My Story: Diving the 'M/V Shelly'

A first non-military descent to the site of an August wreck off Haifa yielded some astounding results.

September 20, 2007 11:58
My Story: Diving the 'M/V Shelly'

dive shelly . (photo credit: dan ashkenazi)

When one thinks of diving in Israel, one thinks of the Red Sea in Eilat with its beautiful reefs and abundant colorful wildlife. Shipwrecks, with their rusty hulls, sharp, broken edges and often troubled past, are not what typically comes to mind. Yet, in the Mediterranean Sea directly off the coast lie more than 20 wrecks already explored and many more waiting to be found and documented. Coral reefs are generally found in warm waters and temperate climates, in shallow depths where both light and nourishment are plentiful. This makes them ideal for scuba divers looking for a relaxing, comfortable visit to the underwater environment. Shipwrecks, on the other hand, make no such allowances toward their visitors, and are found in all bodies of waters, whether warm and sunny or cold, dark and deep. In gloomy oceans surrounded by ripping currents, lost in near freezing inland lakes or found at the bottom of our own seas and dating from as far back as Phoenician times, shipwrecks are silent monuments to our history scattered throughout the world. The general cargo vessel M/V Shelly is one such monument. On August 30, it was still in operation, carrying its cargo - on this voyage a load of gravel to be used laying roads - and anchored not more than three kilometers from the entrance to the Port of Haifa. On board were 13 men, mostly Slovaks and Ukrainians. The M/V Shelly was the property of Caspi Cargo Lines of Haifa, flying both flag of Slovakia (where it is registered) and the flag of the local port, the Israeli flag. Some time around 10 p.m. on August 30, the M/V Shelly was unexpectedly struck along its starboard side by the bow of the Salamis Glory, a Cypriot cruise ship more than six times its volume, outward bound and carrying hundreds of passengers. The cruise ship was accompanied by a pilot boat as is customary for ships of this size leaving port, yet it failed to notice the M/V Shelly, driving its immense bow into the body of the anchored vessel. It is suspected that the Salamis Glory suffered a steering malfunction; no fault has yet been found with the crew of either ships. The much larger cruise ship must have plowed through the hull in seconds, breaking apart the cargo hold, decks, cranes, machinery and crew's quarters. The M/V Shelly sank in only 15 minutes. Eleven of its crew managed to escape by jumping ship and were rescued within the hour, some by the striking ship itself and some by Israel Navy ships. Two crew members, the 30-year-old first mate from Indonesia and a 22-year-old sailor from Ukraine, drowned. Their bodies were found the next day by navy divers inside the ship, where they were apparently trapped when it went down. On September 4, my partner Dan Ashkenazi and I led a team of divers on the first non-military descent to the wreck. Unlike normal scuba diving, which is safely enjoyed by scores of vacationers each year, wreck diving is considered a highly specialized, skills-focused and gear-intensive variety of the sport. This is especially true when diving the inside of wrecked ships, a type of diving known as technical or penetration diving. Additional factors such as depth, current, temperature and active shipping lanes all add their own complications and risk to the sport. Formalized training for wreck diving is scarce, and most divers who pursue this activity go through cave diving training in underwater caves in Florida, France or Mexico and adapt the techniques and materials learned for use inside local underwater caves of steel. On this day we've gathered 14 such divers on board the dive boat Typhoon operating out of Haifa. These are all experienced divers who have dived with us before, some for years. As planned they all show up at 7 a.m. with their equipment already prepared and checked out. We quickly and efficiently load the boat and begin the short ride out to the dive site. Our skipper, Yigal Yanai, has already taken care of the paperwork and permits needed to dive the site. Twenty short minutes go by and we are there, anchored, and ready to dive the wreck of the M/V Shelly. My dive buddy will be Uzi Krieger from Jerusalem. We are already fully kitted up and being assisted by fellow divers Gal and Ori as we slowly walk toward the railing and the opening through which we'll jump into the water. Our gear consists of three scuba tanks each, as opposed to the single tank normally carried by divers. This will allow us both a safety margin when diving inside the body of the wreck and the ability to stay submerged longer. We also have with us an underwater video camera and lighting system and assorted pieces of specific penetration diving equipment, such as reels containing a fine, thin white rope known as "cave line" which we lay inside the wreck to ensure our ability to return to the point