How do I become a wreck diver?

Shipwrecks are all about history and the romance of the sea. They offer excitement and adventure to thrill-seekers. They also appeal to fish fanatics as they provide excellent gathering points for marine life.

It is not surprising therefore that many divers get a little obsessed by wreck diving. However, if you are thinking of going inside these sunken ships, be aware that wreck diving carries additional risks and requires special skills.

The risks involved in wreck diving include getting lost, losing visibility, getting stuck or becoming entangled but mainly these all come down to the same thing – TIME.

Time is the real problem because of your limited air supply. So, the more air you have to breathe, the more time you have to deal with a problem and the less risk you take. This is why wreck divers always plan their dives in detail and work out in advance how much air they will use. They carry a minimum of two cylinders, usually connected by a manifold valve system with independent regulators so they can always get access to all their air even if one of the regulators fails.

They must also have the discipline to remain calm when something goes wrong and have the training to know how to respond immediately and instinctively to an emergency, because delay, panic or losing control of their breathing rate will all reduce the time they have available.

Seawater and marine life start eating away at a ship from the moment it sinks. So when divers enter a wreck, they are passing through a disintegrating environment in delicate balance. In an older shipwreck the metalwork can become paper-thin and, as the divers pass through, their bubbles can bring fragments of rusted metal raining down. Just a gentle touch can cause damage to the fragile structure.

If a shipwreck is open and current flows down the passageways easily then there will not be a lot of sand and silt inside. However, if the wreck is still mostly closed and there is little water movement, then a lot of silt can build up over time. To new wreck divers, this may look like a solid layer of earth when they first go in, but they quickly find out that, as soon as they disturb the silt with a fin or a careless hand, visibility inside the wreck becomes very bad, very fast.

The silt is more liquid than solid and, once disturbed, it hangs in the water for a long time, making it impossible for divers to see where they are going. Even powerful lights are no help. This is why wreck divers need to learn to avoid stirring up the environment by moving very slowly and carefully, using special fin-kicks that involve minimal foot movement.

A lot of water movement in a shipwreck can bring problems too, however, as this can make it difficult for divers to control their pace, positioning and buoyancy, especially when trying to negotiate narrow corridors and stairways. This lack of control can bring them and their equipment into contact with protruding sharp bits of metal or cause them to become entangled in cables.

It is crucial for wreck divers to be absolutely sure that they can always find their way out of a shipwreck, even if their lights fail or they get silted out. Different groups use one of two very different techniques for this. Some copy cave explorers and use reels and lines to make sure they have a continuous link to their entry point. Other divers believe this is not safe as lines can easily get cut on those sharp bits of metal I mentioned before. So they use an alternative strategy called progressive penetration, whereby they explore the shipwreck little by little, memorizing each section before moving on to the next one.

So, to dive inside shipwrecks safely you need to acquire advanced personal diving skills and get plenty of practice first, under experienced supervision.

Most training agencies offer courses in diving around shipwrecks with limited penetration within what they call the light zone. This means spaces in the wreck, which allow a direct route to the surface. It is a good idea to enrol in one of these first.

Then, if you want to take your exploration further, find an experienced wreck diving instructor with one of the specialist technical diver training agencies and sign up for a full technical wreck penetration course.