by David Miner
Recreational wreck diving is classified as diving the exterior of a wreck, meaning that you don’t penetrate or go inside the wreck. Recreational wreck diving is defined as any dive on a wreck or object that is at a maximum depth of 130 fsw and is conducted within the normal no-decompression diving limits.
Many newly certified divers or even divers who been certified for a while want to dive wrecks. Wreck dives are exciting and offer a much different experience than reef dives. Shipwreck dive sites may have been created artificially by purposely sinking the ship or they may have sunk accidentally from a storm or other problem. Either way, wreck diving is an important and very fun part of recreational diving. Many of the great diving destinations offer wreck dives within the standard sport diving limitations.
For this reason, it’s important for divers to understand that they are diving in a much different environment than a reef and that certain hazards exist. In addition, depending on the wreck dive, time of day you’re diving it, depth of the wreck, currents on the wreck, size of the wreck, etc. you may need special dive gear to dive the wreck safely and enjoyably. Also, some wrecks may still contain artifacts, and if you’re into salvaging artifacts, you will need special equipment to do it correctly.
The special gear you may need for recreational wreck diving can be broken up into two categories: enjoyment and safety and artifact collecting. All of this gear is relatively inexpensive and can bring you more enjoyment and safety to your wreck dives.
Enjoyment and safety gear
The enjoyment and safety pieces of equipment that you may want to carry depending of the wreck you’re diving can make your dive more fun and bring added safety to your dive. There are three pieces of gear to accomplish this: a line cutter, dive light, and see me (safety) float tube.
Dive light: A dive light adds immeasurably to your enjoyment of seeing the wreck better. If you’re diving shallow tropical waters, you may not need a light, but diving in less tropical areas where visibility is less, a good dive light is a must. A dive light restores color and helps you spot things easier on the wreck. There are a variety of dive lights on the market today of various sizes, brightness, and quality. All lights are battery operated with either standard batteries or rechargeable batteries. Dive light prices vary extensively, so researching and understanding what’s available is extremely important before spending a lot of money. Costs range from $30 to $1,500.
Line cutter: This can be a critical piece of safety equipment. Wrecks are favorite sites for fishing because that’s where the fish are. This means fishing line, leader line, netting, anchor line, etc. can cover wrecks and possibly entangle you. Make sure that you carry a knife, line cutter, or scissors in a place that’s easily accessible. If your knife is on your leg and you can’t reach it, it won’t do you much good. Stow knives or other cutting tools in a pocket or sheath on your BC or harness. Make sure the line cutter has a serrated edge or special line cutter to make it quick and easy to cut yourself free. Costs range from $15 to $100.
See Me (safety) tube: The See Me safety tube is designed for use as a surface signaling device that alerts divers or boaters where you are. See Me tubes are brightly colored inflatable tubes that can be inflated orally on the surface. If you are diving a wreck with currents or if the wreck is very large, carrying a See Me tube is important if you drift off the wreck or swim a good distance from your anchor or down line. If you have to surface a good distance from the boat, inflating your See Me will make it much easier for the dive boat to find you. When not in use, they roll up and fit inside a pocket or clipped to your BC. The See Me tube is required by many dive operators and can be purchased at any dive shop or online inexpensively. Costs range form $15 to $25.
Artifact collection gear
If you plan on collecting artifacts when wreck diving, you must first make sure that it’s okay to do so. Many wrecks are protected, meaning that nothing can be taken or disturbed. Check with the local dive shops to make sure it’s okay to collect artifacts before doing so.
Artifacts can range in size from a small coffee cup to a boat anchor or propeller. Depending on what you’re going after will dictate what type of collection or salvaging gear you’ll need. The items listed below are the basics for easy and small artifact collecting. Don’t attempt to salvage a 150-pound anchor with a 50-pound lift bag; it just won’t work.
Lift bag: Lift bags can be used for multiple things, such as underwater lifting and salvage, marking device while at depth, additional surface flotation, or as a signaling device. Lift bags can be very important when collecting artifacts. Depending on what you’re collecting, the item may be very heavy and awkward to carry and bring to the surface. By attaching a lift bag to do the work, you can get the object neutral in the water, making it much easier for you to bring the item to the surface. If applicable, you can also shoot the bag and object straight to the surface where it can be retrieved by the boat crew or by you when you surface. Lift bags come in many sizes. For light salvage operations, common sizes range from 50 to 200 pounds of lift. Super sized lift bags (500 to 1,000 pounds of lift or more) are also available for lifting objects that are extremely heavy.
Lift bags are typically designed as open or closed devices, meaning they are inflated underwater by using your second stage regulator and dumping air into the open end of the bag or for closed devices that have an inlet valve, can be filled with an inflator hose. Costs range from $75 to $200.
Collection bag: If you plan on collecting artifacts, a collection bag is important. Collection bags come in all sizes and shapes and are usually made of a nylon mesh material. They roll up easily and depending on their size can be stowed easily in a pocket. Larger collection bags can be rolled up and clipped to a D-ring on your BC’s waist belt. Costs range from $10 to $50+.
Dive slate: Dive slates are special underwater notepads that you can write on. Dive slates can be very useful for recording information, communicating underwater, and keeping notes about your dive. For wreck diving artifact collecting, you may want to record information about where you found the artifact, survey notes, or anything else pertinent to the artifact you collected. Once you surface, the information can be transferred to a notebook or computer and then the slate can be erased for the next dive. Slates should be carried in a pocket on your exposure suit or on your BC so that they don’t dangle, cause drag, or get entangled. Costs range from $10 to $25.