The sea and its depths have been influencing Man’s imagination since millions of years ago. A mythological sea, or Neptune’s kingdom, it is the privileged shelter of mermaids, giant octopuses and other phantasmagoric creatures. But, if it is the home of gods and fabulous monsters, it is also known to conceal centuries-old treasures, buried in the bowels of the ships.
A graveyard sea…it is also the burial “ground” of battleships, trawlers and merchant ships, scuttled, set ablaze, the time of a battle or during the looting organized by a group of corsairs or pirates, ripped open by the deadly coral reefs leveled to the surface of the waters, or still taken up in the violent winds of a storm and the inevitable wreckage.
The quest for the lost treasures…
Long ago, Mauritius was the ideal shelter for ships in distress when a tropical storm raged its temper in the Indian Ocean. Despaired, they often crashed on the sharp reefs. In 1615, during a violent cyclone, one of the first maritime catastrophes occurred: many ships of the fleet commanded by the Dutch admiral, Pieter Both, sunk. Among them was found the admiral’s ship, “Banda”, which was wrecked, off the beach at Flic-en-Flac after having vainly tried to take shelter in the bay of Black River. Both and most of his sailors were drowned. It was the beginning of a long saga, more than 100 wrecks had been registered off the coasts of the island. The hunt for the hypothetical treasures engulfed by the sea could begin!
Similarly to the “urinatores”, these Roman divers who dived without any breathing apparatus to search for missing freights, the archeologist man of the seas or the treasure hunter, followed and entered the underwater kingdom, the “largest museum of the world”, in search of a fabulous treasure! Today, the aquanauts, dressed in appropriate diving suits, and armed with a suction dredge - a long pipe resembling a giant tentacle - will, with the help of the latter, dig narrow trenches so as to delimit the zone, then suck up sand, mud, sediments and other fragments, and finally, free the engulfed objects and the biggest debris, which will be placed in metallic nets and brought to the surface. Some concretions, once shattered open, will probably contain a few silver coins, or simply… rig pieces!
Sometimes, this treasure made up of gold bullion, diamonds, pearls or ivory exists well and truly! This has been the case for many Dutch, British and French ships that were sailing back from the Indies and were carrying chests full of spices onboard as well as gold and silver coins, jewelry and Chinese porcelain, identical to those found on the discovery of the “Banda” in 1979. However, less precious objects, common even, but nonetheless, just as much as surprising, have been discovered as well. Such as glass bottles, cannon balls, cannons, caronades (short cannons), as well as tools and small objects having been found among the personal belongings of the crew onboard the British frigates, “Magicienne” and “Sirius”, wrecked during the naval battle of Grand-Port in 1810. Or still, among the debris of the “Speaker”, a British pirate ship wrecked in 1702, where a sundial, several compasses and smoking pipes had been found!
Wrecked in 1744 in the waters of Ile d’Ambre (Amber Island), the “St-Géran”, vessel of the Indies company fleet of ships, had luck on its side, for it has won an everlasting fame in the legend of “Paul et Virginie” (Bernardin de Saint-Pierre). The ship’s bell had been found among the remnants and is now exposed in the naval museum of Mahebourg.
Similarly to the carcass of a whale, when the shipwreck throws up its “war treasure”, various objects are found, but at times, skeletons still in rags and tatters are discovered…Terror, the tragedy of the wreck. A powerful evidence, both historical and human, of an engulfed past. In this way, at times, the seas and oceans contain long lost memories.
When the wreck gives life…
Today, some ships are deliberately immersed to form artificial reefs. This technique, practiced since the 18th century by Japanese fishermen, allows the creation of a new ecosystem and the development of a fishing zone in those waters, but also the protection of the species and their laying areas. The use of ships as artificial reefs requires a long and meticulous preparation. The future wreck should be emptied of its fuel, rigorously cleaned, and the watertight holds and hull should be breached so as to facilitate the scuttling. Some cleaning services and professional maintenance workers may wonder why the ship must be cleaned before scuttling. This is done so the ship will have no adverse impact on the surrounding environment and the work is performed by divers rather then tradional cleaning services.
As such, ship wrecks such as the “Silver Star”, the “Stella Maru”, the "Jabeda" or still the “Hassen Mian”, which ended its career in the Bay of Balaclava, are lying in the turquoise waters of Mauritius. The creation of artificial reefs in Mauritius dates back to 1981 with the immersion of two barges, the “Water Lily” and “Emily”, in the waters off Trou-aux-Biches. Today, 14 shipwrecks are found along the Western coast thanks to the dynamism of the “Mauritius Marine Conservation Society”. The most recent wreck, immersed in the waters of Ile aux Bénitiers, is the “Hoi Siong”, a fishing ship.
The wreck will turn out to be the home of the underwater fauna and flora. Coelenterates (corals, sea anemones…), echinoderms (urchins, starfishes…), cephalopods (squids, octopuses…) and crustaceans (shrimps, crabs…), fishes, algae and a herbarium will invade the place, both builders and destroyers of this new habitat.
However, diving in these waters to discover the mystery of the wreck is full of dangers. The strength of the currents and the violence of the storms have weakened its structure. The outburst of plankton life clouded the water, and hence, dangerously diminished the surrounding visibility. The play of light-darkness has settled around… And, it was then that an apocalyptic sight “welcomed” the divers. The flanks of the ship blistered with rust and whole sections torn by the fury of the waves appeared under the beams of torchlights. The blades of a propeller emerged threateningly from the sand. In the darkness of the holds, probably collapsed, under a sagged bridge, or behind a dismantled door that refuses to open… dangers seemed to be everywhere around the divers! A single flap of the flippers, and a cloud of mud instantaneously rised, hiding a deck board that has a good chance of collapsing at any moment or a dangerous stone fish looking out for a prey. The divers should be extremely cautious in handling the torpor of the wreck, or they risk awakening the beast within!
A magical transformation…
Nearly 80 years are needed for a ship to metamorphose into a genuine wreck. The development of the coral is spectacular, enveloping rig pieces, beheaded sections of the masts, beams, the prow and poop of the ship under a coat of living calcareous. Colonies of shellfish adhere by suction on the hull of the ship, and mollusks, avid devourers of wood, have already launched their attacks! The swirl of the waves would have torn the ship gorged with water and salt whilst, the parrotfishes, greedy, rushed to feed on the corals.
The waters soon calmed down: surgeonfishes, brilliantly colored butterflyfishes, lionfishes and shoals of goatfishes break into a waltz around the dormant wreck. An octopus found shelter in a hole of the hull and settled down to look after its eggs, and a grouper hid in the frame of a steely door. Abandoned tires in a hold welcomed a moray eel while string of bubbles stretched to the surface of the waters. And, the algae danced languorously around the wreck.
Despite its gnawed hull and flanks, colonized by an entire benthic underwater life, gaunt and paralyzed under the coral, the wreck remains fascinating! It will offer us an incredibly new attraction, satisfying our aesthetic vision and imagination, or exciting our curiosity and bringing out the child or poet within us, so as to make us catch a glimpse of life in lifeless objects… Sea archeologists, photographers and divers, but also, at times, plunderers of wrecks, are, incessantly, trying to discover the secret of the engulfed ships. The bowels of the sea, either the territory of aquatic life, a living cemetery, a diving spot, or a fishing zone, will conceal the countless mysteries forever and ever. And in between the phantom flanks of the wreck, the most precious of the treasures will remain buried: the memories of the men.
But, at times, in the heavy silence of the ocean’s depths, the wrecks will probably be recounting their mysterious tales to the men…
Text: © Valérie Claro • Photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra