National Institute for Scuba Diving - Established since 1980
HMS Victoria - A Technical Diving Journey to Lebanon

Some fifteen years ago war-torn Lebanon would have been the last places on anyone’s diving agenda. Now things have certainly changed. If you fancy warm clear Mediterranean waters, a Rivera-like ambience and one of the world’s most extraordinary wreck dives; Lebanon could be the place for you.

A Journey by Adina Ochert and Nick Gilbert to Lebanon.

Less than enthused by the prospect of yet another season of diving in the unpredictable and murky waters around the UK, our attention turned to deep wreck diving opportunities further a field. A chance conversation with fellow technical diver led us to the warm blue waters off the coast of Lebanon, where in 2004 Mark was the first to confirm the location of the battleship HMS Victoria.

Since the 1940’s the coastline off Lebanon has seen its fair share of action. During the early part of WWII Lebanon, under the control of Vichy French garrisons loyal to Nazi Germany, was the subject of a five week allied offensive that resulted in a number of maritime casualties (some still waiting to be discovered). In the 1970’s the civil war added to the ranks. Untouched for decades many of these wrecks are in pristine condition. With deep wreck technical diving in mind, we were introduced by owner of the NISD dive center in Beirut, Mr Walid Noshie to a series of remarkable dives culminating in a record-breaking dive on HMS Victoria.

The first wreck we dived is known locally as the ‘Torpedo boat’ Discovered by Walid, some 5 years ago. During the 1941 offensive on Lebanon, this vessel was attacked by allied aircraft and sunk off Tripoli in the North of Lebanon.

With a forty-minute boat journey to the dive site we were soon kitted up and descending to the wreck in a very comfortable 28 degrees centigrade. However, below 40 metres the temperature dropped noticeably and we were glad to be wearing our dry-suits. On reaching the seabed at 65 metres we soon saw the dark shape of the torpedo boat looming into view. The wreck is about 30 meters long, upright and well preserved with live WWII torpedoes littering her deck, with the timer mechanisms still clearly visible.

Expecting to see a sleek shape similar to the German Schnell boat we found in Malta during one of our 2003 expedition, were a little surprised. This craft was much larger than we had anticipated and had no torpedo launching tubes. Evidently she had been used by the Vichy forces for submarine re-supply rather than direct offensive action. This wreck is festooned with fishing nets but thanks to good visibility is far less of a hazard to divers than in the gloomy seas back in the UK. After being bombed some of the torpedoes slid off the deck crashing through the guard rails and onto the seabed where they still lie now, tools and other materials still scattered about the engine room creating a scene that is frozen in time.

The next day, high winds meant uncomfortable conditions in the north; so we turned our attention to a wreck only 10 minutes from the dive center. The SS Lesbian (taking its name from the Greek island of Lesbos) was a British freighter impounded in the small commercial port of Beirut during WWII. During the Allied invasion of Syria and Lebanon the Vichy French Navy, fearing that allied bombing raids would sink her and block the small harbour, scuttled the Lesbian a short way out to sea. Rarely dived, even though she is so close to the dive centre, Lesbian lies upright and intact at a depth of 60 metres. When we dived this wreck the visibility was limited to around 8 metres however it can be up to 30. There are numerous holds, compartments and access ways to explore and with an abundance of marine life Lesbian, in its sheltered position is an excellent bad weather alternative.

The following day the weather had improved significantly so we found ourselves driving north once again, but this time to dive our main target: the 10,500 ton battleship HMS Victoria. Victoria sank over eleven decades ago in 1893 after colliding with HMS Camperdown, her bow plunging deeply into the soft seabed below to leave the wreck standing close to vertically in 144 metres of water. This formed an incredible mental image and we would not be disappointed!

At first Victoria, despite her size, presented a very small indication on the echo sounder; she is a challenging wreck to locate and the safety lines can end up several metres from the hull. However our host Walid Noshie had a foolproof method of ensuring we could locate her underwater. Dropping lines either side of the stern we used our compasses to take a bearing between the two. This allowed us a clear point of reference for the direction of the wreck as we descended.

