by Samir Alhafith, Project Leader. images Samir Alhafith and Mark Spencer
When the project was started some members were good friends already, diving together at weekends but most had only heard of each other through diving circles.
The Sydney wreck diving scene revolves mostly around wrecks in the 50 metre range, with four known wrecks in the 60 to 80 metre range, which allow the use of mixed gas diving for appropriately trained divers. Diving on wrecks off Sydney can vary due to the unpredictable weather conditions, as well as strong currents, it can be easy diving or hardcore. As most Sydney project members were diving on these wrecks as often as twice a week, it was the lure to dive new sites and, maybe even every wreck diverâs dream, finding and diving on a virgin wreck! With a group like this missing from Sydneyâs diving scene for more than six years, it was to be a change from the norm, and a chance for the less experienced in the group to learn from some of the best divers in the world. The group consisted of big and diverse talent so there was always going to be a huge learning curve to cross skill. With an initial group size of 35 divers it was decided that only divers with mix gas certification would make up the core of the project and the number was reduced to 13 divers. With so much interest in the early stages it showed that a lot of divers were looking for change from the same sites they were diving week after week.
Since most project members had only a brief meeting with the rest of the team, and no opportunity of previously diving together, we started with the first step, getting to know each otherâs diving technique and styles. Some members were using closed circuit rebreathers (CCR), and with these being new to most open circuit divers, it proved an invaluable technology with some open circuit divers later converting to the CCR way.
Over the course of six months, and with delays in weather, the group conducted multiple dives on the wreck of the Koputia lying in 78m of water. Sydneyâs winter weather proved to be one of the worst seasons in a long time, with large seas that stopped any diving on the deeper wreck. With more than half of the members being cave divers, it was a good time to travel to cave sites around Australia to remove the frustration of not being able to do any proper training dives.
As the groupâs diving progressed, it was not surprising that strong friendships developed. Considering that everyone in the group dived their own way, with different diving organizations and shops, getting the best divers together to participate in a common interest was not difficult. With everyone enjoying each otherâs company, the less experienced members felt they could dive and learn from highly trained and experienced divers without having egos to overcome.
There were great ideas coming from the members on how to improve the diving and after a lot of discussion and a couple of meetings, the group came up with a design for a decompression station, and a method of utilizing support divers. Having put these practices and equipment to the test and trained for a couple of months diving as a team, it was time to extend our experience further. A date was set to conduct a 120m dive on a site known as the Peak, a reef eight kilometres from Botany Bay in Sydney South. This is a sea mount extending from120m up to 70m and is known by local fishermen as a good fishing spot for pelagic fish and visiting sharks. As the project members donât believe in deep diving for no reason, we chose this spot to assist the fisheries department locate grey nurse sharks, a threatened species on the Australian east coast. We also chose to test the Shark Shield electronic shark repellent for protection whilst on the deco station; a South Australian company SEACHANGE supplied this device. Of course these were only deployed to repel dangerous sharks such as tigers, Oceanic white tips, bronze whalers and any others than might decide a diver is an easy meal!
The date set for the first 120m dive was 24 December and as the project gathered on the wharf for embarkation the signs were not good. With sea conditions less than ideal, some swell and wind picking up, it was not promising for the first assault on the Peak but it was decided to check the conditions outside the Sydney Harbour Heads. Rounding the Heads and motoring out to the Wave Rider Buoy, the sea conditions looked better and the green light was given to move on to the Peak and shotline the target area. Arriving onsite, we sounded the bottom to locate the planned depth of 120m, but found the reef actually starts in 110m, so we dropped the anchor, and support personnel deployed the deco station. The water was dark blue colour with virtually no current. The bottom team consisted of a MK15 CCR, a MK15.5 CCR, one Twinspiration CCR and one Open Circuit diver.
Deployment of the bottom divers into the water went well, and it was a pleasant surprise to find out how clear the water was all the way to the bottom. On arrival at the reef area the targeted depth was found to be 108m. After a short time on the bottom, it was time to ascend and do the planned long decompression. Unfortunately the MK15 diver had suffered a CO2 hit on descent, later attributed to a missing seal neglected during assembly. The diver was recovered by the surface team, resuscitated and flown by helicopter to the Prince of Wales Hospital Decompression Chamber. With this accident nearly costing a life, it was time to stop and reflect on the project; if what we were doing was worth the effort and risks! With the Project being under the microscope after this incident, internet forums around the world lit up like Christmas trees, With lots of criticism and support, it was decided that the Project should continue. So with that decision made the Project set out to achieve the goals, and accept that risks are something that will always be present as long as the limits of diving are being pushed. Accidents happen even to the most careful, and no one likes to quit, especially after dedicating time and resource to achieve a goal.
It was March 2003 before the next attempt was made on the Peak, with two successful dives. After three dives no grey nurse sharks or any other type of shark were seen except for a small bronze whaler that was spotted along the wall at 100m.
With weather conditions stopping three attempts to dive the Peak again in 2003, it was the 80m wrecks that have seen more visits that any other sites and with eight members now diving rebreathers, it has been another learning curve. The focus has moved slightly with some project members now searching for new wrecks (with a side scan sonar that has been purchased) in between deeper dives. It is now up to the weather to decide if the ocean of Sydneyâs coast is going to reveal those elusive wrecks, waiting for the first diver to see and touch them for the first time in the new century! And if anyone can do it, it will surely be the divers with the most drive and desire to find it, and then another wreck site will be added to the list of wrecks to dive. The Sydney Project Group is such a group of divers with the same objective, not only to find new sites, but also to create safer methodologies for diving beyond what is considered the norm.
It is over a year since it all started, and the group now has 16 members with the first female diver to join. She is the only active Trimix certified female diver in Sydney and one of the very few in Australia. The numbers of the Sydney Project Group are slowly growing with more members adopting CCR technology, as the OC technology is pushed to the limit.
Currently the searching continues when the sea gives the chance to do so, and Peak dives will continue to enable all members to build up further experience. As a popular surf brand saying goes…
THE SEARCH CONTINUES.