Friday, July 6, 2012

Finding Zen

Wreck Dives to Remember…

The Zenobia Wreck

The Zenobia ship wreck lies on the sand just off of the coastline of Larnaca in Cyprus.  It has been one of those wrecks that keep cropping up in the many diving publications, forums; and thanks the The Times newspaper, it has been listed as being one of the top ten wreck diving sites in the world.  It is now my objective to give you a dive by dive account of the best of what this amazing shipwreck has to offer.  Since we did 10 dives on her, I will give you a glimpse of my favorites and the most memorable!

The Zenobia is a dive that interests almost all wreck divers, but since it is classified as a deep dive, comes as a bit of a challenge to the inexperienced diver.  The Zenobia, Zen to her friends, has also had its fair share of negative press too.   The stigma which surrounds any wreck that sits in deep water is understandable.  Divers who venture deeper, or for longer than they are trained or experienced to do so risk injury and even death.  Since its sinking in 1980, four divers have died on the wreck.  Earlier this year, in an attempt to prevent any accidents within the limits of port waters that come under its jurisdiction, the Cyprus Port Authority were reported to have  attempted to ban all diving in these areas – which includes the Zen.  The news broke on this in April 2012, thanks to UK diving magazine Diver, who reported also that there was no ban in place after all.  This plus a heap of local publicity surrounding the proposed ban, nothing eventuated from this and local dive centres continued to take divers out to the Zenobia wreck. 

Phew!  Great news!!

This was good news for myself and Winnie as we booked to travel there in early April for a week of Zen diving!!

The MS Zenobia, begun her life in 1979 when she was built by the Kockums Varv AB shipyard in Sweden.  She was subsequently launched in Sweden as a Challenger Class Roll On-Roll Off (RO-RO) ferry.  

On 4th May 1980 she set off on her maiden voyage from Malmo, Sweden bound for Tartous, Syria.  She was loaded with 104 lorries filled with various cargo and 1 Lada car.  By 22nd May 1980 she had passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and had entered the Mediterranean.  As the Zenobia reached Athens, she was reported as having a list to her port side.  After being checked in Athens it was determined that there had been an excess of water pumped into her ballast tanks – which was removed prior to setting off for Larnaca, Cyprus.  On arrival in Cyprus on 2nd June 1980, the list had occurred again and engineers had discovered the problem as being related to the computerized ballast pumps, which were pumping too much water into the side ballast tanks.  The problem was getting worse, so she was towed out of the harbour, approximately 2km offshore, on 4th June 1980 to avoid becoming an obstacle is she sank. 

On 5th June, she was listing at 45 degrees.  After repeat requests (which were denied) to the port authorities to return the Zen to harbour, the Captain dismissed the engineers and crew.  

At 2.30am  on 7th June 1980, the MS Zenobia capsized and sunk.  It was also reported that she took over 200 million pounds worth of cargo with her, and surprisingly the vessels owners were never reported to have claimed the insurance money for this loss.  Everybody loves a good mystery…The only other losses recorded being a truck load of livestock… So, it’s a Beefy Mystery then!!! ;-)

The MS Zenobia, now lies on her port side in the sand at 42 metres below the surface.  Her shallowest point (her starboard side) sits at around 16 metres, making the Zen a very accessible dive for Open Water divers and beyond.  But honestly, this is a proper dive and it is best to set this wreck as a personal pinnacle in your diving development.  If you grow as a diver first, and are trained to dive using Enriched Air (Nitrox or EANx), have a Deep diver certification and are experienced with wreck diving and have received training into proper wreck diving techniques – this is an awesome wreck to aim for!

The Zen has it all.  If you’re a technical diver (like I am) you can really experience this wreck dive and enjoy diving on every area of this shipwreck.  Seriously, if you like deep wreck photography you will love the lines of this fully intact wreck, plus the light that surrounds you will give you awesome shots (I hope ours do it justice).  If you like long penetrations, exploring and trying to piece together the wreck from the wreckage up…this dive has it.  I’m talking long maze-like dives through the various cargo decks, chain lockers, the bridge, cafeteria, accommodations, the main lift/elevator shaft and of course – the engine room.

Now, a word of advice here:  If you are serious about the Zen, and you really want to see this wreck and get value for money, then you better seek out a good dive operator.  Cyprus has many dive operators to choose from, but be warned do your research!  Winnie and I spent months deciding who we would give our hard earned cash to, and after many emails and questions, one operator stood proud of the pack.  One operator appeared to have the experience, the knowledge and more importantly – the set up to suit our needs.  We opted for, and we were glad we did, Alpha Divers.  They took care of everything for us.

