The Allure of Shipwrecks

On the incomparable experience of prowling through sunken vessels.

“In wreck diving, a person could still go anywhere.”

The nicest thing you can say to a scuba diver is, “You look dead down there.” It’s a testament to the ease with which they move through the water. No bursts of air bubbles, no frenzied waving of the arms or legs. The apparent lack of effort is a sign of skill, and a tranquility more often associated with Buddhist monks. A situational one, at least—a person is often quite different underwater than they are on land. Or maybe that’s a truism? Every human is a squirming, almost-bursting bag of contradictions, and it could be diving just makes this more obvious than usual. But I digress.

A corpse-like diving technique is especially useful when wreck diving. Careless kicks of your fins are an annoyance when diving on a reef—you could bonk a fellow diver on the head or, worse, destroy a delicate living tower that may have taken centuries to grow—but such clumsiness can have more serious consequences within the confines of a shipwreck. And while gulping down frantic lungfuls of air is a good way to cut any dive short, the stakes are higher when you’re trying to navigate a claustrophobic labyrinth of metal. In short, the more a shipwreck diver mimics a dead body, the less likely they are to become one.  

Wreck diving is, above all, the art of being torn in two, and this was what first drew me to it. On one hand, a wreck diver is somebody. Somebody interesting, that is—an ordinary human who transforms into a cyborg to explore strange worlds. The ritual of dressing for a wreck dive might be the closest an average person can get to an astronaut’s preparation for space launch. There’s the pseudoerotic dance of pulling on the wetsuit, the surge of power as you click the buckles on your heavy buoyancy vest, the sense of wonder at your own body’s transformation as you stare through thick goggles at the fins on your feet and inhale a few breaths of air from the mouthpiece of the hose attached to the giant cylinder on your back. There’s a dive computer on your wrist, a knife strapped to your ankle, flashlights and reels and whistles and inflatable “safety sausages” dangling from your chest. It all makes you more than yourself. More substantial, and competent. This version of you is somebody who will go places and do things that few can imagine.

In this process of exploration and discovery, wreck diving’s other great appeal is revealed: the prospect of being nobody. You don’t have to say a word when you’re underwater. Can’t, in fact. The extent of your social obligations is exchanging a few hand signals with your fellow divers. Look over there. How much air do you have? Let’s go down. It’s hard to even remember the basics of your life on land when you’re inside a wreck. Creeping through the halls of a perilous tomb is much more immediate. Left alone in silence, your mind gets curious. The surface lies to the left, but what if you went right? What might be down that dim passageway? You’re so close—why not go have a look? You could forget about the land and just go see.

“This is the thing that can get me back.”

In the far western reaches of the Philippines there’s a small island called Coron. It perches between the Sulu and South China Seas, just north of the much larger island of Palawan. Coron sparkles like an emerald in the crystal tropic waters, but the island itself is not particularly notable next to its neighbors. Instead, Coron’s main attraction is the fleet of World War II Japanese shipwrecks beneath its bay. 

The ships were sunk in 1944 by Helldiver bombers launched from a U.S. aircraft carrier. The long distance raid required a round trip of 340 miles. Since the normal combat range of the Helldiver was just 276 miles, the raid caught the Japanese by surprise. The entire fleet of 12 ships was sunk before they had a chance to flee—the fight was over in about 15 minutes. After the war, Japanese naval officials told their American interrogators, “We thought at first that Coron Bay was safe from your carrier attacks.” They were wrong, and many men died as a result.

Today, the shipwrecks of Coron are widely regarded as some of the world’s finest wreck dive sites. Because the Japanese fleet was attacked while taking shelter near the coast, the wrecks lie in relatively shallow water, and because they’re in the Philippines, the water is much warmer than other famous wreck sites like Scotland’s Scapa Flow. Brochures of many hostels and dive shops cheerfully inform you that Forbes Traveler ranked Coron as one of the ten best spots on the planet. The fact that such a magazine does not exist doesn’t seem to bother anyone. In any case, the real Forbes has recommended Coron’s “world class diving” as a top travel destination when (if?) the current pandemic ends. 

I was unaware of Coron’s reputation the first time I set foot on the island. Although I’d been diving for several years at that point, I had stuck strictly to coral reefs. Reefs have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. These lush undersea gardens are a far cry from the cold, murky Midwestern lakes where I learned to swim as a boy. Growing up in landlocked Minnesota, I watched thousands of hours of ocean documentaries, marveling at the divers who rolled backward into a shining blue world of crabs, turtles, and wiggling reef fishes. That was the pull diving held for me: the chance to see a kind of beauty that only existed on camera for most people. 

