|Going through our pre-dive brief|
After my run-in with the rough water in the coral patch I thought the only harm done was another couple of tiny holes in the knees of my wetsuit. I was mistaken, because two days later the itching began. At first only a minor irritant, soon the urge to scratch the crap out of the top of my knees became a maddening obsession. It’s been a week and only now is the insane itching beginning to subside and that only after going through a couple tubes of hydrocortisone. The itchiness is my body trying to eject whatever it is that got driven under the skin on the top of my knees. In tropical waters you just never know what sorts of bad stuff is out there. Pretty much everything alive in the sea can either irritate, make one very sick, or even painfully kill; which is why I wear a full body wetsuit and gloves.
|The Boardwalk Dive Center|
So yesterday, only the day after getting back from our diving expedition up north, “Diver Don” talked me into a last second trip to Subic to dive the USS New York. I weighed whether I should go or not, since during our Claveria trip I had pulled my left shoulder and a muscle in my right stomach, not to mention the horrible itching in my knees; but, I just can never say no to diving. And Don was right, we needed to go sooner than later with the onset of rainy season only days away. Once the continuous days of hard driving rain starts, the water in Subic Bay becomes almost completely occluded with runoff. So it was on; we would dive the New York.
|On the way out to the dive site for the USS New York|
Our plan worked like clockwork—lucky for us, upon our arrival we were the only paying divers in sight, so it would just be us diving the 122 year old American cruiser scuttled by the US Navy at the onset of WWII to keep the long stricken obsolete decommissioned old ship out of Japanese hands. Check out the USS New York's story here.
A primary reason Don likes to dive on our own, without the use of a dive shop’s dive masters, is that he has been on dives with large groups of other client divers where the diver in charge cut the dive down to a scant 25 or 30 minutes, forcing him to the surface with the others with plenty of air left in his tank. The way he spoke to Ariel, the head master diver at the dive shop, I could tell that he wanted to make sure that we got our money’s worth out of the dive. Ariel was cool about it, completely deferential, he humored Don with words while I got the impression that the dive would still go as Ariel said it would.
The dive plan was quite simple. Drop anchor on the stern of the boat, two minutes to drop down to the New York, then follow the topside of the ship, which faces outward since it’s lying on its side, towards the bow before making our way back along the side of the hull from where we started.
Amazingly, even without a GPS they dropped the anchor exactly where they intended. (Of course with no way to see the ship below us we didn’t actually know we were on it until we followed the line down and landed right on the giant propeller). There used to be a permanent buoy roped down to the stern but someone made off with it according to Ariel. Using only visual references, he and the boat driver triangulated us perfectly over the lone rear propeller screw (the primary reason the then 50 year old boat was scuttled in ’41 is that the other propeller shaft had become warped with no way to replace it).
He and I went into the water together, he off the starboard side and me off the port. Once we were all in the water and checked each other one last time the signal was given to start the long 90 foot drop to the ship. To say I was excited doesn’t come close to how I felt, excitement with a delightful dose of trepidation comes slightly closer.
|diver next to propeller shaft|
Finally the ship came into sight, or I assumed it was the ship since so little of it can be seen from any one place on or near it. The visibility really is limited. At the same time, knowing that I was at long last diving the New York, every bit as much of a military veteran as yours truly, with its long world-wide service during several wars going back to the Spanish American War, made the whole experience extremely thrilling.
But there is a dark side as well, for less than a year ago two divers died on the ship while exploring its inner recesses. Interestingly to me, Ariel was part of the body retrieval team. He said that one of the divers, a tourist from Taiwan, appeared to have gotten himself hung up during a deep penetration of the wreck, I believe into the boiler room area. The drowned master diver, a retired one-armed US navy man named Steve Brittain, was found near his entangled charge, apparently staying with the other diver until both ran out of air. Here is an online article from last year about the incident; notice the photo of Boardwalk dive center boat, its the same one we use on our dive.
|The huge propellor screw|
|Typical of what can be seen on the NY|
During the pre-dive briefing given by one of the dive masters, he showed us a map of the New York lying on its side and pointed out the entrance through which the bodies of the two divers were found inside. At that place a memorial has been set up, something that I definitely wanted to capture on my cam. I should have spoke up immediately but I didn’t, not realizing how easy it would be to miss it. I looked for it right up until the moment the signal was given for us to start heading back up but I never did see it. I mentioned this back at the dive center and Abel told me that I had passed by under it by only a few feet. He said he didn’t realize that it was something I wanted to see and never thought to point it out to me. So, lesson learned—leave NOTHING to chance during the pre-dive briefing.
