Perhaps one of the most interesting wrecks dives that every diver should learn about is the MTS Oceanos. One of the signature features of cruise ships is their sheer size and the Oceanos was certainly one of the big ones.
The great ship that was built in France but owned by Greece went under in 1991 after it sustained continuous flooding. This one is for the technical diver and will require special equipment on top of the usual scuba gear package.
This is the Guide to the Oceanos wreck.
Where it all begun
The last four of the ships launched by Forges de la Gironde hit the water in Bordeaux, France in 1952. Its name was Jean Laborde. But this was just one of the several names that the ship went by throughout its life. It was also known as the Ancona, Mykinai, and the Eastern princess.
Then in 1976, the ship was registered in Greece and took on the new name, the Oceanos. But the ship did not start as a cruise ship but was originally designed as a cargo ship and underwent a lot of reconstruction to turn it into a cruise liner for Greece.
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After the cruise season of 1988 turned out successful in South Africa, the Oceanos once again decided to make another trip in 1991 to Johannesburg.
While being en route to Durban, the time came for the Oceanos to begin the trip from the port of East London. But there was some bad news. Earlier on there had been some reports that the ship was not in the best condition. For one, the ventilation pipe was not fitted and the hull plates seemed to be loose.
During the time, the non-return valves for the sewerage tanks had been taken out for repair as on a previous trip to Mozambique, the bilge water had been rising through the showers.
There was, therefore, a small hole that was around 10 cm in diameter left from the unfitted ventilation in the bulkhead situated between the sewerage tank and the generator.
Then at around 9.30 pm right off the coast of Transkei, there was an explosion in the engine room which caused the Oceanos to lose power. The engineer at the time sent a message to the Captain of the ship, Yioannis Avranais that there was water in the ship that was flooding the generator room.
The explosion was from the shorting of the generators after coming into contact with water and there was no power being supplied to the engines.
Water continued to enter the ship and soon reached the ventilation hole. It got in through this hole and into the waste disposal tank. Since the valves that were meant to close the holding tank had been removed, the water then rose the pipes and started to rise within the ship, and soon it was spilling out through the showers, the toilets as well as the drains.
At this time, it was game over and there was no way to save the Oceanos. Perhaps before we continue it would help you to learn coast guard requirements for boats over 16 feet.
The unsuspecting passengers
The crew became aware of the fate of the Oceanos and they all began to flee in a complete panic. They even forgot to close the potholes on the lower deck which is the standard emergency procedure policy.
At this time, the passengers were still not aware of what was happening to the ship up until the time that they saw the water flooding at the lower deck. There were reports that by the time the passengers were aware of what was going on, Captain Avranais and the crew were already preparing to depart and didn’t seem at all concerned about their passengers’ safety.
Nearby vessels that received the SOS from the Oceanos and came straight in to help. Then came the Navy and Airforce from South Africa that spends upwards of 7 hours in a massive rescue effort.
16 helicopters were part of the rescue and took the remaining passengers to the Hole in the Wall and The Haven which is located south of Coffee Bay. The rescue mission was successful and all 571 people were saved.
The Oceanos kept taking in water and by 15.30 the next day, the great ship finally went under. It was her bow that dived first, hitting the depths at 92 meters with the stern remaining visible. Then later the Oceanos disappeared and rested almost perpendicular to the coastline.
After about a week, there was a team consisting of 32 members that came to document the sinking of the Oceanos. Five experienced divers one of which was the well-known Rehan Bouwer tried diving down to the Oceanos but could only make two successful dives of which were only a few minutes long.
Where the great ship lay
The Oceanos dive is for the technical diver and lies between 75m and 97m on the west of the Agulhas current around 5km offshore. The Agulhas is known to be the most powerful current in the world’s waters.
Some divers have reported the current being so strong that it completely rips the dive mask and dive regulator off the diver’s face. Those that have tried diving at this location will advise that only the best technical divers should explore the Oceanos wreck.
The 32-member crew that had come to investigate and document the Oceanos gave up and decided it was best to use a remote camera to get the footage they were looking for.
Now since that the Oceanos sunk, it had never been fully explored under the guard of the powerful Agulhas current. However, a couple of years ago, two technical divers from South Africa, Brett Hawton, and Barry Coleman decided that the Oceanos should be revisited. They would also be joined by expert cave diver Paul Heinerth. The following is what happened.
Barry Coleman, Brett Hawton, Paul Heinerth and the Oceanos
It is without a doubt that many seasoned divers believe that the Oceanos wreck is the single most difficult wreck to dive in all the world’s waters but Barry Coleman had always wanted to give it a try.
He believed that while it is difficult to explore the Oceanos, it was not impossible. The plan was to show that with good planning and dedication, it would be possible to accomplish a seemingly impossible challenge.
Of course, there was a lot of diligence and a lot of planning that went into the expedition. There was a huge range of different information that needed to be considered at any one time both by the members of the team and the divers. Some of these included making psychological analysis alongside physical ones.
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The divers and the rest of the expedition team also had to take into account the gas mixes, the bottom times, create decompression profiles, as well as making logistical plans. These had to be set before the team got to the Hole in the Wall Hotel. Here they knew they were not going to find supportive medical facilities and technical diving infrastructures.
The divers also needed to have their diving gear at the site. These included three silent submission scooters, personal diving gear, decompression cylinders, several heliums, and oxygen cylinders, an evac helicopter, a mixed gas compressor unit as well as trained medical practitioners.