The Zenobia wreck dive can also be enjoyed by the recreational diver too, but that is NOT what I am going to talk about.  I am going to talk about how good the Zen is for tec divers…so, once again:
“Lets Tec!!”

Winnie and I landed in Larnaca on Friday 13th April 2012 and were greeted by Sam, one of the Alpha Divers staff members.  A short ride back to town and we were dropped off at our accommodation.  We had come to an arrangement with Chris Martin (owner of Alpha), that we would rent his staff accommodation (since we were on a tight budget).  He warned it wasn’t plush but was “functional”.  Who cares, it was only to sleep in.  To cut a long story short the place was luxury (movies on usb, big flat TV, kitchen and all the stuff we’d need.  We struck gold with this one!

SO, after a good nights’ sleep we got up and walked the 2 minute walk to the dive centre.  Alpha Divers have a well set up, well maintained dive centre.  The have a philosophy at Alpha:

“We are a diver respectful dive centre…”

They really do cater for any level of diver, and understand that wherever you are in your diving journey, it is a personal thing – so they make the experience personal to you – NOW that is refreshing.  At this point I also want to let you know that the Alpha Divers boat is fantastic.  It is clean, well maintained and again it looks almost brand new.  It is a spacious vessel with room for 20 recreational divers and I’d say 12-15 Tec divers with full gear.  Very nice!

After setting up our gear – I was using Twin Faber 12 Litre Cylinders, which looked almost brand new, filled with EANx 28 to allow for a longer dive before required decompression.  This is a standard gas with Alpha (unless your diving requires specific gases which they will cater for), and since they are specialists regarding the Zen, we went along with the flow on this trip.  EANx 28 yields a maximum depth of 40m using a PO2 of 1.4.  So, unless you plan to dive in the sand you will not be at any risk.  Although, saying that some divers (not us) use a PO2 of 1.5 which actually allows you to dive as deep as 43m.  At 42m your PO2 using EANx 28 is 1.456.  But for divers like Winnie and I, who pride themselves on sticking to standards (therefore PO2 1.4), we just stayed off of the sand and monitored our depth…plus most of the dives were planned in the 35-38m range.  Another thing to pay attention to, when building up to this type of diving is to start to understand your SAC (Surface Air Consumption) rate – the rate at which you breathe gas.  This allows you to effectively plan for your dive in terms of your gas requirements and reserves.  If , like most tec divers, you work to a rule of thirds you should plan to use a third of your gas for the descent and bottom part of the dive and a third of your gas for your ascent and any subsequent decompression.  This leaves you with a final third of your gas that is purely for emergencies (should they arise).  But none of this is possible without understanding of how to calculate consumption rates, and gas volumes which are taught to you during the PADI Tec 40/45/50 Diver level courses.

I was using my standard tec diving equipment of dual Dive Rite Classic EXP wing, Apeks XTX200 Regulators, Dive Rite SPG all bolted together with my travel friendly Dive Rite Transpac II using Dive Rite’s Stabiliser Plates.  I was wearing my awesome Waterproof W1 Semi-Dry Wetsuit, (5mm thick) and I had my Halcyon Tec Shorts to stow my dive plans and accessories!  I was using my Suunto Vytec DS dive computer and my UWatec Digital 330 Bottom Timer (my backup).  On some of the dives I would be taking my ever so slightly cumbersome Canon 500D DSLR camera, with strobe.  Winnie had her Canon Ixus 860 with her on all dives (the luxury of a small compact!).
Full External Orientation Dive: Max Depth: 40m

Our guide for the first day was Sam who had picked us up at the airport, so it was good to have spent the time previously getting acquainted leaving more time to talk diving.  Dive 1 was not a technical dive, but was to prepare us and give us a good opportunity to get familiar with Zen – she is a fairly large vessel and this dive gives you that perspective!  Sam informed us that we were the only divers qualified to do the dives we had in store for our week of diving, and that we would be diving together and that we would be diving with Chris Martin for the deeper, more technical dives as the week progressed.

The dive starts with a short descent down a dedicated shot line to the starboard side of the Zen, at approximately her mid-ships.  From there we headed to the stern to see the intact Starboard Propeller.  

From there we headed down past the rudder and hovered above the sand at approximately 40m.  After a brief gas check, narcosis checks and some “Okays” to our guide, we headed to a pile of trucks that had fallen from the ship’s deck onto the sand.  

