By Pierre Kosmidis – August 2017
Photos by Kevin Denlay (unless otherwise noted)
Historical Photos: Kevin Denlay Collection
READ PART ONE OF KEVIN DENLAY’S UNDERWATER EXPLORATIONS: WW2 Shipwreck exploration by Kevin Denlay: “Going back in time and bringing the ships back to life” – PART 1
Kevin Denlay is a pioneer in underwater exploration and has witnessed first-hand the discovery of numerous WW2 wrecks, although now the industrial-scale illegal salvage has recently resulted in the total disappearance of those very same wrecks, which in turn has caused the destruction of an important page in the naval history of the largest global conflict mankind has ever seen.
Kevin looks back to the days of exploration, his travels around the world with his wife Mirja, learning new scuba diving techniques which paved the way for hundreds of technical divers ever since and reveals, with a wonderful sense of humour, his adventures and mishaps.
How should WW2 wrecks treated? How easy is to control that divers do not loot or desecrate them?
Well warship wrecks are considered ‘war graves’ after all, with almost the whole crew perishing on a several of the ships we discovered (Hr. Ms. De Ruyter and Hr. Ms. Java in the Java Sea, and HIJMS Haguro in the Malacca Strait for instance), so they should be respected.
Surprisingly though, none were officially designated as actual ‘protected sites’ by their respective governments. As to actually ‘controlling’ divers it would be very difficult in my opinion.
But any items brought up by divers pales into insignificance when compared to the wholesale salvage and complete destruction of the wrecks that has recently taken place on a commercial, or more accurately an industrial scale in Asian waters between 2013 and 2016.
Should items be removed, in order to be properly displayed in museums and help disseminate their story to young generations? What is the proper approach for you?
Yes in my opinion certain items should have previously been removed. It has long been my contention that specific artifacts should have been allowed to be retrieved and handed over to the relevant authorities for historical or museum display so that future generations actually have something tangible to see and touch, so as to remind them of those lost ships and the brave men that survived or went down fighting on them, and so that the stories of these gallant ships are not lost in the fog that thickens with the passing of time.
Unfortunately, any chance of that happening is gone forever now and I feel very sad about that.
But in many circles the mere thought of removing items is / was considered sacrilege, likened to grave robbing by some. But to have done that, that is recovered selected items for historical display, would have been a far far better outcome than what has happened recently with the complete salvage and destruction of the ships and the loss of all those historically significant artifacts forever.
Right: Kevin illuminates the damaged periscope on the submarine USS Perch. Note the poor visibility. Left: The builder’s plaque on the sail, or conning tower, of the wreck of Perch leaves no doubt as to the name of the ‘boat’. Still the US Navy would not ‘officially’ recognize the discovery because, it seems, USN divers themselves had not actually verified it with their own eyes and ‘confirmed’ the identification. Go Figure!
However, on the other hand, to many folk those wrecks were just lumps of rusty decaying metal on the seabed, which the sea will one day essentially completely reclaim anyway.
Now while I am not condoning those warships salvage in any way, to those with the above mentality it seems inane to leave the wrecks rotting away when a buck can be made by salvaging them. Besides, many folk, especially out in Asia, simply have no concept of a shipwreck being a ‘war grave’.
Anyway it’s a moot point now for almost all of the WWII warship wrecks in Asian waters, as that horse has well and truly bolted.
That is, literally every single WWII warship wreck I have either been involved in the discovery of out there (about a dozen), or other wrecks I have simply dived on there (well over a hundred, most previously undiscovered), have now either been completely salvaged (as are in entirely gone), or just salvaged / stripped to one degree or another.
Recently whole WW2 wrecks virtually disappeared from the seabed; what are your thoughts and what could be done to ensure that this does not happen again?
Well, it has basically put an end to historical wreck diving in the Java Sea, and in parts of the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait as well, as the warship wrecks that have been illegally salvaged from there were one of the main diving attractions there.
