x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Life after death on the ocean floor

A diver sees potential in the Oriental Allied, which sank off the Abu Dhabi coastline in February.

There was little in the sinking of the Oriental Allied to suggest it might one day be reborn. It had no glamourous associations - no stiff upper lips determined to go down with the ship, no tragic liaisons between Hollywood sweethearts and no Céline Dion singing of enduring love. Not even any sunken treasure.

Instead, the vessel, a 38-metre tugboat built in 1979 originally called Hayase, had a far less romantic end. It began to sink after getting into difficulties in a storm on February 14 this year, and its crew escaped to the barge full of construction materials they had been towing from Qatar. There was even more humiliation for the stricken tug when divers from a maintenance vessel laid a concrete anchor on the ship's bow to keep it in its final resting place 37 metres below the surface.

The maintenance vessel remained on the site for several days to monitor the final belches of oil from the ship as it settled into its unremarkable grave. The minor pollution it caused was soon dispersed by the waves and there was little left to suggest the drama of the previous few days. All that remained was a makeshift marker buoy tethered anonymously in the vastness of the Gulf, about 75 nautical miles from Abu Dhabi's shores, to act as a warning to other vessels.

The Allied was consigned to history, warranting no more than an ignominious footnote for obscure maritime journals, put down to the cost of doing business in the Gulf. For most people, that was the end of the matter. But the date stuck in the memory of Capt Mark Orchard, 47. The British safety superintendent for Gulf Energy Maritime had been working as a technical team leader for Abu Dhabi Marine Operating Company (ADMA) at the time and was alerted to the ship's distress when one of his team was contacted to give assistance during the rescue operation.

While the rescue went smoothly, his professional interest was piqued when images taken by the divers placing the concrete anchor showed one of the life rafts still tethered to the wreckage. "The life rafts are connected via a special device called a hydrostatic release unit and they should automatically activate as the vessel is sinking," he recalled. "I was interested in why this hadn't happened."

On a personal level, as an avid scuba diver, he had another interest in the site. As a never-before-dived wreck whose existence was unknown to all but a very few, it offered an irresistible opportunity. There are only a handful of diveable shipwrecks around the west coast of the Emirates, all of which have been visited countless times by countless other divers. In a sport based on discovery, it offered him the rare chance to be first.

"Diving a new site is always more interesting," he said, "and the Allied is a unique dive for this area. "It is a whole wreck with the tug sitting perfectly upright, which means divers can really get a good look around the site and have a full understanding of it. Most wrecks in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi have been around a long time and are quite broken up. "With it being more than 70 miles off the coast you have to be very careful in planning your dive in terms of the weather conditions, but providing the forecast is closely monitored and you plan it well the trip is safe.

"It's easy to fall into the trap of diving the same old sites and becoming complacent. With a new wreck you really have to be very cautious and be aware of your surroundings - you never know what might float out of a locker as you open the door." Along with his friend and former ADMA colleague Julian Palmer, a 46-year-old British inspection engineer, Capt Orchard set about locating the wreck. The pair obtained a position for it from a sub-sea survey conducted shortly after it sank.

Encouraged by the results, and having informed the British Admiralty of their findings and the "latest sub-surface hazard to safe navigation", they set about the long process of planning the first exploration of the wreck of the Oriental Allied. Planning was detailed and involved checking if there was sufficient interest from fellow diving enthusiasts to mount an exploration, said Capt Orchard. "All told we had a staggering amount of interest with in excess of 50 divers showing real commitment to be one of the first recreational divers to dive this new site."

On September 11, about 20 divers from Dubai's Desert Sport Diving Club (DSDC) and the Abu Dhabi Sub Aqua Club (ADSAC) took part in the maiden dive on the Allied. Despite the 10 hours or so the journey took on the Empros, a vessel operating out of the capital's Port Zayed, the excitement on board was palpable. The divers were a mixed bunch that included an ex-South African navy diver, petroleum and construction engineers, salesmen, schoolteachers, a nurse, a writer of children's tales, a man with a penchant for amateur dramatics and various other salty sea dogs.

Although no one would admit it, they were as excited as a bunch of teenage girls about to encounter Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of a luxury ocean liner. Few slept during the overnight voyage, and a couple were physically sick. As Capt Orchard prepared for the first exploratory dive, there were promising signs that he was on target. Shoals of fish were continuously being driven to the surface, a sign that something bigger was hunting them.

Shipwrecks such as this one tend to attract all sorts of marine creatures that use them to shelter from predators. After Capt Orchard and his party of four disappeared under the water, the rest of the group watched the fish threshing at the surface, and speculation grew about what might be responsible. A pod of dolphins? A whale shark? The guessing helped to distract them from a very real possibility - that this could be a wasted trip, the blip on the echo sounder just a cruel mistake.

After a wait of what felt like hours, but was really just 20 minutes, a yellow lift-bag filled with air broke the surface, indicating that they were in the right place. The dive was on. As the rest of the group jumped into the water, their feeling of vulnerability and isolation from being so far out to sea was quickly forgotten as a remora joined them, playing in circles around their ankles. The remora is a harmless fish that tends to use larger creatures for shelter, and the group felt honoured by the encounter, taking it as a propitious sign.

As they descended the shot line, a weighted line that guides the divers down, the Allied's mast loomed into view. Unlike the vast majority of shipwrecks that divers explore, which have been battered over the years into unrecognisable lumps of metal, the Allied was still fully intact, sitting upright on the sea floor just as though it were still proudly carving through the waves. But while the boat was recognisable, the ocean had wasted no time turning it into an artificial reef.

No longer was it a mass of sterile metal, as in the early photographs from its sinking. In the few months it had been down there, it had become encrusted with mussels and hard and soft corals. The divers found a site teeming with marine life. A pair of courting bannerfish circled its mast while half a dozen batfish followed the divers around, quite unbothered by these bubbling invaders. In one of the ship's many nooks and crannies a poisonous lionfish reminded the divers to watch where they put their hands.

As they looked upwards, a large school of perhaps 50 barracuda circled within view. The water was strikingly clear so far out to sea. The visibility of 10 or so metres was perhaps twice that of more commonly dived sites close to shore. Ascending to the bridge there were still signs of the ship's former life. The life raft that sparked Capt Orchard's search could be seen, lashed to the ship's railings, which explained the apparent malfunction of the release unit.

In the cabin a computer stood upright on a desk as if ready for use. One diver picked up a hole-punch, still apparently in working order. Elsewhere the crew's coveralls hung on washing lines and plates remained stacked in the galley. The outside of the wreck was covered in fishing nets, suggesting that the plentiful marine life had already started to attract human interest. But the divers could snatch only a fleeting glimpse of the ship's new life. The depth meant that they had only about 30 minutes before they had to start their slow ascents, stopping at intervals to decompress. The bannerfish, still just in view, treated them to a final dance as the ship faded back into the blue.

Back on board, Capt Orchard and Mr Palmer were happy with the way the trip went. The consensus was that the wreck warranted many further visits. As the divers celebrated one of the more interesting entries in their logbooks, they were already planning their next trip. A new life for the Oriental Allied had begun. araine@thenational.ae