The really cool thing about this is that you can actually swim through the lines of trucks, passing between their tyres.  As you swim past these trucks, you can see the new life these old mechanical beasts have had created for them by Mother Nature.  Lots of wreckage means lots of artificial reef growth!  Also, you can see the detailed mechanical workings of the engines and drive shafts of these trucks – which is awesome!  Once we had swum through the belly-up trucks we passed over a pile of broken up crates.  Some of them had Eggs inside of them, and believe it or not, the eggs were still intact and kind of smelly!

Having seen enough trucks, crates and eggs in the sand we headed back onto the Zen.  I did at that moment feel a slight nostalgic twang in my belly which reminded me of being a child playing with my toy cars on the beach in Cornwall, that and the reminder of smelly sand filled egg sandwiches!  Happy times all round!  Back on the wreck, we cruised over to the outer upper car deck where the “cattle truck” resides.  As you glide effortlessly over the cargo area of the cattle truck you cannot miss the broken bones from animals lost at sea over three decades ago.  I didn’t hang around there too long!

After departing the cattle grave (as I call it), I made another one of my routine checks of the time, depth and gas.  All good with this and a few more “Okays” to Sam and we were headed in the direction of the Zen’s Bow.  

We swam from the outer upper cargo deck over the forecastle of her to the Bow, turning and swimming up onto her starboard side once more.  As we were now reaching the no-decompression limit of this dive we headed back to the shot.  On the way I took the opportunity to take a sneak peak at the canteen, accommodation and bridge through their relative starboard openings/windows/port-holes, before heading back up the shot line and ending the dive. 

First Penetration Dive: Max Depth: 39m

I have to say that if you are not into deep, dark, overhead environments or you don’t like the thought of entering a 32 year old ship wreck, the first penetration may ease your nerves.  If this doesn’t then you should not venture any further (or at all).  The first penetration of the Zen starts with a short descent from the boat down the shot to the mid-ships.  Upon reaching depth, a narcosis, gas check and a lamp check later we suddenly find ourselves staring into the Bridge, where all of the action takes place!  

Passing into the bridge you can see the silhouettes and shapes of a command centre and controls kiosks placed around the windows.  The windows let in a large amount of natural light, which makes for some really interesting photography.  The sun bursting through the windows can blind your attention to the amazing details of the bridge so focus instead on what is inside!  

A few moments later, we exited the bridge which was carpeted with a funky red paisley pattern!  As we moved from the bridge via a forward and starboard window, we made our way back into the wreck via another opening that led us to the canteen.

Entering the canteen it is important to be aware of cables, pipes and supports that have fallen during the years underwater.  Be prudent and avoid entanglement, focus on being streamlined, swimming with precise buoyancy control to make your penetrations of the wreck a little more efficient and safe!

Inside the canteen you can see the food service areas and large food preparation surfaces, in place but on their sides.  If you cannot picture the scene, simply turn your gaze 90 degrees towards the ocean floor.  You will see the canteen and may even begin to picture it in use – which makes for more interesting memories of ferry crossings to France on family summer holidays!

The canteen leads through a doorway to a corridor that takes you to the accommodation area of the ship.  You pass a bathroom and even get a glimpse of the toilets!  Swimming along the corridor there are many openings in the “floor” that once were walls or partitions between cabins.  

I actually swam inside the rooms whilst Winnie swam along the corridor – which was really cool.  This also gave me a lot of opportunity to be creative with my camera.  As you pass through this section of the wreck it is totally enclosed, and there are lots of things to look at, but also things like cables, bits of wall or doors, bits of accommodation furnishing and so on that can cause entanglement or entrapment if you lose sight of your focus.  So, be careful.  It is an amazing way to see the inside of the wreck.  The end of the corridor leads you to a large opening into the outside world again, easily seen from about half-way, by the distinct blue sunlit ocean square in the darkness.

This dive can be kept short to avoid decompression obligations, but to complete the dive that we planned and executed took around an hour with around 20 minutes of decompression (based on gradient factors of 30/80).  We made a deep stop after passing from the corridor to the open ocean at around 25m, for 2 minutes and another short deep stop at 18m as we ascended towards the starboard side at the mid-ships.  

From there we made stops at 3 metre increments from 15m to 3m.  After all deco was complete we left the shot line and made our way under the boat to its ladder.  We made the last 3m ascent in around 3 minutes slowing our ascent down to around 1m per minute to stay nice and safe.  Another really exciting dive!

Penetrating the Car Decks: Max Depth: 40m

This type of penetration is NOT for the faint of heart, and is NOT for the inexperienced divers.  These penetrations are serious dives. You must be a competent diver with accomplished mastery of buoyancy, various fining styles, gas management and proper training.  Experience is everything when you get down into the dark places of a deep wreck.

That said a recreational viewing of the upper car deck is possible and serves as a nice build up dive – a teaser! If you want to see the inside of the Zen for real, you will want to explore all of the car decks.

The Car Deck Penetrations took place over three different decompression dives, each dive being around 38-40m in depth, with deco lasting around 20 minutes – each with similar profiles, so I shan’t bore you with all the details.

Upper Car Deck   

The UCD can be accessed very easily via the open mid-ships, via the cattle grave.  As we entered the rear of the upper car deck, the ambient light dimmed but stayed on until we reached around a third of the way in.  As we weaved through the trucks and wreckage, I couldn’t help but notice the tyres looked in remarkable condition.  I allowed my mind to expand on this concept….we all need to be more aware of where our trash ends up.  We really don’t want it ending up in the oceans - mess from shipwrecks often cannot be avoided but our trash is another story…. 

Anyways, Project Aware aside, the exhilaration I was experiencing as I swam between trucks, squeezing between truck cab and truck trailer was an experience unlike any other I’ve had in diving.  

I being the more experienced diver in our group, was diving at the rear, following Winnie who was following our amazing guide Chris Martin.  As we weaved and squeezed we were working our way forward to a lift/elevator.  As we approached the lift shaft you could see a glimpse of the beautiful blue ocean peaking into the darkness….amazing.

We each entered the lift shaft, one after another.  I hung back on this part of the dive, knowing that I would prefer to swim up the shaft solo.  That was it, awesomeness in a can!  Passing up a lift shaft, narrow, covered in silt and reef growth with nobody in front of me was amazing.  The view was crystal clear and as I moved along the shaft I took the opportunity to pause at each “stop” to peak inside the broken lift doors and view the Zen’s hidden labyrinth of secret unexplored rooms…or so I thought!

Middle Car Deck

The MCD is a stunning dive, culminating in a short visit to an air pocket deep inside the wreck.  This penetration takes a while to complete.  It is completely overhead, completely pitch black darkness and one of the coolest experiences….ever.

The Middle Car Deck is entered near to the mid-ships of Zenobia.  To begin this penetration we headed past more trucks, tyres and cargo wreckage.  As we weaved around these there were more hazards in the dark than when we were in the UCD.  

This time there were damaged ceilings, hanging tarpaulins, dangling wires and pipes, thicker silt and some really orange rust that hung in the air like a fog.  On this dive it was really important to minimize fin kicks, maintain a horizontal streamlined position and to keep our distance between us.

I actually took my camera on this dive, hoping to obtain some video footage of the penetration, but due to a serious lack of lighting, my videos were fairly dark with the occasional glimpse of wreckage and Winnie’s white and purple fins!  However, it allowed me to slow things down and really soak up the scenes unfolding before me as I glided through the deck.  More trucks, more tarps and pneumatic coils hanging from the trucks, which had slid down the deck to the deepest point.  The space inside the deck was minimal, we were squeezing along the “floor” of the wreck (which was actually our right hand wall) with its parking lines and markers still etched in brightly coloured paint – now serving a new purpose!  After just a few moments, the car deck seemed to empty, and the space opened up.  Although it was now a swim in pitch black darkness.  It sounds crazy, but the darkness really gives you time to focus on your technique and visualisation of improving it.  We teach visualization during buoyancy courses and advanced open water training, so by the time you get this far inside…its quite nice reflect introspectively whilst looking into the darkness, guided only by the beam from your lamp.  A truly inspirational 5-10minutes!  After this we begun to see more trucks and more Goodyear tyres…and finally a testament to longevity, you see the bright blue Lada car, parked in a real time capsule 40m beneath the sea.  The Lada was originally from the former Yugoslavia – its secret given up by its “YU” bumper sticker.  What a way to reflect on that car’s history!

Shortly after this you rise up a little and pass through a hatch near to the ceiling of the car deck.  This hatch being maybe a 1metre by 1metre hole is a tight squeeze – would be awesomely easy on a sidemount configuration!  Passing into the hatch we had an opening just large enough to stand up in, heads above the surface!  Now at that depth, staying too long is not advised – whether it be the pressure on your vocal chords or a slightly helium based air in the pocket? I don’t know, but your voice goes very squeaky!  Winnie and I did not hang around for long.  As we moved from here it was another very small hatch to exit the air pocket, followed by another narrow dog-leg passageway to exit to the open ocean.  

This was yet another top notch penetration dive with our Zenobia specialist Chris Martin from Alpha Divers.

Lower Car Deck

To enter the LCD of Zenobia you must enter via the pilot’s hatch in her starboard side.  This full penetration was very dark, very silty and could be very easy to lose your way if you do not follow wreck diving protocols.

