The seas of the world are littered with the remains of ships from centuries past. Many wrecks have been found, but there is little information about them – what ship was it, who did it belong, when was it sunk? And then there are those whose whereabouts are known, but they have yet to be found. Locating and documenting wrecks is an arduous job, not to mention a potentially hazardous one, requiring attentiveness to disintegrating sections of an old and eroding ship, or even explosive munitions at the wreck of a sunken warship. Such tasks demand a certain breed of person, and there is none that best embodies that character than Rod Macdonald – a veteran shipwreck explorer whose tales will certainly turn some heads.
From the coasts of his native Scotland to the seas of Southeast Asia, Rod has travelled the world in search of wrecks. He leads a team of technical divers who seek out lost and undived shipwrecks– some still officially listed as Missing in Action from WWII. The team venture far off shore to find and dive roughly 3-5 virgin shipwrecks a year, and by using specialist deep diving kit, they dive to depths of 100 metres (more than 300 feet) in their quest to unlock the sunken secrets of our maritime history.
Now, Rod stands as an internationally renowned shipwreck explorer, undersea adventurer and best selling diving author with 10 books to his name to date. He has also been inducted The Explorer’s Club of New York, which boasts past members as illustrious as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Sir Edmund Hillary, Shackleton, Amundsen amongst many others.
Rodd is something of a history buff – which definitely goes with the territory of finding lost wrecks from the past. He uses his intimate knowledge of history and world events to reveal what lies hidden beneath the waves – weaving spell-binding stories of tragic losses and great heroism. In fact, his beautifully illustrated dive guides to world famous dive locations such as the German WWI High Seas Fleet wrecks of Scapa Flow or the Japanese WWII wrecks of Truk Lagoon have become internationally accepted definitive dive guides.
What got you into diving and exploring wrecks?
It was a snorkelling trip when I was working as a student in Florida that got me into diving. I saw sharks, barracuda, coral, and just loved the vast spaces – I became determined to learn to dive and get down and be part of the seascape, instead of just viewing it from above. As for wrecks, I identified a wreck off my own north east coast of Scotland that had been known about for a while, but had never been identified. After a bit of research, I identified it from the 1880’s. Then, I went to Scapa Flow and spent a week exploring the three battleships and four light cruisers of the German WWI High Seas Fleet that were scuttled there on 21 June 1919. Suffice to say, I was hooked.
What is your mission/ purpose in exploring wrecks?
Every dive for me on a shipwreck is a working dive nowadays – and my wreck diving breaks down into types. I look for shipwrecks whose loss in a general area is known about but which hasn’t been found yet – and then go on to survey it as best I can. I also try to document and write about special shipwrecks that are known about but for which there is a lack of good information for divers. I try to recount the story and try to bring the wreck alive and let divers understand what happened – as well as providing essential information for divers to dive it.
What was the first wreck?
The first wreck I dived was the WWII wreck of the mine layer HMS Port Napier that lies off the Isle of Skye on the west coast of Scotland. She is a big 550-foot long vessel that went on fire while she was being loaded with 500 naval mines and ordnances alongside the pier at Kyle of Lochalsh. The fire got out of control and she was towed unmanned away from the pier – if she had blown up she would have destroyed the town. There was an explosion that blew parts of her onto Skye and she rolled over and sank.
The story behind your most memorable exploration/ or find?
There is a WWII shipwreck 14 miles off north east Scotland called the SS Creemuir. She set off in November 1941 leading the port column of a convoy of 32 ships from the Firth of Forth to Nova Scotia. The convoy was attacked by German torpedo bombers flying from Norway. The Creemuir was hit and went down in three minutes. There were only 12 survivors out of the crew of 42.
I posted a few lines in my blog about diving the wreck a few years ago and was staggered to be contacted by the ex-Royal Navy Radio Officer Noel Blacklock, now the only living survivor from the sinking – and then 90 years old. He gave me his whole wartime account. When the ship was hit by an aerial torpedo he rushed on deck just as she was going under, and was hit on the head and knocked out as she went down.