However, a week before I landed on Coron, my sister gave me a book. It was called Shadow Divers: The True Story of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II by Robert Kurson, and I thought it looked like shit. Pure boomer bait. It had a blurb from Clive Cussler on the cover, for christ’s sake. I stuffed the book in my bag and forgot about it. But the ferry to Coron took six hours, and the battery on my iPod only lasted one. This was one of the more fortuitous equipment failures of my life.

Shadow Divers turned out to be fascinating. In 1991, an alcoholic sea captain named Bill Nagle got a tip about a mysterious underwater object off the coast of New Jersey. Nagle, who’d once been among the best wreck divers in the world,1 was a character straight out of Hollywood. The stubborn fearlessness that made him great in diving made him poorly suited for anything else, and when he wasn’t at sea he could usually be found drowning his memories in a bar called the Horrible Inn. Frequented by “bikers, fishermen, street toughs, boat mechanics, deep-wreck divers,” the atmosphere was so grimy that locals couldn’t believe “anyone could do anything indecent enough to warrant expulsion from such a place.” Somehow, Nagle managed to pull it off. He was just that kind of guy. But a bit of his old pride came back at the thought of discovering something special.

“A great diver learns to stand down his emotions. At the moment he becomes lost or blinded or tangled or trapped—that instant when millions of years of evolution demand fight or flight, and narcosis carves order from his brain—he dials down his fear and contracts into the moment, until his breathing slows, his narcosis lightens, and his reason returns. In this way he overcomes his humanness, and becomes something else. In this way, liberated from instinct, he becomes a freak of nature.”

— from “shadow divers”

Years of booze and self-loathing had left Nagle unable to dive, so he enlisted the help of a legend named John Chatterton to investigate the sunken enigma. Chatterton had been a medic in the Vietnam War whose willingness to dash into enemy fire after fallen comrades led many to question his sanity. His quixotic quest for purpose eventually led him to the world of commercial diving. This was an occupation where a day’s work might involve blowing up an underwater boulder or welding loose panels on a pipeline hundreds of feet deep. Chatterton was one of the few divers in the world skilled enough to pull off Nagle’s plan. He also belonged to an even more select club: those willing to leave their old lives behind in search of… something

The something turned out to be a Nazi U-boat—which was odd, because neither German nor American archives had any record of a sunken U-boat off the Jersey shore. Multiple dives turned up no trace of the sub’s identity, though they did cost the life of an experienced and popular diver named Steve Feldman. Wild theories were hatched about the wreck, which came to be known as the U-Who. Maybe it had been carrying some high-ranking fugitive; maybe even Hitler himself? Maybe the sub had been full of Nazi gold? At 230 feet below sea level, in the frigid and treacherous North Atlantic water, the U-Who would not surrender its secrets without a price. 

I devoured the book while perched behind the bridge of the ancient ferry, a VIP area accessed by sharing cigarettes and slugs of Tanduay rum with the crewmen. By the time we reached Coron, wreck diving seemed like the only thing worth dreaming about. “A shipwreck gave a man limitless opportunity to know himself if only he cared to find out,” Kurson wrote. “He could always press further, dig deeper, find places no one else had mastered.” When the first thing I saw after getting off the ferry was a giant poster that said ‘DIVE THE WRECKS OF CORON’, I knew the old me would not be leaving the island.

“What kind of fucking man says something’s impossible? What kind of man doesn’t go look?”

As I descended through the bright warm waters of Coron Bay, the wreck Morazan loomed in the distance. A mere 46 feet deep at its shallowest point, and a manageable 82 feet at its deepest, the Morazan was a nondescript cargo ship. Its blandness was its best attribute. On the Morazan, a novice wreck diver could learn the basics of the art with minimal risk of injury or death.