The entrance from the pilot’s hatch required a small tumble turn into the deck, which was a nice way to start the dive.  Once inside the Zen, with all checks made and “okayed”, we moved deep into the darkness.  

The lower car deck is not visited very often, due to its complex nature and list of potential risks.  Chris mentioned that he is the only operator who guides divers in the “actual” lower car deck – a lot of other centres take you to the lower part of the MCD and call it the LCD….We were glad to have been with the expert on this dive.  The lower car deck has more trucks, cargo and narrow passageways – you are nearer to the keel and things tend to get tighter down there.  There’s also more junk and clutter to catch you out, so stay present on this dive!

After around 15 minutes inside the lower car deck we squeezed through a small cage into the middle car deck.  The maze of twists and turns on this dive is intense.  Follow my leader skills from preschool start to flash back in my mind as I write this post.  “Stay as close as possible and watch the person in front of you”, I remember a teacher saying that once and it came flashing back with an image of a female educator with bright red hair!  If that’s not enough to keep you reading….  Any way, staying close but not too close is the objective on this dive.  Follow the guide watch out for silting the person behind you and watch out for obstacles in the darkness!  I loved this dive, especially since we found that we were going to exit via the lift shaft again!  Again I intentionally hung back, to say farewell to another fantastic wreck dive, prior to starting my deco.

The One Percent (1%) Dive: Max Depth: 40m

 What the heck is a one percent dive?  Well, let me explain. 

Only 1% of divers, who visit the Zen each year; who are experienced enough and who are given the opportunity to by their respective dive operators get to dive on this next dive.

The Engine Room

This was a very interesting and challenging dive.  I love it when you get both of these elements in a tec dive.  As I mentioned, the Zen has a 1% dive and this was it.  It was a real privilege and an honour to be given this opportunity – thanks Chris!  The Engine room comes with a warning:

Diving inside the Engine Room is dangerous.  The silt is thick and will kill visibility if disturbed, so fin with care.  Breathe with caution too, as your exhalations will send bubbles surging to the roof of this potential metal tomb, the bubbles will unsettle a rust like you have never seen; bright orange and thick enough to seriously diminish visibility.

These factors combined with lots of hanging cables, broken pipes and engine manifolds, ducting, and general wreckage gives the dive a slightly ominous tone!  I found this challenge to be a major factor in why I waited so many years to dive the Zen.  All these years of development culminating in this one dive.  A Good Divers Main Objective Is To Live… 

The dive begins at the mid-ships of the Zenobia, entering the engine room through a doorway, which has quite a lot of rubble and wreckage obstructing the entrance opening.  On passing into the engine room, the first thing you see is the massive hulk and bulk of cylinders that look like boilers or lubrication tanks.  Next, you weave through the network of engine parts and venture deep inside the engine room.  Now in the moments that followed in the dark of the engine room, I remember the warnings and visualize my performance….

I look up, and see a fog of orange – DAMN Bubbles…this is when CCR diving would be a distinct advantage….someday I will return on CCR, someday.  Any way orange fog… no chance of seeing Winnie or Chris, I start to plan a route through the network of pipes and tight squeezes, avoiding the orange cloud and keeping half an eye on a distant set of 2 lamp lights.  Seriously, I was working my way through this wreck solo!  An adventure, exhilarating and challenging…things were looking good.  I was incredibly calm and clear headed – unlike any other normal 40m dive, I felt like I was on Trimix!  After about 5 to 10 minutes I had weaved and squeezed myself back behind Winnie, and the orange cloud was behind me.  This was absolutely awesome diving.  Having the opportunity to visit the engine room, then having the one in million chance (yes I see it as a positive) to explore the engine room and then slip back in line gave me a sense of personal pride and success. To meet a challenge like that can send you two ways, I am experienced enough to meet the test and overcome it, others may not.  This is why the engine room is a 1% Zen Dive.  I will never forget this diving experience, and I will carry it always on every dive, plus I will utilize the memory of this dive in my teaching when I return to Sydney in a few weeks time.

Winnie and I also did some other dives on the Zenobia, including 2 self-guided solo penetration dives that allowed us to really get a personal experience of this amazing wreck dive.

I hope that my trip report and summaries of some of the diving has been read with as much interest and enthusiasm as I have had writing this article.  I have never been so excited to report on a wreck dive.  To all of our readers, I thank you for taking the time to read this post.

After diving the SS President Coolidge, in Vanuatu in November 2010, I thought I would not find another wreck to match it. 

I was wrong.

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