And at the same time the salvors have removed what was the foundation of a substantial fishing source for the local fishing fraternity, be it commercial or private, especially in the Java Sea, as wrecks act as artificial reefs attracting many schools of fish.
So if it were local fisherman that gave away (or sold) their wreck fishing positions (to the salvors) then it was very short sighted of them.
As to what can be done to ensure this does not happen again, if you’re asking about wrecks in Asian waters, very little if anything. That is, save parking a gunboat over every a wreck 24/7/365. And of course that is not practical.
Even both HMAS Perth and USS Houston, effectively in swimming distance from shore in a heavily populated area near Sunda Strait, Indonesia, have both been stripped over the years, Perth much more so than Houston.
According to an official 2017 report, Houston – whose wreck, along with Perth, was discovered back in the late 60’s / early 70’s – remains basically intact, that is commercial salvagers have not ripped her hull apart, while only about 40% of Perth, which rests nearby, still remains!
And after all, there has to be a collective (governmental) will around the world to really protect the wrecks in the first place, and if the truth be known, there simply isn’t.
And if there is money to be made the temptation will always be there, as “where there’s a will, there’s a way”, and someone will always find a way around any ‘regulations’ that may be put in place.
Why, even the British Government themselves didn’t seem too perturbed about the non-disturbance of a ‘war grave’ when they OK’d the salvage of the gold aboard HMS Edinburgh many years ago, herself a war grave. Yes, there was a huge amount of gold there, and I am not saying the gold should not have been salvaged, but… that still smacks of the old “don’t do as I do, do as I say” adage, which you can’t expect everyone to follow when you yourself set a bad example.
As for the salvage industry itself so to speak, I am not sure what can be done there as I have no connection to it, but one would imagine (or at least hope) that much tighter controls would be placed on any remaining historically significant shipwrecks and a more regulated environment put in place to oversee the sale of ocean salvaged scrap metal. But it’s too late for that now, or in most South East Asian waters at least.
“Take only photos, leave only bubbles” is one of the mottos of scuba diving; how important is the role of the scuba diving community to preserve wrecks?
Yes, that is one motto, but another I’ve heard is “take what you find before someone else does”. In some parts of the world the dive operator that takes divers out to a wreck site may have a strict rule of not allowing artifacts to be brought up, while in other parts of the world it is actually allowed / condoned.
As I said elsewhere though, the small amount of damage done by individual divers pales into insignificance when compared to the industrial scale commercial salvage that has taken place in Asian waters recently (i.e. circa 2013 -2016). So I am not sure if the scuba community itself can do much of anything really except report to the authorities when commercial salvage operators are seen over an historical or ‘protected’ wreck site.
Tell us about some memorable experiences you had while diving, related to any of the wrecks you explored, or other dives or any human story.
Well, first, the human story. Two of the most memorable experiences of my diving career were meeting some of the crew from two of the warships we discovered and attending a memorial service over the respective wrecks with them.
That is, the discovery of HMS Exeter lead to personally meeting four of the actual crew members off Exeter that survived her sinking – and then spent the three and a half years of the rest of the war in brutal Japanese Prisoner Of War camps.
As it turned out, I was fortunate enough to be invited along to journey back out into the Java Sea with them aboard HMS Kent for a memorial service over their old ship in 2008.
And during that wreath laying memorial service I had the privilege to present to them the British Navy ensign that I had taken down to the wreck and ‘flew’ over it when we first discovered Exeter in February, 2007.
This ensign was subsequently donated to the HMS Exeter Association, and now rests in the cathedral in the town of Exeter, England, and is brought out on display each year during the association’s annual reunion and parade.
It is not to be confused with another ensign, donated by the crew of the then current British destroyer HMS Exeter (D89), which was left attached to the wreck when we departed from our 2008 return visit.