Entering the water for our first dive on Victoria wearing the latest in rebreather technology and two 12 litre cylinders each as SCUBA bail-out in case of emergencies, we swam to the safety line, carried out ‘leak’ checks and began our lengthy descent. One of the things we really like about diving a rebreather is that you can take more time on the descent, tuning into your environment and switching on to the operation of equipment without the worry of wasting precious gas -especially on deep dives. At 80 metres we stopped. We should have been on the wreck by now but there was nothing around us but blue. Taking out our compasses we confirmed the direction of Victoria with the bearing taken on the surface. Then working as a team one of us swam out into the blue whilst the other remained in contact with the line, torch on acting as a reference point. Within seconds the dark shape of Victoria’s massive ruder and twin props emerged from the blue. Signalling to each other we regrouped by one of the four-bladed starboard propellers. A quick OK and we descended past guard rails, portholes with glass still in place (some open) and the battery of 6 inch quick fire casement guns. Victoria’s massive aft 9.2 ton turret is still in place with its barrel pointing to the flagstaff that displayed the white ensign of the Royal Navy 113 years ago.

After twenty-five minutes exploring and photographing the stern of the wreck (most of our time being spent between 95 and 110 metres) it was time to make our ascent. Drifting slowly along the length of the aft gun we reached the stern and the ornate balustrade outside Admiral Tryon’s sitting cabin.

We looked downwards along the remaining length of the vertical battleship descending into darkness. This was a truly stunning and unique sight. The massive rudder and propellers and the impressive array of gun batteries was a lot to take in on a single dive and as we made our three hour ascent to the surface we were already looking forward to the next dive.

The following day we decided to take a break by visiting some of Lebanon’s amazing cultural heritage. Just over 20 miles north of Beirut the ancient town of Byblos has seen the rise and fall of nearly two dozen cultures over the last seven thousand years; making it one of the richest archaeological areas in Lebanon, and perhaps the world. Everyone we met on our trip was genuinely helpful and friendly and our tours of the ancient town of Byblos and the Roman temple at Baalbek were as memorable as the dives.

After visiting the castle and church built by the crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries we relaxed in a restaurant by the Riviera style harbour (Lebanon’s answer to St.Tropez) and began planning our second dive on Victoria which would take us to the seabed at 144 metres and set a new world record for the deepest female wreck diver.

The next morning we were back at the dive site with the best sea conditions of the week. After the usual pre-dive and in-water checks we began our descent. The visibility was much better than on our first dive and at around 50 metres we could see the dark shape of Victoria’s stern below. Walid had surpassed himself and put the line directly onto the battleship’s starboard side. As planned, this time we tied the safety line to the wreck and positioned a strobe light on it to mark its position for our return. This ensured that there was no chance of the line becoming dislodged, as it was our escape route to the support team in the event of an emergency.

Swimming to the centre of the wreck we began our descent along the aft 9.2 ton gun. Its barrel encrusted with pinkish-red soft corals. Descending further we made our way over the gun-house to the port side where we were visited briefly by a shoal of tuna. After 120 metres the water became very dark. Scanning with our torches for obstructions and keeping an eye out for netting -which is everywhere on this wreck -we continued our descent. Much of Victoria’s teak decking has rotted away revealing the inner sanctums of this amazing battleship. At around 135 metres we could see a milky haze below us -similar to a layer of silt. However at 140 metres the haze became more defined and we realised that we were actually looking at the seabed. We landed on the bottom at 144 metres on a flat area with half buried debris scattered all around -the main concentration of debris being directly in front of the wreck. On the port side one of Victoria’s searchlights lies intact on the seabed. Amazingly away from the wreck’s shadow there was still an amount of ambient light, even at this depth. The sides of Victoria cut deep into the seabed which appears to be an amalgam of fine white sand and soft silty mud. There are also much larger fish like grouper that can’t be found around the shallower parts of the wreck.

Reaching our planned dive time of 18 minutes we swam back into the shadow and agreed it was time to make our 3 and a half hour journey back to the surface. When using a rebreather there are no noisy bubbles, and this permits an amount of verbal communication, however this time we both sounded bizarrely like Mickey Mouse, since for this depth we were breathing a gas mix containing 80% helium.

As we began our ascent we suddenly noticed the distinctive line of the ships breakwater. Drawings and photographs indicate that this is just forward of the two 110 ton guns which at 144 metres should have been buried about 12 metres into the seabed. Ascending a little further we found a massive circular hole along the ships centreline with a coarse thread cut into it. Unmistakably this was the mounting for the turret but unfortunately there was no sign of Victoria’s two 16.5 inch guns. Ascending a little further the remains of the superstructure confirmed our position on the wreck.