Noel recovered consciousness underwater and saw the ship sinking beside him by the stern – he last saw the bow going down. After 45 minutes in the water he was picked up by a raft with three other survivors. Eventually, the raft was spotted by a Dutch freighter that called into Aberdeen and the survivors were put up in the Seaman’s Mission.
We located the bell a few years ago and recovered it and presented it to him. For him to see it again after nearly 70 years was very emotional for both Noel and my dive group. Noel sadly passed away last October and the bell was displayed at his funeral.
I’ve had relatives of other crew members from the same ship get in touch. One ladies’ father, a Creemuir survivor, died in 1963 when she was 16. He never talked about the war and she was too young to ask. She asked if I could tell her anything about the wreck, so I put her in touch with Noel. It turned out that her father was one of the three crew who hauled him into the raft in 1941. Imagine meeting someone who your father helped rescue after 70 years?
What equipment do you use?
Otter Britannic drysuit, Weazle Extreme undersuit, Inspiration Vision Closed Circuit Rebreather usually with a trimix diluent, 2 bail out 7 or 10L cylinders, one with a deep bailout 17/70 trimix and the other EAN50.
What is the most challenging environment/ wreck you dived in?
The Corryvreckan Whirlpool off the west Scotland in the Gulf of Scarba, between two Scottish islands, Jura and Scarba. The general depth is 200 metres but on one side where the gulf rises there is a granite pinnacle that rises up to about 35 metres beneath the surface. The whole Atlantic tries to force its way through the gulf causing extreme currents and as the onrushing water hits the pinnacle it rises up and over to create a down current and standing waves along with the 3rd largest whirlpool in the world. When we dived it, the current was 2.7 knots, but down on the pinnacle we got 10 minutes of slack water. After that our bubbles started going down over the side and we had to go as the down currents tried to get hold of us. One diver got caught by the down currents once and taken over the side of the pinnacle. He inflated his BCD – but kept going down. He dropped his weights and kept going down until he reached 75 metres on air when the current let him go. Diving the Corryvreckan Whirlpool is the scariest thing I’ve done.
What is your favourite dive destination?
Joint favourites are Truk Lagoon and Palau.
A site you want to dive but never have?
The wreck of RMS Britannic, sister ship to the Titanic, off Greece.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen underwater?
There are many things that I would not want to speak about publicly!
And the low point?
Getting badly bent diving the deep technical wrecks of Malin Head off Northern Ireland in 2004. At that time, I thought I was indestructible – we were diving 70-80 metres every day for ten days – with sometimes two 70 metre dives on the same day. I was diving open circuit trimix at that point, which is far less forgiving that CCR trimix diving. Each dive had a flawless profile according to the decompression software of the day – and I even added extra deco on the very last dive of the trip. But one hour after surfacing after the last dive, I got a hit, and within 30 minutes I was in incredible pain and lost the ability to walk. We were on a dive boat far offshore and so we self-treated with oxygen therapy and managed to largely reverse the effects – although I was left with weakness in my legs. When I got back to Aberdeen I was put in a recompression chamber and thankfully that sorted things out.
Do you have any tips for others who want to explore underwater wrecks?
Try to get to know the basics about ships of different types as it will help you understand the wrecks you are diving on.
You’ll learn, for example, that tankers and oilers always have their machinery, their engines, boilers and so forth, at the very stern – this is to avoid a prop shaft running from an engine amidships through oil tanks. So if you’re diving a tanker and you arrive down on the wreck, say in poor conditions where visibility is limited, and find you are in the engine area, you know you are at the stern.
Boilers are always forward of engines – to avoid the difficulty again of a prop shaft running aft through boiler rooms where the boilers may well take up most of the beam of the ship. So if you are swimming along the middle of a shipwreck and pass first an engine then a boiler, you know you are heading forward. Simple things like these will help you get orientated on a wreck.