And some years prior to that ceremony in the Java sea, that is in 2005, I travelled to Penang, Malaysia (just north of where HIJMS Haguro was sunk) and attended the first meeting / reunion between two old foes, that is some survivors off HIJMS Haguro and veterans off HIJMS Kamikaze (the attendant Japanese destroyer with Haguro when she was sunk) meeting with veterans of the British 26th Destroyer Flotilla, which sank Haguro.
We then travelled all together down to the wreck site aboard a hired ferry and performed a memorial service and wreath laying ceremony over the wreck.
I must say now in retrospect it was somewhat ironic that Haguro had sunk both Hr. Ms. Kortenaer and Hr. Ms. De Ruyter with torpedoes, and then helped sink HMS Exeter with gunfire (all in the Java Sea in 1942), and was then herself sunk by torpedoes from British destroyers in the Malacca Strait in 1945.
We then discovered all four wrecks over a period of several years and then I meet up with veterans and survivors from two of those ships some 60 odd years after they were sunk.
Call it fate or what you like, but meetings like that and the coincidence of the sinking’s and ‘linked’ discoveries is what made discovering those wrecks and diving on those historical treasures so special! What an honour it was to have met all those men and walked down memory lane with them!
They are two very special highlights of my diving career. And of course another human highlight I would be remiss not to mention is the earlier interaction I had with some surviving veterans in the late 1990’s after our dives on their old ship, USS Atlanta. All those human “connections” are simply priceless!
But now, due to the illegal commercial salvaging in recent years those wrecks in Asian waters are gone, as in literally vanished!
Luckily, or thankfully at least, a considerable amount of survey information and photos / video from the wrecks was collected over the years before they we destroyed forever; as those wrecks were literally doorways into a past that is fast disappearing from the modern world we live in today.
Now for a few other underwater highlights not previously described in this interview, although it is hard to top those South East Asian wreck discovery dives off MV Empress as they were all highlights in their own right.
But another was diving with my wife off MV Empress on the wreck of the Japanese destroyer HIJMS Amagiri (which was discovered by Empress just prior to me joining the group) south of Balikpapan off the east coast of Borneo in the Makassar Strait.
Amagiri became famous, or infamous as the case may be, from her action one night in the Solomon Islands in 1943 when she literally cut a US torpedo boat in half.
And that ‘boat’ happened to be not just any old torpedo boat, but PT-109, and at the time the skipper of PT-109 was none other than the future US president, John F. Kennedy. So another very interesting wreck with impeccable historical credentials.
And in only 28 metres / 92 feet of water! The bottom times for dives on her wreck were always much longer than the decompression times, whereas it was by far the other way round on the deeper wrecks. (That is, usually decompression times at least twice as long as bottom times, or often much more, on the deeper wrecks). But Amagiri too has now been completely salvaged.
Then there were the many other dives of the thousands I did in various parts of Australia, for instance; on the Far Northern Great Barrier Reef; on the deep-walled outer Coral Sea Islands; off the northern New South Wales coast at Byron Bay, the Solitary Islands off Wooli, and South West Rocks; and last but not least a couple of wrecks down in Tasmania.
Another highlight, but ‘non-wreck’ was witnessing the amazing spectacle of a ‘bait ball’ being completely devoured by dolphins, sharks, giant tuna, mackerel and seabirds, all at the very same time!
Yes, believe it or not I used to be a fish photography diver once upon a time before getting bitten by the highly addictive “lust for rust” bug. This spectacle occurred off Cocos Island, Costa Rica in the very early 1990’s and my wife and I were diving off the Undersea Hunter, although the only hunting done off her was with underwater cameras!
Can’t recall how it came about but there was only the Hunter’s owner / skipper Avi Klapfer, my wife and myself in the water on this dive.
I have a series of images I took of the ball reducing in size over a period of about 40 minutes until there was simply nothing left, but there isn’t room for them all here, so I’ll tease you with just two. Needless to say, it was an unforgettable experience and no place for the faint hearted.