The Dive boat’s echo sounder and three independent depth gauges confirmed the seabed to be between 143 and 144 metres but the section we had dived, according to the dimensions of the ship, should have been at around 156 metres; leaving a 12 metre discrepancy and an anomaly that we were struggling to explain.

With the job of safely getting to the surface in-hand we could not afford to spend any more time on this issue so we continued our careful ascent up the wreck returning into the blue. Our first decompression stop was at 100 metres, where we spent another 5 minutes photographing the stern, finally arriving back at the line at our planned time of 34 minutes. All too soon the incredible sight of Victoria’s stern and Admiral Tryon’s ornate balustrade was out of sight and we were making our way towards Moffid -the awaiting support diver. At 45 metres we signalled to Moufeed that we were OK and switched to a weaker helium gas mix, whilst increasing the oxygen, leaving us with over three hours remaining before we could surface. At 15 metres we were surprised to be joined by a 2 metre lone Mako shark. It swam around us several times with agitated jerky movements, stopped, turned to swim another circuit and finally shot away into the blue. Adina got a few frames off but a little too late so unfortunately this was ‘the one that got away’, or perhaps we were?

The significant 12 meters discrepancy between measured seabed depth and observed structures on HMS Victoria can neither be explained by the angle she lies at, nor the possibility of a locally raised debris field around the embedded bow. However we do have some theories to explain this odd inconsistency. Putting these to the test will be the main purpose of a second expedition in 2006. Since we both had a superb week diving in Lebanon we look forward to a return visit with enthusiasm.


HMS Victoria: HMS Victoria was launched in 1887 and represents the end of decades of inconsistency in warship design. During the 19th century wooden sailing ships-of-the-line gave way into steam driven ironclads and 32-pound smooth-bore muzzle-loading cannons evolved into rifled barrelled breach-loaders. In the 1890s designs finally standardised. Steel was used instead of iron for both armour and ship construction and the brief period of the Ironclad gave way to a new breed of warship; the battleship. This new design included two big guns at either end of the ship with a battery of quick firing guns along its sides -HMS Victoria typified this new revolution in design.

Tragically on 22 June 1893 Victoria collided with HMS Camperdown during manoeuvres and quickly sank taking 358 crew with her, including the commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon. One of the survivors was her second-in-command, John Jellicoe, who later became the British commander at the Battle of Jutland.

Dive centre: Finding a dive centre turned out to be much easier than we thought. Since the end of the armed conflict in 1990 diving has become one of the fastest-growing sports in Lebanon and looking on the internet we found Beirut had no shortage of dive centres. However for technical diving the only dive centre with the facilities and experience was the National Institute for Scuba Diving (NISD), owned by technical diver and instructor Walid Noshie. Walid is also the director of IANTD in Lebanon. The dive centre has two boats, a compressor, equipment hire, helium, oxygen and they even managed to source enough sofnolime (CO2 absorbent) for the week.

Flights: We flew with MEA (Middle Eastern Airlines) and were treated exceptionally well. The flight is direct from Heathrow to Beirut and takes around 4.5 to 5 hours.

Accommodation: We stayed in Beirut’s Riviera Hotel which has good quality on-suite rooms and a covered walkway linking the dive centre and restaurant complex. The restaurant manager ‘Tony’ is also a technical diver and joined us on most of the dives. There is also a swimming pool for checking out kit if required.

Tourism: Lebanon is packed with history, archeology and natural beauty. There is much more to do here than just diving and for us a week was not long enough. The people are incredibly friendly and helpful and the warmth of hospitality extended to every place we visited. In the winter months it’s possible to ski and dive on the same day.

Safety: On Victoria we carried two 12 litre side-mounts one with trimix 5/75 (giving us a 30 metre narcotic depth on the bottom) and an intermediate gas of trimix 15/40. The combination giving us enough bail out capacity to independently reach the support diver positioned at 40 metres. The support diver carried emergency cylinders with Nitrox 32 and Nitrox 50. Oxygen and an additional drop station were ready on the boat for deployment as required.


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