of entry. All this equipment is heavy and cumbersome on dry land and losing one's balance is all too easy, but thankfully there are only gentle waves and the ship is steady. We look out into the water trying to judge the visibility, currents and distance to our planned point of descent to which we'll need to swim. There is still a fine layer of machine oil on the water's surface, evidence of the M/V Shelly's recent demise. Finally, we jump in. Descending toward the ship's bow and main deck and quickly assessing the environment, we see that conditions are in our favor. There is almost no underwater current to fight against, visibility is excellent at nearly 15 meters, the oil slick does not penetrate below the water's surface and the wreck lies on the bottom, intact and upright, in warm water only 20 meters deep. This is a new wreck and must be treated with caution, its structure and internals still shifting and unstable. We begin our dive by slowly gliding over the bow and main deck. Signs are everywhere that this ship was still operational only 96 hours ago. There are ropes everywhere, cranes, posts, pieces of equipment. The masts are still intact, poking through the water's topside in such shallow depths. Lifeboats deployed automatically but not used during the sinking hover above us, skewed and damaged, still partly tied to the vessel. Though considered small by shipping standards, this ship is still more than 80 meters long and its white four-story bridge towers over us. We drop down toward the forward port side, and Krieger videos the ship's name painted on its hull. This side of the vessel shows the least amount of damage and is completely intact, giving no hint of the incredible force with which the Salamis Glory struck. We circle the wreck, reaching its stern and massive prop and rudder, through which a diver can easily swim. I notice a book and a videotape which have ended up on the sandy sea bed after the sinking. Krieger spots an engineering manual of some kind in what appears to be Russian. We film them but leave them where they lie. Turning round the stern toward the starboard side, we begin to see the damage caused by the collision. There is a huge V-shaped part missing from the hull from the bottom to the top railing, where the bow of the Salamis Glory plowed through the M/V Shelly's plating. Sharp, already rusting edges line the places where the hull was torn. Gravel from the cargo hold spills out through the gash, which is more than three meters wide in places. We pause to appreciate the damage and take some more video, then ascend back to the deck and down into the cargo hold. It is filled with white gravel, creating a layer of milky water through which one cannot see. We swim between the loads of aggregate material which can still shift and potentially bury a diver. The beams holding up the cargo-hold ceiling are few and bent or broken. We decide not to endure any further risk here and abandon the cargo hold in favor of exploring the crew's quarters. Ascending to the catwalk circling the bridge and crew's quarters, we locate an entry point and begin our swim inside. Krieger is playing out line from a reel which will guide us back to our entry point and I follow about a meter behind, being careful not to disturb the surroundings with my body or fin kicks. The area is completely broken down with pieces of furniture, broken railing, personal belongings, books and blankets floating randomly in the still, clear water. Our powerful underwater flashlights light the way. In this cramped space we descend along a flight of stairs, taking care not to entangle ourselves in our own line. Uzi turns right and I with him, into a tight corridor leading into more rooms. We see the Slovakian flag with its three stripes of red, blue and white still attached to the ceiling of one of the rooms, a mute reminder of a sailor who occupied this space. Turning round, myself now in the lead, we pause as we notice a source of ambient daylight and decide to head toward it. It turns out to be an entrance, but not the one we came in through. We agree to exit through it, tying off our line and leaving it in place for Shlomi and Nimrod, another pair of divers now arriving, to use when swimming through. Our dive complete, we now ascend to the surface and climb the ladder to the dive boat. Not 10 minutes pass and all 14 divers are on deck, and we head back to port to pack up our gear and begin the three-hour drive home. The time spent on the road allows me to reflect on this dive - the colors and scenery, all vivid and clear, are quite a contrast to most shipwrecks I've dived which have spent decades rusting on the sea floor. The feeling that this is an outstanding dive site blends in with the evidence of the tragedy which has occurred and taken the lives of two men, and stays with me throughout the following days. The writer is a partner in Aqua Dreams, dedicated to advancing technical diving and training in Israel.

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