Monday, June 04, 2012

First Dive on the USS New York at Subic Bay

I’m back. Actually, we’ve been back from our Claveria dive trip since last Tuesday night; it’s just that we’ve been busy after being gone for more than a week, not to mention we snuck in another dive yesterday at Subic, which is what this post is mostly about.
Going through our pre-dive brief
Another problem that’s kept me from writing even though we've been back for five days is a maddening case of “the itchies” on my knees from where I got into something during the Claveria trip. I’m pretty sure I did it when we tried to cross the top of a patch of coral too close to shore where some rough swells knocked us around in the relatively shallow water like we were a couple of ragdolls. My dive partner was ten feet ahead when I saw him suddenly go sideways—first knocked hard to his left, then abruptly to the right, then straight back and down. Immediately I back pedaled away from the dangerous turbulence as he fought his way back out as well. Before I could get back to the safety of deep water one large swell sucked me down hard to the right. I was able to twist my body so that I was in the proper head up belly down attitude but both my knees were driven hard into some coral while I hung onto a rock for dear life until the surging water let up enough so that I could flipper and pull myself away using rocks and coral as handholds.

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
The last time I went through something similar was while snorkeling in 1977 at Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station. That’s where I ended up sitting on a patch of sea urchins while struggling up onto a tiny coral island with impossibly perilous footing while wearing flippers of all things. I have no idea what the heck I was thinking. Chalk it off as being 20 and stupid. I could have easily broken an ankle but I was committed and continued on—idiot! Still a good ten feet from dry land, the surge of wind-whipped waves continually blasted at me from every direction. Finally, and inevitably, unable to catch my balance I wavered for a second as a particularly large wave knocked me straight back. Looking down at the last second where I knew I was about to land on my butt, I saw foot long sea urchin needles waving up at me in tiny circles, at which point my struggle ended with me sitting full onto hundreds of them. I screamed and popped straight back up but the damage was done. It took weeks before my body finally pushed out all the hundreds of microscopic black urchin needles embedded deep into the flesh of my butt and legs.

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
The plan was to leave Angeles close to 7:30 am putting us at the dive shop by 8:30 or so. Don’s SUV was still chockfull of our 9 empty scuba tanks, getting them refilled being the other primary reason for going to the dive shop at Subic.

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.

As it turned out, Don had nothing to worry about. Ariel and all his master divers are a joy to dive with. Tell them what you want and they bend over backwards to make it happen. By all means, if you do not yet have a favorite dive shop in Subic use The Boardwalk Dive Center. It was my first time diving in Subic Bay but we were so impressed with their friendly professional style that Don and I plan on using them exclusively in the future.

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).
This was going to be the first time I had ever gone off a boat into such deep water with no bottom or land features in sight. I was only slightly nervous about that with my primary concern being the extra time it might take to equalize my ears on the trip down. I let my dive master guide know about that and he told me he'd stay with me for as long it took. I’m trying to remember his name, I believe it is Abel (pronounced A-bell). 

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.

Conditions were perfect—with the sun brightly shining and the currents nil, the visibility was about as good as it gets for Subic Bay I’m told, perhaps more than 15 to 20 feet. Down, down, down we dropped. I didn’t need to, but with it being my first time and seeking the secure comfort it provided, I held the rope with my left hand while holding my nose with my right, continuously blowing air into my ears on the way down. With my Eustachian tubes being so narrow, if I do not keep blowing air into them, after 5 feet the pain in my inner ears becomes excruciating. I noticed the other divers did not have to do it, not to the extent that I must. Oh well.

All the way down I scanned the water below, searching for a glimpse of something other than the rope, perhaps the ship or the sea bottom, but the sight of the nylon rope disappearing into the green silty depths was the only thing in sight. Down, down, down we fell, into the green nothingness. It was the first time I’ve ever experienced such a thing; the sight of all the other divers around and below me provided no little comfort. Abel, (I’m pretty sure that’s his name) always hovered nearby. If I happened to catch his eye he’d point at me and give me a questioning “okay” sign, looking for one from me in return. He was worried about my ears since I had warned him topside that they might give me fits. I appreciated his ever present concern.
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
Just the thought of going through such an ordeal brings on a case of the chills. I try to imagine what I would do if it happened to me. I think if worse came to worse I’d try to unstrap from my gear and go on my buddy’s spare regulator; but then I’ve never been back in that area where I hear it’s extremely tight. It means the guy would possibly have to swim without air to the outside of the ship where he could then get access to his buddy’s spare. Such a thing is probably near impossible but better to try it and maybe live than to just die in place. Ugh. There are online dive boards that endlessly discuss the mystery of this particularly tragedy, but most of the commentary is surmise and conjecture.
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
But it’s the presence of thick silt that really messes up any chance of even fair photographs. One needs to use the strobe to light up the subject matter at such extreme depths but all the millions of tiny floaties in the water tend to intercept the light. What happens is that the stuff in the water brightly lights up obscuring the intended photographic subject behind them. It’s exactly like trying to use a camera in a dimly lit room filled with thick smoke; nearly impossible.

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)

Shortly after the sign is a large round opening which I assume is what is left of a gun tub, where a gun used to sit. Please, if I’m wrong, again, let me know in comments.
large round opening, maybe a gun tub
At 5:19 I run into a little puffer fish who notices me and takes off in that particular way of puffers using only their side fins almost always staying horizontal—funny.
5:30 into the clip and I believe we are amid ships, probably where much of the superstructure once was since there is so much tangled metal and wood. Ariel says that much of that part of the ship was recently taken by thieves using barrels or airbags to float off tons of the wreck’s metal to sell as scrap. Such a thing should be impossible considering that government officials monitor the wreck 24 hours a day and the fact that it would have taken a large boat with lots of folks to make it happen. Like I say for similar things that happen here I’ll say again with a shrug, “Oh well.”

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.
One of the accompanying dive masters points out ahead a resting stingray. I turn my cam to video and follow the hull as low as possible in order to sneak up on it. I know it’s aware of my approach but surprisingly it stays still for me until I practically touch it with my cam. It takes off in a graceful flutter of its wings—I never tire of that sight.

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.


Ed said...

For me, the most fascinating part of your dives is the sea life. It would be cool to see the ship but I'm guessing after seeing one, seeing others is not much different. I would much rather see them afloat when I can see the insides without fear of drowning!

PhilippinesPhil said...

The sealife, the wreck, the history of the ship, the men who served on her, the history of those who have explored (and died) on her, the logistics and science of getting down to her and returning alive and in one piece, its all part of the fascination. And no, seeing one wreck is not like seeing any other any more than one mountain trail is like all the others. You have me chuckling Ed, it would be like saying, "well, I just dated a girl, might as well marry her since they will all be pretty much the same..."

Ed said...

Alright, I think you got me there on that last one!

PhilippinesPhil said...

I would think that diving would appeal to you Ed. Its problem, solution, execution. Right up your alley. Nothing to fear for some one like you because you think logically and orderly. prepare, plan, do. Lovely! And I love being in a place that I really have no business being in. Its like being given the keys to some beautiful bizarro world. Its a waking dream.