And this was the very first time this spectacle had been witnessed off Cocos, as recorded for posterity in the log book on ‘the Hunter’, but was subsequently then seen, somewhat irregularly, over the following years.
That is, once the crew knew the signs to look for (i.e. masses of Gannet birds dive bombing the water).
Other highlights were diving with enormous (but completely harmless) Whale Sharks off Western Australia with Kev Deacon; cage diving with Great White Sharks off South Australia with Kev and Rodney Fox (himself a surviving victim of a Great White Shark attack); and diving with 100’s and 100’s and 100’s ad infinitum of Hammerhead Sharks that swam by in an endless dense stream off several of the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, with Chris Newbert and his wife Birgitte, both world renowned photographers.
Or diving off Bob Halstead’s Telita in Papua New Guinea; diving the incomparably beautiful underwater caves in the Yucatan Peninsula area of eastern Mexico; being invited to the exclusive resort on Vatulele Island, Fiji, on an assignment to make the first exploration of the inland underwater caves there. Or diving the ‘Atomic’ wrecks of Bikini Atoll just before it officially opened in 1995 with only a few of us there. Man, you take your pick, it’s been one hell of a ride!
But, and there is always a ‘but’, isn’t there! Just so everyone doesn’t get the idea that the best part of a life spent in or on the ocean is all fun and games, I would be negligent not to mention the other ‘darker side’ rarely talked about.
That is I have had decompression sickness (‘the bends’) twice, the first not overtly serious but still requiring a treatment of almost five hours in a nearby hospital recompression chamber.
The second bend was a very different beast altogether as it took place at a rather remote location, where the nearest hospital was maybe ten hours away, and was very serious, with the onset of the symptoms starting about five minutes after coming out of the water and although breathing 100% oxygen on the surface, within ten minutes both my legs becoming paralysed to the extent of not be able to stand up, or walk unaided without being ‘carried’ between two people.
Hence, given the seriousness of the situation, I insisted on performing ‘in-water recompression’ then and there, and was thus carried back into the water to start the procedure.
Having myself treated other divers by this method in remote locations (the Solomon Islands in the mid-nineties for instance) using my own ‘professional standard’ in-water recompression kit (i.e. full face mask, surface communications to treated diver, tethered treated diver harness with treated divers depth controlled from the surface as per the timing of the recompression tables, etc.), I knew the drill well.
Therefore, I ran an in-water recompression treatment on myself, using open circuit scuba (i.e. regular scuba gear) with 100% oxygen and the timings -or an abbreviated version thereof- I remembered from previously studying the “Modified Australian In-Water Recompression Tables” method, although without all the above mentioned safety accessories, but with another two divers rotating in and out of the water to keep watch over me.
Three and a half or so hours later I walked out of the water (rather cold I might add) and other than having to take six weeks off diving on a hyperbaric doctor’s advice, I was not much worse for wear (or sillier, than I was before, although some of my friends may debate that).
I was actually told ‘off the record’ by the same doctor who advised me to take the six week break, who himself professionally frowned upon in-water recompression, that if I had not done it and had taken even a couple of hours to reach a chamber, in his opinion it would have been too late and I would have probably, he said almost certainly, been paralysed for life. Now, given the very rapid onset of the (extremely serious) neurological symptoms I experienced, I don’t doubt his professional “after action” opinion (some may call it speculation) for even one minute. And that folks, is not a good thought!
Also, since starting CCR diving back in 1999, I have suffered from progressively worsening (i.e. lengthier) episodes of HIM (or Hyperopic-Induced-Myopia), a relatively uncommon, though by no means unheard of occurrence amongst CCR divers.
It is caused by being exposed to high partial pressures of oxygen over an extended period of time, in my case while in the water breathing off a CCR, and was especially pronounced after multi days of diving, i.e. when often diving deep twice a day and then decompressing from same, over a period of say ten days to two weeks (or longer) during expeditions.