This was good, because wreck diving offers many ways to get fucked. Few of them involve sea life, contrary to popular belief. The odds of a wreck diver getting bitten by a shark or ensnared by a giant squid are exceedingly low (however, divers unlucky enough to brush against a camouflaged stonefish may experience such terrible pain that they try to cut off their own limbs.) Running out of air is a more common problem. The deeper you go, the more the air in your tank compresses—an amount that might last you an hour at shallow depths can be gone in minutes when you go deep. Excitement or fear can also rapidly deplete a diver’s air supply. The more intense the emotional state, the heavier your breathing. This poses obvious problems when you’re deep within an underwater maze.

by patrick edell

But the Morazan was an airy and forgiving wreck. In this low stakes environment—a far cry from the deathtrap of the U-Who—I learned the ABCs of wreck diving. You kept all your equipment as tight against your body as possible. A dangling hose or loose strap could easily become snagged inside a wreck. You kicked your legs like a frog to avoid disturbing the silt. You developed an instinct for which holes were big enough to wiggle through, and which would leave you stuck like Tom in Jerry’s mousehole (remember, you’ve got a tank on your back that needs a few extra inches of clearance). Most of all, you learned to be at ease in unnatural places. 

This became especially important when we moved on to deeper wrecks, like the seaplane tender Akitsushima. It was here, at a depth of around 100 feet, that I had my first brush with nitrogen narcosis. Sometimes called the martini effect, it is a peculiar phenomenon that manifests as an impairment that can take many forms. Each diver who gets “narced” has a unique reaction. Some feel pleasantly drunk, others experience intense paranoia. My first time was euphoric. The Akitsushima was more beautiful than any wreck I had dived in the beginning of the course. As I hovered in the giant gash left in her side by a Helldiver’s bomb, I gazed out at her steel arm that had once plucked up seaplanes bobbing in the waves. The visibility was poor and I could just make out its faintest silhouette. I wanted to go explore, to see what might be lying in the sand beyond the limits of my vision (and, though it did not occur to me in my nitrogen-induced bliss, perhaps my air supply as well.) If my instructor had not tapped his tank like a drum I might’ve done it. 

A few dives, a lot of theory-reading, and quiz-taking later, I had a card saying I was a certified wreck diver in the eyes of PADI, the world’s largest dive training organization. I didn’t feel like one, though. Unlike a university diploma or a liquor license, the value of a wreck diving cert is not derived from the opinion of others. If it has any value at all, it’s as a token of metis. The Greek term refers to a mixture of skill, wisdom, and cunning. A person who possesses metis has a precious gift: it can’t be bought or taught, only developed through great personal effort. After just over a week of wreck diving, I sure as hell didn’t have metis. 

So, after spending another semester as a teacher to replenish an empty bank account, I decided to go back to Coron. This time, I would train to be a professional wreck diver. I still wouldn’t be in anywhere near the same class as Chatterton—that would take years, and much greater risks—but maybe it would be the thing that made life feel less pointless. 

Since the day I’d finished Shadow Divers, I hadn’t gone more than a day or two without thinking about it. But it wasn’t Chatterton or Nagle, or even the U-Who itself, that had me obsessed. It was the Rouses: Chris and Chrissy, a father-son team who’d met the most tragic fate that can befall a diver. 

The Rouses had been invited aboard Nagle’s ship, the Seeker, for one of the many unsuccessful excursions to identify the U-Who after its discovery. Chatterton deemed them perhaps “the most formidable diving team” in the country, and believed they might be the ones to crack this unsolvable case. This was no faint praise coming from a diver as accomplished as Chatterton. His confidence was echoed by the Rouses themselves. “I’m going to identify the wreck,” said the 22-year old Chrissy. “I’m going to be the one to do it.”

But although the Rouses’ experience and expertise had few equals—Chris, the father, had even started making his own dive equipment after his excavating company went under during the Reagan Recession—their dive was doomed for two reasons. First, the Rouses were unlucky. Second, they were broke. 

At least, the Rouses were too strapped for cash to afford the breathing gas that might’ve saved their lives on the U-Who. At depths below 200 feet, nitrogen narcosis can get so intense a diver might “hallucinate, until lobsters start beckoning him by name or offering unsound advice.” This can be mitigated somewhat by the use of trimix: a custom diving gas that contains helium in addition to the standard oxygen and nitrogen. But trimix is expensive. Today a single tank can run between $150-$200, compared to $15-$20 for regular compressed air. Prices were no friendlier in the Rouses’ day.

So Chrissy Rouse was breathing regular air when he got trapped inside the U-Who. Before he died, he told medics he heard “the jungle drums” and believed a monster was trying to eat him. Chris Rouse eventually managed to free his son, but the effort exhausted their air supplies. They were forced to make an uncontrolled ascent from extreme depths. Desperate for breath, the Rouses shot upward without making the necessary stops to let the nitrogen in their blood safely dissolve. 