My thing on every dive is my photography and video taking; I really have little interest in going down without my underwater camera package. The problem with using a camera on a ship like the New York is the profuse particulate in the water along with the extreme depth. As far as depth goes, even with strong sunlight conditions, at 70 feet and below, the only colors visible are variations of green, and if conditions are overcast the greens turn to grays.
|What is now the top was once the side|
|Lots of sealife on the scuttled ship|
I was able to take some shots of sealife that make some sense but a lot of photo editing and enhancement is required to make them even slightly viewable. There are some areas where the silt level is less so that some shots came out not so bad. That’s why I like the video function on my Canon as it uses its automatic functions to take advantage of any ambient light to provide the best footage possible. As I finish editing photos, perhaps using video captures as well, along with the compilation of video clips, I will either add them here or in a follow-on post.
For the most part I kept myself well off the bottom which goes down to about 90 feet and deeper. Continually monitoring my dive computer, it was surprising to see how little time it gave me before I would have entered into a decompression requirement. Each time I watched the minutes count down to that I would adjust upwards a few feet and stave it off. I got close but I never did enter “deco,” where it becomes physiologically necessary to off-gas nitrogen, even though all divers train to do it anyway when diving down below say 25 or more feet. We call them safety stops. In our case however we had several divers that stayed well below where I was and they definitely needed to stop. Regardless, we all made the obligatory stops on our way back to the surface, coming to a halt three times at about 3 minutes each along the way up the rope. After all, no diver wants to risk a case of decompression sickness or the bends.
|Safety stop at 32 feet, notice I still have 1200lbs of air left, started w 3000|
I’ve only been into scuba now for 2 years and I enjoy diving with other divers besides Don just to observe and learn from others. As far as buoyancy control, compared to these Filipino divers, we pretty much suck at it. They literally hang in the water at will at any depth as if by invisible ropes and hardly use their legs at all when sliding through the water. In my videos I see them barely move the tips of their flippers in a tiny counter circular fashion, compared to Don (and me) who clumsily use the entire length of both legs, causing clouds of silt to rise in our wake despite efforts to keep that from happening. Those guys are good.
At the moment I write the following I’m uploading the compilation of my video footage. I’ll walk you through it now. First we drop off the boat. I do so with my dive master guide. That’s Ariel, the lead dive master, who goes off last with the double nitrox tanks. This is the first time I’ve tried holding the cam going into the water—pretty cool.
The next segment starts “the green screen” because we are at depth and just as they promised we come down directly on top of the stern. At first I thought the long round pipe is one of the old guns until I follow it and find a huge four bladed propeller screw.
Next, we move along part of the hull and then along the top of deck which lies vertically on its side. We peer into various openings, mostly hatches, cargo doors and places where pieces of the ship are missing allowing internal access and viewing.
Five minutes in and see that Ariel finds a decrepit old wooden sign apparently placed on the ship by the US Navy or by someone with an affiliation to it. I took a photo of the crumbling sign as well, knowing that it would provide more resolution for later closer examination. At the top of the sign is “IN MEMORY OF.” At the center on both sides are two seals, on the left is the seal of the US Navy and to the right is a modified version of the US Navy special warfare seal, of an eagle riding a trident, to put it another way, the US Navy SEALS. At the bottom of the sign is GMG1 followed by GL and ending in ER. The GMG1 is the man’s rate, gunner’s mate first class. There is room for some five more letters between the GL and ER, so we are probably talking about a deceased US Navy SEAL, a gunner’s mate first class with last name starting with GL followed by five more letters and ending with an ER, nine letters in all. I’m sure someone out there knows who the man is; if so, please let me know in comments below. Why they would place a wooden sign in the water is beyond me. On second thought though, taking a closer look at the sign, it might just be made of some kind of metal. I didn't handle it so I can't be sure. Take a look below.
|"In Memory of GMG1 GL- - - - -ER" To the right is a stylized version of the seal |
of the US Navy's Special Warfare (SEALS)
|large round opening, maybe a gun tub|
6:34 and I pan up to the surprising sight of a large slowly moving school of fish. Even at that depth I can tell that they are fairly large, perhaps a foot long. In the dim green glow they appear to be blue with yellow fins—beautiful.
At 7:24 the video cuts to the side of the hull facing up which would be the starboard side. It is flat and covered almost completely with sealife and silt. If not for the occasional rivet, pipe, or straight sided porthole and hatch, one might never guess they are swimming along the side of a giant ship.
At the surface the boys had told me that we would likely see a pipefish or two and sure enough, at 9:27 one of the divers finds one for me and even manages to shoo it in my direction while I slowly approach. I’ve seen much smaller ones in Mindoro waters but never one this long or so light colored. To me, it looks like it has the body of a snake with the head of seahorse—curious looking creature.
The last 90 seconds of the video covers the long trip back to the surface, where we slowly follow the rope as we off gas on the way up. Notice how the visibility and colors become noticeable again the higher up the rope we go.
All in all, it was a wonderful experience. I can’t wait to go back and do it again. Ariel and his boys are good guys and fun to dive with. If you visit Subic check them out down at The Boardwalk Dive Center on Waterfont Road in the Subic Bay Freeport Zone.