Like I said, it is relatively uncommon, but certainly not unknown amongst CCR divers, but I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to the percentage of CCR divers it effects, although I knew first hand a few, and knew of others worldwide also.
There is not the space here to expound on how CCR’s work and the intricacies of HIM, Google is your friend for that, but briefly, a CCR diver usually chooses, pre-dive (although more modern units than mine – though not necessarily ‘better’ units – are switchable ‘on-the fly’ underwater) an oxygen partial pressure ‘set-point’ that the electronics in the CCR will hold constant throughout the dive.
I habitually dived throughout my career with a set-point of 1.4 bar/ata, until I began my ascent and eventually reached the 6 metre / 20 foot decompression stop, where I would switch to pure (100%) oxygen, which then bumps the partial pressure up to 1.6 bar/ata (at 6m).
Fundamentally this all aids in shortening the decompression times that one would have if – both diving – and decompressing at lower partial pressures of oxygen.
After all, once the dive is over and one is ascending / decompressing, you don’t want to just hang around in the water any longer than necessary – no pun intended there, but the decompression portion of a dive is known as ‘hanging’. On the other hand, nor does one want to risk getting bent by getting out of the water too soon either!
Then after my 6m / 20ft decompression stop finished, my last stop was usually at 4.5 metres / 15 feet (or sometimes at 3 metres / 10 feet), which results in oxygen partial pressures of 1.45 bar/ata and 1.3 bar/ata respectively.
Anyway, long story short, breathing pure oxygen for extended periods of time at these high partial pressures has various effects on the body, and one effect is on your eyesight (and also other bodily organs, i.e. the lungs), although only a select few CCR divers it seems are subjected to the prolonged annoying HIM symptoms.
Essentially these symptoms are blurring of your vision, which usually eventually subsides. For instance, in my case, when it first started happening to me in 2001, the blurriness would be gone within a week after an expedition ended. However by 2010, it was sometimes the best part of three months before it completely went away. Argh, the joys of expeditionary diving!
And I have witnessed the odd fatality and near fatality also whilst diving. With Tom Mount on literally the very first trimix dive I ever made, that is during my initial trimix diver course back in 1993, we witnessed another (non-course) diver convulse and die in seconds at about 80 meters / 273 feet on a wreck off Pompano Beach, Florida. A very sobering sight indeed!
Unfortunately he had mistakenly switched to the pure (100%) oxygen he was carrying for decompression purposes. An almost instantaneous fatal mistake, as oxygen becomes toxic beyond a partial pressure of 1.6 bar/ata, and at 80m / 273ft it is a whopping 9 bar/ata!
And I have also lost several close and dear friends who have died whilst diving deep ship wrecks and caves. Spend long enough diving, especially deep, and you may also get bent, and also have friends die. Most deep divers have friends or acquaintances that have been bent or have died, especially if diving deep in caves or on wrecks.This is a known fact. And if I may be so blunt, if you don’t think you can accept that possibility, then I humbly suggest that you should not be diving deep (or maybe not at all).
I have also had to (well I didn’t ‘have to’, my friend Herb Ilic and I volunteered to) retrieve the body of the captain from the sunken trawler Nitelinger, in about 60-odd metres (197 feet) off the far north coast of New South Wales, Australia, where I then lived.
At the time police divers, because of Occupational Health and Safety regulations, were not permitted to dive deeper than 50m / 165ft – which has since changed with some of them becoming mixed gas (trimix) certified – and they must have a recompression chamber on site! But at least the local police took us out to the wreck site in the local areas search and rescue boat.
Then of course there was witnessing first-hand the infamous very deep-air “Wah Wah” dive in the Bahamas, surreptitiously made on open circuit (or regular scuba) by a rare, bold (some would say crazy, but that’s your call) few, during the SCR course being taught by the late Rob Palmer that I mentioned in Part 1 and which scared the pants off a few of the participants of said dive I might add. As they say, there are old divers, and there are bold divers, but very very few old and still diving bold divers!
