Deep Way Down

A diver’s journey into the beauty and mystery of the underwater world

Feature type Story

Read time 15 min read

Published May 15, 2020

Photographer Will Appleyard

Will Appleyard
Will Appleyard Diver, mountaineer and climber Will communicates his passion for adventure through his photography and writing and is the author of several books.

A diver’s journey into the beauty and mystery of the underwater world

Story & Photography | Will Appleyard

Will Appleyard has spent over 1000 hours underwater. He’s explored shipwrecks, plane wrecks, flooded cave systems, and descended precipitous reef walls. Some of his most memorable adventures into the deep, though, were also the most unexpected… 

Most large marine animals know where to find a particular species of fish that will remove parasites from their skin. Here an oceanic manta ray dwarfs a diver as it glides over a known ‘cleaning station’ in Indonesia’s Banda Sea.

Amongst Blue Giants

Temperate seas are incredibly rich with marine life. It’s not widely known that several shark species visit British waters, including the globally distributed blue shark. To find these creatures requires patience, sea legs, and a bucket full of fish guts.

The dawn fog begins to lift as we motor out to a patch of water 16 miles offshore from Penzance, Cornwall. Local fishermen have spotted blue sharks here recently, and we kill the engine on arrival. The sea is calm and quiet except for the sound of our own boat. Occasionally, a container ship slides past on the horizon; I trust the skipper that our small vessel is not actually within the shipping lane itself. Two buoys are set on a rope with bait positioned at two different depths – one at five metres deep and the other one set at ten. At the surface, the skipper introduces a slick of oily innards to the current, seeping from a net bag dangled over the side. If they pick up the scent, the sharks will be attracted to our chum slick from literally miles away. Once lured in, we then hope to draw them onto the ten metre baited buoy and finally the bait set at five metres, before coming to the surface. If they appear and hang around, we will enter the water, but of course nothing is guaranteed when attempting to photograph wildlife.

It’s now two hours since our arrival. We’re still surrounded by nothing but sea and sky, the buoys remain undisturbed in the water, and there’s not a breath of wind. Our sitting positions on deck morph into lying positions and conversation dries up. I begin to consider that we may have to write this one off.

Bang on the two-hour mark, the deep buoy rapidly disappears and reappears, then, somewhat more tentatively, so does the shallower one. Finally, the indigo hue of a blue shark’s back and dorsal fin meet the surface, followed by others. We ready ourselves to slip in with them, reasonably gear-free with just our masks, snorkels, fins, weights and wetsuits.

A diver is approached by a graceful wall of tuna.

A diver is approached by a graceful wall of tuna.

A nibble from one of these epipelagic creatures is unlikely, but still we cover our skin completely with neoprene to prevent an investigation of that nature. Five individuals appear beside the boat in all, and the skipper advises us to keep our eyes on the creatures at all times while in the water. In reality, they are the ones keeping an eye on us. The water clarity is good, and shafts of sunlight dive into the water like outstretched fingers as I breath heavily through my snorkel.

Horizontal on the surface with perhaps 100 metres of water below me, I track two sharks while they trace figure-of-eights between one another and then fin away into the gloom out of sight. The pair then reappear exactly where I didn’t expect them to be. Close encounters become physical ones, with their noses bumping my camera and big, deep-ocean goggle eyes appear to almost meet mine at my mask. Our time in the water is always limited, regardless of depth, and we witness just a snapshot of these extraordinary animals’ lives and behaviour. This is their territory, and we are but clumsy yet privileged visitors.

The Lust for Rust

In diving terms, to have ‘a lust for rust’ means that you are a keen explorer of shipwrecks. It is depth that determines the challenge of wreck exploration. The deeper the wreck is situated, the more consideration we need to give to our equipment choices. And the complexity of the wreck’s penetrable parts requires some pre-dive planning. Getting lost inside a deeply submerged wreck is not an option. The temperature of the water has a bearing on how challenging a wreck dive is likely to be, too. We have to work harder when it’s cold in any environment – above or below the surface.

