches slicing through the darkness until the vessel comes into view. The eery silence is broken by the breathing sounds of their gas tanks.
The team only had 10 minutes at the bottom of the ocean before they needed to begin their two hour ascent to the surface – due to the various decompression stops they have to undergo – and were only able to capture parts of the stern.
“Being there is indescribable,” Voorma said. “Every time we have been there it has felt like we have been diving a new ship.”
The HMS Otus, a World War II submarine, was scuttled off the coast of Durban in 1946 after being decommissioned.
It was launched in 1928 and served 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 HMS Otus was deployed to Simon’s Town for training duties, and two years later ended up in Durban where she was sold and scuttled.
Since finding the submarine’s remains two months ago, Voorma said he had been inundated with calls from diving enthusiasts from around the world.
“It is going to be incredible for tourism in Durban,” he said.
“There is a niche of divers who travel around the world and dive shipwrecks. They love diving so-called virgin wrecks and finding undiscovered wrecks and this will open a host of opportunities because there are so many wrecks along the Durban seabed,” Voorma said. “In the past three months we have found three new wrecks. I have had enquires from Croatia, the UK, Germany and the US.”
Maclean agreed. “There is no place in the world where you can currently dive a submarine,” he said.
Maritime archaeologist Vanessa Maitland, of the African Centre for Heritage Activities, said there were about 100 shipwrecks along the coast in the vicinity of Durban alone. Maitland now wants to develop a website where people can go on a virtual tour of all the shipwrecks in South Africa.
“There is a lot of research on shipwrecks out there but it is all over the place,” she said. “I want to collect the information from all the wrecks in South Africa and place them on one website.
“The aim is to have the history of the ship, the crew that served on it, pictures and how it came to be a wreck.”
Maitland, who has already registered the domain name, shipwreck-sa.co.za, said the work of people like Voorma and Maclean would be vital for the website’s success.
WHO ARE THE DIVERS?
Voorma and Maclean are part of a small group of divers in South Africa who have the skills to dive to depths of about 100m.
Preparations for a dive to such depths start four days before, they said, when they start mixing and blending a combination of gases called Trimix (oxygen, nitrogen and helium). They also keep an eye on the various weather sites.
On the day of the dive they have a team of doctors on standby at St Augustine’s Hospital who are ready to treat them with a recompression chamber.
“A lot of it is psychological. Once you are down there you have got to stay in the water for two hours, it becomes a commitment,” Voorma said. “If something goes wrong you have got to deal with it under water. That is the reality of it.”
Once divers go to such depths they build up nitrogen and helium in their bodies and they have to get rid of these gases before they can safely resurface.
Maclean said coming up too soon would be like taking a can of fizzy soft drink, shaking it and opening it up immediately.
“That is exactly what would happen to us if we came up too soon. We could get an embolism in the brain,” he said.