It’s at 65m and each year’s storms leave it a little more ravaged, but this French liner, sunk by a U-boat towards the end of WW1, is one of the world’s great underwater experiences, says RICK AYRTON
TEN PEOPLE DIED WHEN Le Polynesien was torpedoed by a German U-boat on 10 August, 1918. But the French Risbec-class ocean liner had enjoyed an illustrious start. Built by Messageries Maritime, La Ciotat, she had been launched on 18 April, 1890, by France’s president Marie Francois Sadi Carnot.
Le Polynesien was built for hot climes. She had limited superstructure that carried canvas shades covering the decks to give some relief from tropical sun. The 6659-ton ship was 152m long and had a single triple-expansion engine powered by 12 coal-fed boilers. This generated 7500hp, her four-bladed propeller pushing her along at a top speed of 17.5 knots.
The liner worked the France-Australia route and later Far East and French colony destinations. At the start of WW1 she was requisitioned and armed by the French authorities as a troop transport.
Her final voyage, so close to the end of the war, was from Marseilles to Salonica. She was torpedoed some seven miles outside the Grand Harbour, Valletta in Malta by UC22, commanded by Eberhard Weichold.
Le Polynesien now lies upright with a lean to port in 65m of clear Mediterranean water and makes for a magnificent dive – preferably more than one. I have dived this wreck several times, and am sad to see its gradual deterioration as the elements claim it.
The depth keeps most tourist-divers away but those trained to make the most of a 60m dive can say that, whatever the deterioration, they have been on one of the world’s most spectacular shipwrecks.
Certainly it is one of the most complete, but with enough breaks to give a decent glimpse beneath the exterior. As a big seabed obstruction it also plays host to shoals of fish and some larger predatory species such as barracuda and tuna. Smaller fish somehow find divers less of a problem when the predators are cruising, and you can find your visibility obstructed by fish-soup on occasion.
A dive will start at about 50m, when you arrive at one of the higher points on the starboard rail. A quick check of your surroundings at this point will help with your eventual return to the shotline. Looking around, you will be impressed by the framework of the superstructure still standing.
If you are aft of the engine, this structure sits above the still mainly intact wooden decking, and would have supported those canvas sun-shades for passengers promenading on deck.
Moving aft on the port side, a steering position with the remains of the wooden ship’s wheel is present. The spokes have gone but the central boss and rim remain – a second rim lies on the seabed below this point.
A little further on you come to the main armament, a large encrusted gun, probably 155mm, with hand-wheels to operate elevation and traverse. It sits impotently on top of the classic stern, which is above the rudder and, lower down, the prop.
The seabed here is at 65m so it takes a tremendous 10m-plus freefall off the stern to take in these structures.
The prop has an unusual shape and there is space to swim between it and the rest of the ship.
After exploring the stern, return on the port side, where there is more debris. Pass the wheel on the seabed, then follow the remains of one of the masts back to the deck. Move forward here. Above the engine-room, the massive engine-block and several boilers (or parts of them) are visible.
There seems to be a break or twist in the wreck in front of the boilers, and a dark cavern presents a very tempting entrance into the wreck’s interior.
SINCE I FIRST DIVED THIS WRECK in 2003 the deck levels have been slowly collapsing. There is less space now, although it remains perfectly diveable with care.
Each year’s winter storms are likely to bring more deterioration to this grand 125-year-old lady.
The inner spaces are an overhead environment, so extra care needs to be taken. The interior is a bit silty, and rust debris can be dislodged from the roof, but I have always been aware of blue exterior light penetrating, and that exiting has been straightforward.
If at all concerned do not enter or, alternatively, lay a line.
Square structures that drop between the decks allow access or egress. More than one deck level can be entered and fascinating artefacts can be seen, including plates, patent fuel, remains of beds, seating fixed in rows, rubber tyres, wine bottles and, if you’re lucky enough to find them, cut-glass bottles of perfume, some still containing dark amber liquid.
Malta operates a strict no-take policy, and I would urge divers to respect this to allow others the pleasure of discovering these artefacts for themselves.
After rummaging around inside for a while, the outside beckons again. Squeezing between the bars of the square structure (actually fairly straightforward) provides a clear exit that brings you onto the foredeck area.
Move forward to the small bow gun, which looks like a toy compared to the aft weapon.
If you can, get in front of the ship to check out its knife-edge bow, designed to cut effortlessly through the waves, but because the currents can be quite fierce take care not to be swept off the wreck as you move off it. The two massive anchors are still stowed either side of the bow, just as they were in 1918.
Time and deco do not wait, so start working your way back to the shotline. Over the break in front of the engine, drop to get a better view, and spend a bit of time looking around this area.
Oil-boxes can be seen, with small-bore pipework that would have carried oil to the engine bearings.
Walkway gratings can be seen, and it isn’t difficult to imagine the engineers with their rags and oil-pots moving around to keep the immense steam engine working as efficiently as possible.
Soon after leaving the engine area familiar landmarks come into view, followed by the shotline. A quick farewell, then it’s off up to the surface – with a fair bit of decompression first.
THE DEPTH OF THIS WRECK makes it a technical dive, and narcosis-risk apart, any diver attempting it on a single cylinder of air would be very unwise.
On my most recent trip the group was a mixture of rebreather and open-circuit trimix divers, but I think the depth makes this wreck a perfect rebreather dive. It can be completed within duration parameters set by the dive manager, yet gives enough time to fully appreciate the spectacle.
On my last dive, which gave me 50 minutes of bottom time, I needed 105 minutes of decompression, and so enjoyable was the dive that the time passed remarkably quickly.
The rewards are big for wreck aficionados, so if you’re not already, get trained and dived up, and go and see for yourself!
Rick’s dive was organised by Jack Ingle Technical Diving, jackingle.co.uk, with support from Maltaqua and based at its centre in St Paul’s Bay, maltaqua.com
Appeared in DIVER August 2016