Nick van der Walt

Divers go deep for unexplored UAE wrecks

Technical diving to depths of 100 metres and more is a dangerous endeavor that takes special equipment 
Photo Antonie Robertson

By Colin Simpson - The National

They have to go deep, these divers, sometimes 100 metres or more below the surface.

Conditions can be bad down there, so dark they sometimes do not know they have found what they are looking for until the darkness opens suddenly revealing the prize: an unmistakable V-shape of a shipwreck.

"It's just an absolute blast when you see one of the wrecks," said Nick van der Walt, a diver from New Zealand.

"You go down and you go through these layers of water and then you get a dark layer of plankton, and you go through that and then it's like a theatre curtain opening as you look down on the wreck with the divers' torch beams flashing across it."

Dr van der Walt is part of an informal group of a dozen divers in Dubai - a group that includes two women, a teacher and an airline pilot - working on a project that would see them find and dive every deep shipwreck in the Gulf of Oman, off the coast of Fujairah up to the tip of Musandam.

The project, launched back in November 2009 through team leader, Bill Leeman, requires them to dive deeper than conventional equipment can take them, more than double the typical 40 metres below the surface.

These wrecks lie at 100 metres or more, requiring technical diving that involves adept skills, a special mix of gases and complicated equipment.

"Currently there are five brand new wrecks that had never been dived before, which we've dived, and there are three or four left that we haven't found yet," said Mr Leeman.

"When you're the first one to see one of these wrecks, and to physically touch it, it's fantastic. You've achieved something, you've found it, you've dived it, and then everybody can go after you."

They are able to go so deep because they breathe mixtures of helium, oxygen and nitrogen, known as trimix.

The wreck-finders are amateurs with day jobs, "to pay for the diving", said Mr Leeman.

A five-day boat trip, the usual length of their wreck excursions, costs about Dh4,000 per person. They have all undergone a considerable amount of special training, led by Mr Leeman, who was trained in the UAE as a technical diving instructor.

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