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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
DIVING IN BEIRUT
HMS Victoria Wreck
Tales and Dives In
HMS Victoria -
Admiral Tryon's Blunder