This is every wreck diver’s nightmare. Such an uncontrolled ascent is almost guaranteed to give a diver a severe case of decompression sickness, often called “the bends.” That is a misleadingly innocuous nickname. A diver who gets hit with the bends will be wracked by tremendous pain in every part of their body. Their blood will turn to foam as the nitrogen bubbles that accumulate in vessels and arteries while diving begin to expand. They may suffer embolisms or strokes. The reason it’s called the bends is that divers will writhe and contort themselves into grotesque shapes after taking a bad hit. Even a non-fatal hit can cause paralysis or brain damage. Many divers who’ve survived the bends have said they’d rather have drowned. Neither of the Rouses were so lucky. 

For reasons I couldn’t explain, I was more interested in the Rouses than the mystery of the U-Who.2 While Shadow Divers mentioned them only in passing, another book told their story in more detail. Written by a fellow diver named Bernie Chowdhury, The Last Dive: A Father and Son’s Fatal Descent into the Ocean Depths showed who the Rouses were above the water, and how they dreamed of being better underneath it.

Although our lives had been different in many ways, I identified with Chris Rouse. He’d been a teenage father with a high school education who married his sweetheart and, through a combination of grit and mixed fortune, clung to his little piece of the American Dream as the tides of neoliberalism swallowed everything around him. I identified with Chrissy, too—young and mostly lost, frustrated and hurt by his inability to move forward, finding comfort by doing things none of his friends could do beneath the waves.

The Rouses had gotten into diving in the mid-1980s, back when the idea of a middle class family in rural Pennsylvania owning a small airplane and taking long vacations every year wasn’t utterly preposterous. They first tried the sport for reasons that seem almost quaint today—life was just too predictable. There had to be more. Both father and son longed to explore the world. They wanted to discover something new, to be somebody. As Reaganomics took hold and their lives stagnated or declined, they turned to the water for a sense of purpose. Or maybe they just wanted to leave the burdens of the land behind.

My circumstances as the childless holder of a new, mostly-worthless bachelor’s degree in the wake of the Great Recession bore little outward resemblance to those of the Rouses. Still, I could relate to them. We’d been born into a system that said if we wanted to matter, we had to be somebody, yet there were few opportunities to do this. Life was a fight to be special; it was exhausting. Wreck diving offered a way out. You started playing the game by their rules, but there was always a chance one day you’d discover something that set you free. 

“What I do now is what I am.”

A brisk salty wind blew across the harbor on the morning of our trip to the Irako. By now I was a divemaster, responsible for guiding groups of divers through the wrecks. My job duties also included loading dozens of heavy air tanks onto the boat, which wasn’t easy with the bow lurching up and down. The captain sucked his teeth as he gauged the waves. This didn’t bode well for the visibility at the dive site—the deepwater currents were likely to be strong, cloaking the wreck in clouds of silt. 

Dive guides had a love-hate relationship with the Irako. On one hand, it was the most interesting and challenging of Coron’s wrecks. Lying almost 150 feet below sea level at its deepest point, the Irako was nearly 500 feet long and full of fascinating objects (including a bizarrely well-preserved bicycle). I once swam through the propeller shaft with two of my colleagues, an exhilarating experience that turned to terror when my fin brushed against the bottom of the cramped tube. Instantly there arose a silt-out so dense that I pressed my fingers against my own mask and saw nothing.

This was the devil’s bargain posed by the Irako: down there, small mistakes could have big consequences. The wreck was so deep that any dive worth doing required decompression stops, called “deco” in divers’ shorthand. Instead of swimming directly to the surface, divers had to ascend in stages to avoid the bends. Spending a certain number of minutes at shallower and shallower depths would allow the nitrogen bubbles accumulating in your blood to slowly dissipate. Head for the surface too quickly, and you risked getting bent. This kind of “deco diving” is loudly discouraged by PADI, as much out of concern for diving’s brand image as anything else—hard to sell a sport where excruciating death is too likely. But in any case, it meant we only took experienced wreck divers to the Irako.