After all these things were in place, the focus now would be to prepare for the dives. The members started by meeting for a pool session where the team members got to know each other and get familiar with the equipment.
Next, they planned three preparation dives where the team performed a simulation dive. This was at Griqualand which lies 50 meters below the surface. During the dive, they practiced exchanging gas since even while they would dive down as a team, they would be using different equipment.
Barry was using a closed-circuit rebreather. Brett, on the other hand, was using a twin set open circuit back gas and also had side-mounted scuba tank cylinders with a capacity of 12 liters.
The rebreather had a single function. That of allowing the oxygen from the exhaled air to recirculate while removing all and any traces of carbon dioxide. In case the levels of oxygen went below what the diver required; it was possible to inject oxygen into the system.
This meant that the divers could use less gas with less intake of nitrogen and therefore needed little decompression. In a normal open-air scuba, exhaled oxygen does not find its way back into the system and cannot be reused since it is expelled.
It was not easy to create similar decompression profiles for both divers and took a lot of hours to calculate. Paul and Barry needed to transport the stage cylinders needed by Brett at different depths so the team stayed together and in contact with each other throughout the dive.
Finally, they managed to get the right calculations. Now it was time for the real deal, the dive into the depths for the Oceanos.
The dive team had arrived at the Hole in the Wall hotel on the Saturday of May 3. There was a reason this time was chosen for the dive as it coincided with a less powerful Algulhas current. The information, however, may have lacked a scientific basis because it was the vessels that use the area that provided the divers with this knowledge.
The information was that the Agulhas current was less powerful in May and in December. Many factors could affect how the water flows due to the current. This could be anywhere from the position of the flow, the wind, and the trapped waters at the coast.
Right on the day before the team was to make the dive, there was a strong wind from the southwest. The current was also very strong and there was a major concern among the team members.
The dive team was laying the anchor line that day to the Oceanos and noticed that the boat being used by the team didn’t seem to be moving anywhere due to the opposing forces caused by the winds.
The day of the dive
It was now Monday, May 5, the day the dive had been scheduled to take place. It was still possible to spot large swells at the horizon and the wind was still very strong. However, there was something positive about the day as the current was not as strong as the previous day.
Believing that the current would continue to go down, the team postponed the dive and decided to spend the rest of the time taking in the beautiful sites in the area. Then at 12.30, the team believed that the conditions had improved enough for the dive to happen.
In fact, by the time the team got to the position of the wreck marked by the buoys, there was no current at all. The diving team went down to the wreck using the anchor line and were back to the surface in 20 minutes. And this was after they had swum around the wreck. The three divers were able to reach a depth of 86.4 meters. All the while making use of the rebreathers.
The divers also made their way to the north of the ship where Brett posed as he took a picture with the words OKEANOZ. They then moved to the propeller, over the hull, and later to the deck.
After this, they took their scooters and headed to the bow and the bridge of the ship where they explored the penetration points which they would use on their next dive. However, they found the bridge of the ship had collapsed and there was only debris from the damage scattered in the sand.
As the divers headed to the bow of the Oceanos they found that it is also damaged which was due to hitting the ocean floor first as the ship was sinking. Then Brett hit the limit of his safe air supply and the divers had to reach the anchor line to start their ascent. They performed gas exchanges which worked without any issues or incident.
Since the conditions were so good all three divers scheduled second diving the very next day.
The second dive
The scheduled dive was not to happen the second day as the conditions in the water had deteriorated. The team used the helicopter to survey the dive area and to have a better view of the conditions. Things were not looking good especially when a shore break happened. They all decided to abort the mission and to try again the next day.
Checking the weather forecast there was a prediction of a powerful north easterly wind. This could have seriously affected the whole expedition as it would have resulted in increased flow and make the whole situation dangerous to even attempt.
Again, the team all appeared concerned and while there were a lot of resources and money that had gone into planning and making the dive possible, what was most important was the safety of all the members. That day the conditions simply did not allow the team to dive.
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But the day that followed was better than the previous two days. The chopper was used again and after making a quick check of the area, it was agreed that May 7 was an ideal day for the dive. The northeasterly winds had vanished and the current was flowing in reverse. You could see the diesel that had been flowing from the wreck since it had been laying at the sea depths and this was a clear indication that the water was calm.
Quickly and without wasting any time, the members of the team took their positions with the divers suiting up and heading to the spot. They were completely amazed at how calm the otherwise wild waters had gotten.
The divers took little time to dive under the surface while the rest of the members remained on the small boat. Some members even had fun recalling the footage from the video from the first dive and imagined it was them down there.
The team at the top could see the bubbles from the divers and then for a brief moment they disappeared. What was happening down there? Suddenly they saw bubbles and realized the diving team was okay. They had successfully entered 70 meters inside the hull of the ship. This second dive took 27 minutes and the divers came back up to the surface again.
Technical diving takes into account a lot of factors and is indeed an exact science and while it was just 3 divers that were able to see the Oceanos, it was only possible thanks to the combined effort of the rest of the team.
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Brett, Paul, and Barry made a daring dive and came out successful with two controlled dives to the Oceanos. Barry explored the dining hall area while Brett and Paul explored behind the on-deck swimming pool at the portside hall.
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The Oceanos is one wreck that will go down in history for being so difficult to dive to. The waters here are certainly not for the beginner, intermediate, and sometimes, even the expert diver and it is only the technical divers that have a chance of even considering diving here. One thing is for sure, the Oceanos is unlike any other wreck.