So, by now I am sure many people, especially non-divers are wondering “are these people stupid, why do they do this”? Or “why put yourself at such risk knowing it is so dangerous”? (And especially so if you have a family, as many of us do / had.)
Well, first off you must acknowledge to yourself that there is a risk, then accept (or not) that risk, and then put plans in place to manage that risk. Of course those plans don’t always pan out, but… one has to at least try their hardest to be prepared for any eventuality.
“Hope for the best, plan for the worst” is a saying one of my instructors taught me. And as the loathsome Don Rumsfeld once said, and I quote “There are known knowns, there are known unknowns, and there are unknown unknowns”. Now that is a very sublime saying if one ponders it, and bad old Don hit the nail right on the head with that one, although I realise he wasn’t referring to scuba diving when he said that, it is still very apt for diving.
As for why we explorers take the risks we do; maybe a genetic deformity carried on down through the ages that makes certain people much list ‘risk adverse’ than others.
Or it can be as simple as an adventurous streak in some that makes one just have to know what is around the next corner in an unexplored cave, or finding out what that new and uncharted ‘blip’ is that just appeared on the sonar when searching for wrecks. I dunno, it beats me, I just do it and have been fortunate enough to have been there, done that, and thankfully still be around to tell the tale.
But anyone who dives deep, and I repeat anyone, especially on wrecks or in caves, myself included, has had their share of ‘hairy’ (as in SCARY!) moments, even if they won’t admit it publicly. On the other hand, as another good friend of mine Mark Spencer just today succinctly said in an email “…….we’ve all had some incredible experiences in diving that have enriched us in many ways for life”. How very very true! And he doesn’t mean enriched in monetary terms by any means.
There were of course many other memorable experiences, I could go on forever, but enough is enough. Just doing this interview has brought back a flood of hundreds of those old memories, both good and bad, but even the bad experiences you must find a way to take some good away from, otherwise, if I may be so bold to say, you’ve simply “wasted” that life experience.
After all, good or bad, it’s all in your mind anyway, you’ve just gotta turn “bad” thoughts into good or positive ones, however, or whichever way you can. You must always stay positive and never, ever give up! That is, never surrender to / in any situation, underwater or above. Better die trying than to just “give up”!
Right: The pub with no beer! Probably the rarest sight I ever witnessed, and I have witnessed countless in my many years of diving, including nine of those off MV Empress, occurred on Empress on our way back to Singapore after discovering HMS Exeter in 2007. And that was an empty beer fridge, and no beers left on board anywhere. Left: Captain Phil Yeutter (USN retired) and Captain Vidar Skoglie drinking the last two beers on board, and we are still one day out of Singapore! As you can see the good captain is not at all happy. If this had happened on a regular charter with a full contingent of divers aboard, instead of an exploratory expedition with just four of us on board, mark my word as anyone who has dived off Empress knows, there would have been a mutiny!
So there you have it, my take on my own experiences and with that, I’ll say good bye for now and if you’re reading this and diving is part or all of your life, then “if you can’t be good, be careful”.
Best fishes to everyone!
READ PART ONE OF KEVIN DENLAY’S UNDERWATER EXPLORATIONS: WW2 Shipwreck exploration by Kevin Denlay: “Going back in time and bringing the ships back to life” – PART 1
Link to Kevin’s bio page: http://anzec.org/profile/kevindenlay/
Some of Kevin’s published PDF Explorers Club expedition reports:
Some of Kevin’s photos of wrecks at Bikini Atoll and Guadalcanal:
Video and images of USS Perch from the discovery dive 2006:
Images of HMS Exeter’s wreck from the web page of maritime artist Robin Brooks, and also images of the wreath laying memorial service on-board HMS Kent in 2008: