Many Caribbean islands have a signature wreck-dive, and some have two or three, but between them Grenada and its sister-island Carriacou boast a veritable fleet of shipwrecks just waiting to be explored – with the star of the show still the liner Bianca C, as MARK EVANS explains
There are few countries that can compete globally with Grenada & Carriacou when it comes to shipwrecks, never mind in the Caribbean. Even more incredibly, many of the sunken vessels were genuine maritime accidents, not purpose-sunk artificial reefs.
And, because the islands lie near a busy trade route, the number of wrecks available to dive is going up all the time.
This is good news for divers, and whether you’re a newly qualified or a hardcore diving veteran, you will find a multitude of suitable shipwrecks awaiting your visit. And if you aren’t into your sunken metal – which is fine – never fear: the sheer amount of marine growth and fish life that lives on and around the wrecks mean that most dives will be a swirling riot of vibrant colour.
The Bianca C
Like many Hollywood starlets of a certain generation, this grand old dame may be starting to show her age, but there is no doubting that she still commands respect and remains alluring for experienced divers visiting Grenada. One of the largest diveable shipwrecks in the world, Bianca C’s vital statistics are mightily impressive – 181m long, 23m wide, 18,427 tonnes. That is one big lump of metal.
This immense Italian liner has been a fixture on the Grenada diving scene since she sank in 1961, but delve into her history and you find that she actually sank twice!
Bianca C was built in 1939 on the south coast of France, and after being launched as an incomplete ship named Marechal Petain, was first sunk by German forces in August 1944. The submerged hull was raised in 1946 and taken back to its original shipyard, where it was extensively refitted and launched once again in 1949, this time as a luxurious cruise ship bearing the name La Marseillaise.
She then became known as the Arosa Sky in 1957 after being sold. Finally, in 1959, she was bought by the G Costa company of Genoa and renamed Bianca C after a daughter in the family firm. Tasked with the run from Naples in Italy to Guaira in Venezuela, Grenada was her last stop on the return leg.
On 22 October, 1961, while anchored off Grenada’s capital St George’s, an explosion in the boiler-room caused the vessel to catch fire. Hordes of local boats – ranging from rowing boats, sailing vessels, powerboats and tiny dinghies to ocean-going yachts and inter-island trading schooners responded to the crisis. They rescued all but one person, who perished on board.
Twelve of the crew were badly burnt, and two other men died later. Showing the friendliness and generosity for which Grenada is renowned, all of the rescued passengers were given food and shelter in hotels, guest-houses and even private homes.
British frigate HMS Londonderry was in Puerto Rico and sailed down to Grenada to assist. When the naval vessel arrived on 24 October, Bianca C was still ablaze, boiling the sea around her glowing stern.
The frigate managed to take the huge liner in tow, aiming to move it away from the shipping lanes, but it proved problematic because Bianca C’s rudders were jammed. Eventually the tow-line snapped and the ship sank, which is how the wreck came to rest upright in some 50m of water off Pink Gin Beach.
Diving Bianca C
I first dived Bianca C many years ago, in 1999. Back then, apart from some sections of the main superstructure that had partially collapsed, the wreck was still very much shipshape. The swimming pool – this was a luxury cruise liner, after all – was immediately recognisable, with its blue and white tiled bottom and sides clearly visible.
It was relatively easy (if you had the correct training and skill-set) to venture inside and check out some of the cabins and social areas.
As the current predominantly runs from stern to bow, on each dive we descended rapidly to the elegantly curved stern, took a quick “dip” in the pool and then began to drift with the flow along the main deck level. We perused various sections of the superstructure as we floated effortlessly, before finally clearing the dominant bridge and gliding over the gigantic bow.
As the current whipped us off the wreck and into blue water – you eventually pick up Whibble Reef and can then make your way steadily shallower to end your dive – I recall everyone always turning around to watch the bow slowly disappear into the gloom.
Save for the fact that there were no railings on Bianca C’s bow, it was very reminiscent of images of the Titanic, and probably accounts partly for its nickname “Titanic of the Caribbean“.
I dived the wreck several more times through the 2000s, and each time noticed that it had succumbed to its watery grave a little more, with its superstructure becoming increasingly unstable.
Its slow but steady demise was evident in the “rust cloud” it generated, which was flushed into the water column by the current, dropping the visibility while on the wreck itself but somehow adding to the whole experience.
My most recent visit to the Bianca C came after a hiatus of several years, and I saw a vast difference. Most of the wreck’s starboard side had collapsed down and out onto the seabed, and her huge masts had toppled over. Penetration into the wreck is not advisable any more, given its state of decay, but that isn’t to say there is not plenty still to see.
The swimming-pool can still be explored, although there is not that much tiling left, and there are swim-throughs and overhangs to venture in and under.
British divers who are used to seeing wrecks broken apart, smothered in silt and rust and in less-than-perfect vis, will relish diving on the Bianca C, because their honed eyes will easily be able to pick out key aspects of the ship, including bollards, winches, parts of the superstructure and the bow chain and rope locker.
That monstrous bow is still just as impressive as it was when I first saw it back in 1999, so remember to turn round and soak up the view as you leave the ship.
As an alternative dive to the traditional stern-to-bow drift, tech divers can also drop onto the wreck near the bridge and then head over the side of the bow to the seabed some 20m below. At 50m-52m, a short distance from the bottom of the bow, you can find a vast anchor lying on the bottom, its huge forks protruding upwards.
If you have a wide-angle lens – and the vis allows – it could make for a seriously impressive photograph to put the anchor in the foreground and have the bow looming in the background. Having an open water diver silhouetted next to the bow would only add to the drama.
Spending more than 60 years on the seabed has taken its toll on the old girl, but there is no taking away from the epic scale of this enormous vessel, and it still makes a fine flagship for the rest of Grenada and Carriacou’s sunken fleet.
This 50m freighter was carrying much-needed bags of cement for the building industry on Grenada when she was caught in a fierce storm in May 2001. The heavy cargo shifted and she went down, settling upright in 32m.
The remnants of the bags of cement can clearly be seen in the holds – the cement has set, and the bags have long since disintegrated, leaving giant “pillows” stacked in neat piles – but its real draw is the rich smothering of coral and sponge growth that seems to have taken over every square centimetre of the hull, superstructure and, especially, the large crane lying amidships.
This is liberally covered in gorgonian seafans, while the stern of the ship almost looks like a fluffy white wall dive with its thick coating of coral.
I first dived the Shakem in 2002, so the wreck hadn’t been down that long, yet I recall being astounded by the amount of coral and sponge growth that had accumulated on it in fewer than 12 months. It is testament to how nutrient-rich the waters are that surround these islands, just how quickly and profusely encrusting marine life can take hold and flourish.
Now the wreck is, in parts, almost unrecognisable as being man-made, such is the density of the coral and sponge growth.
Smaller than the Shakem at 40m long, the Veronica L was also a freighter. It sank after springing a leak, but was then raised and moved to a location near Grand Anse after work had begun on a cruise-ship dock.
Now lying upright in 15m, this is a perfect wreck-dive for all levels – even snorkellers can enjoy the site if the vis is good – and, like the Shakem, it is adorned with marine growth and inhabited by shoals of fish.
If you want to get a little more depth, you can even follow the anchor-chains off the stern down to a small drop-off at a depth of 30m. For experienced divers, this is actually not a bad idea.
Drop on to the wreck off the dive-boat and immediately head off to the drop-off. Spend a little time exploring this area, which is rich in marine life, and then return to the wreck itself to complete the rest of your dive.
Because of its small size and shallow location, the Veronica L is popular with underwater photographers. The light is good and it’s easy to cover the entirety of the wreck several times during a single dive.
The Atlantic side of Grenada – which is often rougher, with large swells, but also benefits from having tremendous visibility – is home to several world-class shipwrecks, and one of the best is the King Mitch.
Originally a US Navy minesweeper from World War Two, she was retro-fitted as a freighter by having two cargo holds inserted in her middle, with a crane attached to the deck between them. It is a very strange-looking wreck, to all intents and purposes resembling a box with a pointed front!
It lies several miles offshore on its side in 32m, where it sank in 1981 when its bilge pump failed. There is some coral growth, but because the wrecks on this side of the island are often swept by sometimes fierce currents, this is nowhere near as dense as it would be on the Caribbean side.
What it does have are nurse sharks – lots of them – and southern sting rays, not to mention patrolling barracuda and amberjack. It is this pelagic action that draws divers to the King Mitch, rather than the wreck itself. But don’t overlook the vessel, which is still intriguing to explore.
Also on the Atlantic side, but a little closer to land, is the cargo vessel Hema I. Like the Shakem, it was carrying cement, but had actually delivered its consignment to the island and was heading back to Trinidad on 1 March, 2005 when it suffered a failed bilge-pump and ended up in 30m of water.
Soon after this the wreck was broken apart by a severe hurricane surge, and now the hull and bow lie on their port sides, with the midships well-flattened.
This wreck is another haunt for nurse sharks, which swarm in large numbers under hull-plates and near the bow, while reef sharks sometimes pay a fleeting visit from out of the blue.
More photo-friendly than the King Mitch, the Hema I offers plenty for underwater snappers. Yes, the sharks are a huge attraction, and you can get very close to them if you are patient and take your time, but make sure to turn some of your attention to the wreck, which has a few extremely picturesque areas.
Remember to take a peek down through an open porthole on the rear superstructure. A massive turtle obviously made its way inside at some time in the past and then tragically failed to find its way out, and its remains lie clearly visible inside the Hema I.
A more recent addition to Grenada’s underwater fleet on the Atlantic side is this cargo ship, which went down in 35m in March 2017. Algae was quick to take a hold and marine life to move in, with various reef fish and the invasive lionfish soon taking up residence.
Being some eight miles offshore means that currents can be strong, and Persia II lies close to deep water, so only time will tell what will eventually call this wreck home.
It is always quite eerie diving a wreck that has only been down a short time, and when I dived the site it had been down only a matter of months. The bridge was still full of the usual bells and whistles, including the ship’s wheel and throttle controls, and you could pull open the drawers in the units.
The ship’s horns were still shiny chrome, albeit with a light smattering of algal growth, and there were thick ropes floating up into the water all over the vessel. It will be interesting making a return visit to see how much the marine life has claimed the Persia II for the sea.
Not that they necessarily need it with such a selection of genuine shipwrecks, but Grenada and Carriacou also boast several artificial reefs, with more usually in the pipeline.
The sloop Buccaneer was sunk for divers way back in 1978, and now lies on its starboard side in just 24m. As you can imagine, having been on the seabed for the best part of 40 years, it is absolutely festooned with marine growth.
It is only small but it’s home to plenty of fish life, and its compact nature makes it perfect for a spot of underwater photography.
This cargo vessel has been on the bottom since 2007, and lies in Grand Mal Bay in 35m, so is one for more experienced divers. Like the shallower Buccaneer, it has collected a thick layer of encrusting coral and sponge growth, despite only been down for a quarter of the time, further testament to the nutrient-rich waters around the islands.
Its large open holds provide the perfect environment for shoals of fish. Spadefish and barracuda often swim above the wreck.
On Carriacou near Mabouya Island lie the Twin Tugs, two vessels sitting upright within a short distance of one another in 28-30m, though for a thorough exploration of both, they are best visited individually because of the depth.
Both are around 30m long – the Westsider was sent to the bottom on 4 September, 2004, and the Boris followed on 10 September, 2007.
The two wrecks are covered in vibrant red and orange encrusting corals and algae, and penetration into the interior is possible on both. The vast engine-rooms are definitely worth checking out if you are suitably trained for overhead environments.
Currents can sometimes sweep across these wrecks, and they are home to angelfish, wrasse, soldierfish, lobster and moray eels.
If you’re into your sunken metal, it‘s hard to avoid factoring Grenada and Carriacou into your must-dive list. The sheer number of shipwrecks, genuine and artificial, is mind-blowing, and you could happily fill two weeks sating your lust for rust.
The Bianca C is well worth a few dives, because on the first one you will just be blown away by the size of the thing, and the Atlantic wrecks are great for blending bigger marine life with submerged metal, but don’t dismiss the shallower wrecks on the other side of the island – they are smothered in marine growth and home to a multitude of fish.
Each wreck has its own attractions, and together they combine to make up a fleet of monumental proportions.
Photographs by Mark Evans