Life after death in Cuba|
The steel is grey. Neither coral growth nor even the colour of fish breaks its painted monotony. All around, gleaming guns point skywards.
Fish can be seen in the distance, but none venture near. They may be stupid, but even fish know when something is amiss. Even fish know caution when a 1000-tonne wreck is dumped in their backyard.
The frigate has been scuttled only 24 hours ago, but in time it will be colonised. Shrimps will move into the shadows of door-sills and gobies will take up residence in the gun-barrels. Eventually, shoals of glassfish will dance behind now-vacant port-holes. But for now there is nothing but a lone brown body a rat that paid the price of ignoring a centuries-old instinct.
The 96m Koni-class frigate 383, one of three delivered to Cuba in the 1980s, was armed with surface-to-air missiles and four 76mm cannons. The hollow aching moans that rang from the vessel as the sea closed over it were enough to raise a lump in the throat of even the most cynical onlooker. But it was going to a better place on the seabed it would continue a more stately existence.
Now the Cold War is over and Cuba is opening up, the best use for a frigate is as an artificial reef. And by bringing in tourists' dollars, it will make a more valuable contribution to the country's welfare.
The frigate is not alone close by lie a 40m patrol boat, complete with rocket-launching ramps, an aircraft and a towboat. And this collection is only the start of Cuba's project to become a major diving destination. The next few years will see helicopters, armoured vehicles, tanks and even MIG-21s consigned to the seabed.
This may sound like an overly contrived way to encourage dive-tourism, but Cuba also has a wealth of genuine wrecks. Nearby lies the La Pala, barely discernible beneath a throng of French grunts and green morays, and there are dozens of Spanish galleons in the area, ready for diving just as soon as the gold is fully recovered.
The scuttling of vessels as artificial reefs is likely to increase over the next few years. With scrap rates at an all-time low, ship-owners have come to consider this a viable option for disposing of spent vessels. Global demand for steel has nose-dived and there is a glut of ships that are ready for scrapping.
Cleaning up a ship ready to sink it is an expensive business. Frigate 383, for example, cost $200,000 to prepare, which involved removing oil from the ship's pipes and tanks, and getting rid of hazardous features bulkheads were cut away, doors welded open and any spaces that could potentially trap a diver were laid open.
All this might seem like a lot of trouble to go to just for a reef. However, in three to four years the coral will take a grip, hiding the bare steel. Then the vessel will be worth diving.
Explosive situation in Malta|
The Um El Faroud, a 109m former Libyan tanker, now lies in 35m off the south-west coast of Malta, close to the Blue Grotto. Efforts have been made to open up the accommodation, which is at 20-25m, by removing doors and all the glass. Unfortunately the wooden deck-head linings still remain and have already started to collapse in places, making penetration hazardous at this time.
I dived the Um El Faroud three times in a week and each dive was different, with only a few fish about on the first dive but a good penetration of the crew accommodation, bridge, galley and radio room possible. By the third dive, only the galley was suitable for entry but there was a noticeable increase in fish, including damselfish and anchovies being chased by a school of 30 jacks.
The hold has been opened, and buckled deck plates show the area of the explosion. A shaft on the stern deck is open to the engine room, which is at about 35m. A plaque in memory of the nine dock-workers killed when the tanker exploded can be seen on the main superstructure just above the bridge.
The dive consists of a surface swim of 150m with a descent on to the deck. There is usually a slight current over the ship, running from stern to bow, and divers need to position themselves to descend on to the part of the ship they wish to explore. Under the guidance of Andy and Carl of Aquaventures, I covered the whole wreck over the course of the week.
The Maltese rumour-mill suggests there are up to three more ships being readied as diving attractions. Perhaps they'll take some of the pressure off the other popular dive sites, which is not a bad thing.
I'll certainly be back in a few years' time to check on the Um El Faroud. I hope the deck-head linings will be removed and the accommodation made safe, as it has the potential to become one of the best dives in the Med.