As we rode the brightly-painted bangka boat out to the site, I felt the tingle that always preceded a deep dive. My body felt more capable, more complete, with each piece of equipment I put on. I showed a sketch of the wreck to the three divers my partner and I would be guiding. They peppered me with questions, and there was trust in their eyes when I answered. It felt good to be seen that way. One diver asked me to help her adjust the settings on her underwater camera. I wasn’t thrilled about that, as divers with cameras are often more intent on snapping the perfect shot than monitoring their air supply or following the guide. But her need to have proof she’d been in the Irako was understandable. It was a special wreck.

We splashed about half an hour later. Conditions were as bad as the captain had feared. Fierce currents made us flap like flags in the breeze as we descended the muck-encrusted anchor line down to the Irako. Though the sea life clinging to the rope cut like razors into my thin dive gloves, I was grateful for this lifeline. Without it we would’ve been swept into oblivion. Things got worse when we made it to the bottom. One diver, apparently unnerved by the descent, had already gulped down a worrying amount of air. Another seemed unable to control his buoyancy. He rose and fell in dangerous arcs, wasting gas as he struggled to stay at the same level as the group. Visibility only extended a few feet in front of us. We fought the sea as best we could—the customer must get their money’s worth—but it was a losing battle. Just getting to the wreck’s interior access point was a struggle. We barely made it inside before divers started bouncing off the walls.

With the group floundering, my colleague tapped his tank and signaled to abort the dive. Crawling like bugs across the deck of the Irako, we retreated to the anchor line. Just before we made it there, I realized the diver with the camera was gone. 

My colleague and I stared at each other. He had his hands full with the other two divers—the first was now completely out of air and breathing from my partner’s “octopus,” or backup mouthpiece. The second diver looked to be narced. They would not make it back to the surface on their own. A slight tilt of my colleague’s head said what was needed. I tapped my mask and pointed out at nothing, then started swimming.

Recovering a lost diver under such conditions is not easy. I was hunting for bubbles—trying to make out a diver’s form in such low visibility was hopeless. My dive computer began to beep. The longer I stayed down, the more deco time accumulated. Fighting the current made me breathe harder. Yet the further I swam into the abyss, the more I was overcome with joy. What I was doing felt good.

Oddly, it was the lost diver’s panic that saved her. After several minutes of swimming, I spotted a torrent of bubbles soaring toward the sky. The diver was upside down, huffing and puffing, flailing as she tried to orient herself. I swam over and caught her arm. When I signaled for her to release some air from the bottom of her vest—which would let her balance instead of zooming to the surface–she did the opposite. I barely managed to hold onto her hand as she was yanked upward. 

We dangled there together, a hundred feet beneath the waves. The absurdity of the situation was transcendent. Nothingness surrounded us. My brain floated in strange rhythms. The void. The void! This was close to pure disembodied consciousness as you could get without serious psychedelics. As we slowly made our ascent, foot by beeping foot, I thought about how wreck diving turned nobodies into somebodies—and, one way or another, back into nobodies. You got enchanted by the wrecks and they made a mundane world feel magical. As long as you were with the wrecks you were doing something, being somebody. But every wreck diver reaches a point where they either surrender their attachment to being The Special Diver, or they tick all the boxes on their adventure checklist and lose the magic, or they die. There was peace in recognizing this. Peace, too, in knowing that your mind and muscles were good for something regardless. You were good for something.    

Less than an hour but more than a lifetime after we’d made our descent, the diver and I broke the surface. The boat was a kilometer away. She was too tired to move, so I rolled over and held her fins against my chest as I swam us back. “I got some really good shots down there,” she said, fiddling with her camera. “I’ll show you when we get to the boat.”

The photos were bad, but I was happy for her.

  1. Nagle was famous among divers for recovering the bell of the SS Andrea Doria, a luxuriously decorated Italian ocean liner whose much-coveted artifacts have lured more than 20 divers to their deaths. The wreck is commonly called the “Mount Everest of diving.” 

  2. The mystery of the U-Who was eventually solved, but not before Nagle drank himself to death and Chatterton’s marriage collapsed under the strain of his obsession. After recovering bags full of artifacts, poring over thousands of pages of records, and even flying to Germany to meet with old U-boat crewmen, the divers finally found their answer in a top secret U.S. Navy intelligence report. The submarine was the U-869, and it had been ordered to patrol the seas around Gibraltar in early 1945. However, the U-boat’s commander had missed this message and steered his ship toward New York instead. It was a suicide mission in the most literal sense: the U-869 was likely sunk by its own “circle-runner,” an acoustic torpedo that mistakenly honed in on the engines of the sub that fired it. No crewmen survived the accident. 

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