Friday, October 20, 2017

Ship to wreck

"Under starless skies we are lost
And into the breach we got tossed
And the water's coming in fast...
Oh, my love remind me
What was it that I did?
Did I drink too much?
Am I losing touch?
Did I build a ship to wreck?"
- "Ship to wreck" by Florence and the Machine

Swimming across the coral reef, I made my body horizontal. My eyes were directed downward as always, scanning the corals and the sponges and the fish. I was in my zone. Lifting my head ever so subtly, I checked my boyfriend's position in front of me.

And was faced with a giant metallic wall.

This is the best picture I could get of the animals on the
Hilma Hooker wreck. Like I said, large portions of the hull
are completely empty and uncolonized.
It was the wreck of the Hilma Hooker, a cargo ship that sank off the coast of Bonaire in 1984. It's now a popular dive site and the only wreck in (my) divable depth range on the island. The ship rests on its side on the seafloor, so when approaching it from shore, you see the bottom of the hull first. Compared to the macro-scale of rock features on the reef, the Hooker's mega size is intimidating. It rises from the sand at the foot of the reef, creating an unnatural barrier and an unnatural habitat. It is impressive.

We swam over the top of the wreck to the seaward side, and I couldn't help but notice the organisms living on it - or rather lack thereof. Most of the ship's hull was still uncolonized, and what organisms were there belonged to just a few species. I remember stovepipe sponges and brain corals being the most common. There were also a number of flat patches of red or orange - colonial ascidians and encrusting sponges. Ascidians are not common on the coral reefs (I presume because they are outcompeted), so I started to wonder if they had found a lower-competition refuge on the wreck. My mind started spinning, thinking about other shipwrecks I had seen or read about, how their communites were formed, whether they might be refuges for uncommon species.

We passed over the wreck to the seaward side. There's a large, cavernous opening where the cargo hold used to be, so the hull arches over the sand like a cave. You can actually see inside the ship pretty far by crouching on the sand next to it. My boyfriend regularly swims inside shipwrecks, so he was confident taking me into the wide-open cavern. Friends, that was quite the experience. I had more than enough gas in my tank and was in no danger of getting entangled, but still my body seized. I could feel my breaths quickening and my pulse rising as I swam just a few feet inside. Spinning around with my fins, I looked back toward the broad opening and realized I could still see the sun. I could swim out anytime. I was fine.

One of the most important skills in SCUBA diving is keeping yourself calm underwater. Even though it only lasted a few seconds, I was disappointed in myself for reacting how I did. But when I described the feeling to my boyfriend later, he just shook his head and said, "Babe, if you hadn't felt that way, you'd be broken."

Underwater selfie near the Hilma Hooker
To be honest, I'm not sure how often I'll venture inside wrecks, because for me, all the interesting stuff is on the outside. The only species I remember seeing inside the cavern were serpulid polychaetes, little worms in white calcium tubes.

Still, the Hilma Hooker was fascinating to see - massive, dominating, unnatural. I wondered if the wreck would be covered by more organisms with time or eventually come to resemble the neighboring reef. I guess I'll have to come back and check!

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