The wreck of the US Liberty ship [a class of cargo vessel built by the United States during WWII] James Eagan Layne, which lies just off the coast of Plymouth in Devon, is probably one of the most accessible and exciting wreck explorations on the UK’s south coast. She sits upright on the seabed in 23 metres of water – moderately shallow in SCUBA diving terms, but with the added consideration of cold water diving to factor in. Good visibility is never guaranteed here, yet when we descend on her one August weekend, it is exceptionally good. Good visibility makes for comfortable diving and reduces our overhead environment risk when we venture inside her cavernous hull. We can see our escape route options, which are crucial should we need to end the dive. Good visibility also means that we can maintain visual contact on one another as we explore the holds of this watery wartime museum. Whether polar, temperate or tropical, over time a shipwreck becomes consumed by the living sea around it, and is eventually transformed into a habitat. Essentially, a wreck becomes an artificial reef. Fish find shelter here, soft and hard corals begin to occupy the metal remains, and all kinds of marine critters crawl into every available recess.

A large and curious blue shark - one of several shark species to visit British waters - investigates the side of a dive boat about 16 miles off the south Cornish coast.

A large and curious blue shark – one of several shark species to visit British waters – investigates the side of a dive boat about 16 miles off the south Cornish coast.

The blue shark’s nose bumps my camera and the deep-ocean goggle eyes appear to meet mine at my mask

Divers explore the wreck of the cargo ship dubbed ‘Naranjito’ off the south-eastern tip of Spain. The ship’s final cargo consisted of any thousands of oranges (hence its nickname) which violently shifted in a storm, causing the boat to list and take on water.

Divers explore the wreck of the cargo ship dubbed ‘Naranjito’ off the south-eastern tip of Spain. The ship’s final cargo consisted of any thousands of oranges (hence its nickname) which violently shifted in a storm, causing the boat to list and take on water.

For the diver, a shipwreck is an exciting place to be at night as well as during the day. The conger eel – with its mad, otherworldly  glare – waits for a feeding opportunity to pass during the day, but at night becomes an active hunter about the wreck. Fish seek sanctuary within her holds, and on this dive we scan a silver shoal of pouting with our torches within the structure. Wreckage has spewed onto the seabed beside the wreck, and it takes no effort to imagine the chaos that occurred aboard this vessel of war after German U-boat U-399 fired a torpedo into her starboard side on March 21st, 1945. Remarkably, there were no casualties amongst her crew of 69. Once it’s time to surface, we exit the wreck through the ship’s blast-damaged side.

No shipwreck is an eternal time capsule though; the James Eagan Layne will not remain on the sea floor off Whitsand Bay forever. The sea’s salinity, over time, reduces all these relics to unrecognisable heaps of metal. The Baltic Sea, though, with its low salinity [the Baltic has a salinity of just 3.5%] does to a point freeze wrecks in time. In 2019, I joined a team of Scandinavian divers in Estonia – our aim was to descend on some of the best preserved shipwrecks anywhere in the world. It is a grey start to our day as we cast off from the Estonian island of Hiiumaa. The ex-Navy landing craft we’re diving from is a deep grey, matching the colour of the sky and the sea. It will take us two hours to reach our target – the wreck of the WW1 Russian submarine, the Akula. More often than not, it is possible to simply peer over the side of a dive boat to determine how good the visibility underwater is going to be. Divers obsess about underwater visibility as much as paragliders do over the height of cloud base, or skiers over snow quality. Yet the Baltic Sea is different, and does not give up its secrets that easily.

We leave the surface as a group, descending hand over hand, as we feel our way down a buoyed rope that guides us to the submarine wreck 34-metres below. The top three metres of water are nothing more than thick green soup. By now, I have already made up my mind that if the visibility is this bad when we reach the wreck, then I am heading back to the surface. As if falling from a sky of green cloud, the soup layer gives way to clear, dark water and the wreck of the Akula is immediately visible. Remarkably, it is also completely intact. One by one, the dive team begins to appear again. From a distance the submarine still looks operational, with almost the entire craft from bow to stern visible and upright on the seabed. Venturing closer, we find the sea-mine damage that sank her with the loss of all 35 men on board. The wreck of the Akula  was only discovered in 2012, and divers rarely visit her.

Operating a cumbersome camera is challenging in these conditions, but my diving partner can visualise a shot and positions herself by the propeller, giving the mechanism some perspective. We fin along the sub’s port side and find several anti-naval mines on the seabed beside the submarine. Giving them plenty of space, we move on and back to the bow where we began this dream-like dive into maritime history. We wear drysuits together with thick Arctic undersuits when diving in the Baltic Sea, but still at this depth it is cold. The fingers are the first to complain, as the cold slowly penetrates our warm layers and begins to chill our cores. It’s time to leave the Akula and slowly head for the surface.

