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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Shipwreck Potpourri - Bermuda

Author: Geri Murphy
Bermuda is a tropical Atlantic island surrounded by a labyrinth of coral reefs that rise up to the sea's surface. Upon those reefs lie the remains of more than 300 sunken ships, one of the world's largest collections of historic wrecks in shallow water. As a result, the island has become a magnet for vacationing divers who love the thrill of shipwreck exploration and enjoy maritime history.
Bermuda's waters are a veritable undersea museum. History comes alive as you swim among the steam boilers, ship's propellers, canons and other artifacts of bygone eras. Awaiting visitors are more than 35 diveable shipwrecks from a dozen countries that span four centuries of maritime history. These wrecks include everything from Civil War blockade-runners to French and British warships to an array of steamers and freighters.
Wind direction and sea swells can sometimes deny access to certain dive sites, but since Bermuda is completely encircled by wrecks, there is always a calm side where wreck diving is good.
When the wind blows from the northeast or northwest, Bermuda's dive boats head for the protected south shore, where the wrecks are very close to land and surface conditions remain relatively flat. Here divers will discover a trail of six sunken ships that offer an amazing variety of wreck experiences.
The South Shore Six
One of Bermuda's most mysterious shipwrecks is the Mary Celestia, a Confederate blockade-runner that operated under multiple identities to confuse Union spies. Today, this 225-foot ship lies in 55 feet of water with one of her paddlewheel frames standing upright like a miniature ferris wheel.
The Minnie Breslauer was one of the unluckiest ships to sink in Bermuda waters. This 300-foot, steel-hulled English steamer was on her maiden voyage between Portugal and New York with a cargo of wine, dried fruit and bales of cork when she hit a reef. An attempt to back the ship off the reef resulted in its sinking. The wreck sits one mile off the south shore in depths ranging from 25 to 70 feet.
The Hermes is considered Bermuda's most popular wreck dive because she is fully intact, sitting upright on the bottom in 80 feet of crystal-clear water. She is the perfect picture of a classic shipwreck. Originally designed as a buoy tender, this 165-foot, steel-hulled vessel eventually was abandoned at a Bermuda dock before being scuttled as an artificial reef.
One of Bermuda's oldest wrecks still visited by divers is the three-masted, square-rigged Virginia Merchant. Used by the Virginia Company of England as a commercial cargo vessel, she carried colonists to the New World and returned with valuable cargoes of tobacco. While attempting to round the western end of Bermuda, the tiny sailing ship was struck by a severe storm and driven onto the reef. Today, the ship's ballast stones can be found on the sand bottom at 40 feet, 250 yards off Whale Bay, surrounded by beautiful coral archways and crevices loaded with reef fish.
The King was an old U.S. Navy tugboat that was brought to Bermuda and converted into a treasure salvage vessel. Built in 1941, the little tug measured 55 feet in length with a 13-foot beam. She was never used for salvage but instead converted into a dive boat. In 1984, the King was donated by a local salvage diver as an artificial reef and was intentionally sunk by South Side Scuba. She now rests in 65 feet of water, fully intact, tilted to her starboard side, with her bow pointing upward.
In 1915, the English steamer Pollockshields ran up on the reef while carrying a cargo of World War I ammunition. The wreck lies in shallow water and is now a jumble of steel plates, beams and ribs.
The south shore six are just a sample of Bermuda's wreck heritage. Accessing these and other wrecks depends on the direction and strength of the wind and ocean swells. Bermuda's dive operators are experts at reading the local weather and will always take their customers to the wrecks where conditions are best that day.
Bermuda also offers superb reef diving with exceptionally healthy coral reefs, coral grottos, tunnels, archways and caves. The reefs and wrecks are populated with reef fish and marine life varieties seen in the Caribbean, plus some indigenous to Bermuda.

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