Deeper into History

Navigating submarine wrecks is easy due to their narrow shape, and much less disorientating than the remains of a large ship. Navigating a cave underwater, however, requires a little more planning; it’s quite possibly the most challenging thing a person can do as far underwater exploration is concerned.

The word cenote derives from the Mayan word D’zonot, meaning ‘deep and abysmal’. Cenotes, often circular lake-like areas or sometimes simply holes in the ground, are formed when a cave’s ceiling has since collapsed. In Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, jungle cave systems often lead off from the cenote itself. The network is created over millions of years through the gradual dissolving of highly porous limestone by slightly acidic rainfall. Eventually, these caves are flooded with water, and create perfect cave diving country.

We find Mayan pottery remains in one chamber of a Mexican cenote, abandoned when the cave was dry over 1000 years ago

A diver gives perspective to the propeller of the WW1 Russian submarine wreck, the Akula, lying in 34 metres of water in the Estonian Baltic Sea.

A diver gives perspective to the propeller of the WW1 Russian submarine wreck, the Akula, lying in 34 metres of water in the Estonian Baltic Sea.

Aside from the geographical wonders of Mexican Cenotes, ancient Mayan pottery can still be found within these flooded caves.

Aside from the geographical wonders of Mexican Cenotes, ancient Mayan pottery can still be found within these flooded caves.

Cave divers are a completely different breed compared with the rest of the SCUBA fraternity. To use a climbing analogy, in some ways cave divers are to the diving world what free soloists are to the climbing world. Both disciplines require serious mental strength, meticulous planning, and of course next-level skills. The individuals who practice these disciplines, in both cases, are born with a deep desire to explore the uncharted.

With friends in the cave diving community, I decided that I needed a taste of this mystery myself. I arrive in Tulum, Mexico, in the winter of 2018 to find out if I have what it takes. The first pioneers of climbing routes name their creations, and cave divers do the same. We tour cenotes named Dos Ojos, Car Wash, El Pit and Dream Gate – to name just a few. In recent years Dos Ojos has been joined up by explorers to the Sac Actun system, making it the longest known underwater cave system in the world at an extraordinary 347km long.

Each cenote has a very different geological look and ‘El Pit’ is exactly what it says on the sign – a pit.  It has a relatively small entrance, half-hidden in the jungle floor, and we have 30 metres of crystal clear water below us as we climb into the water. From the deep, the entrances to several cave systems disappear to goodness knows where. At these cave entrances a sign has been placed with the simple message: ‘STOP unless cave trained’ – sound advice. We explore some of the less complex cavern routes that suit my skill level. These are laid out with fixed lines, so we can find our way out once our air consumption dictates it’s time to leave.

The author ready to submerge onto a shipwreck at twilight.

The author ready to submerge onto a shipwreck at twilight.

We find Mayan pottery remains in one chamber, presumably abandoned there when the cave was once dry well over a thousand years ago. Beyond this astonishing discovery, the gigantic geological formations that appear everywhere are a good enough reason to explore these flooded caverns. Our torch beams throw heart startling, moving shadows against the rock walls behind them. I find I enjoy the mental test that this kind of dark, overhead-environment diving brings with it. It’s quite a noisy experience too, as our exhaled air bubbles rumble against the limestone ceiling above. At times, the effect makes it sound like the cave itself is collapsing – a thought to quickly banish from the mind.

I leave the Yucatan peninsula with a new appetite for this kind of diving, and a fresh admiration for cave diving photographers – shooting in these locations is seriously challenging due to the lack of light and confined spaces.

The diving even in entry-level flooded caves can be testing, and to be a great cave photographer, you need to be a great cave diver first.

Taking a camera underwater in any event requires a certain level of diving proficiency. I’ve learnt that it’s essential to master full manual camera controls in order to improve, while staying safe within your chosen environment. At the same time, understanding animal behaviour can make or break your shooting day, and choosing when to enter the water for the optimal light can do the same. I always dive with a camera, whether exploring a purposely-placed plane wreck in a cold quarry, the diverse dive sites of Spain or the shipwrecks of the Caribbean. Despite the desire to capture the experience photographically, as with any kind of exploration that begs to be documented, it is important to remember it all with your own eyes too

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