Diving in South Africa/HMS Birkenhead wreck
The dive site HMS Birkenhead or just The Birkenhead is an offshore historical wreck on the rocky reef at Birkenhead Rock to the south west of Danger Point, near Gansbaai in the Western Cape province of South Africa.
This is an importan historical wreck for both engineering and social reasons. The vessel was one of the earliest iron steamships, one of the last paddle steamers of the Royal Navy, and the epic story of the wreck is a significant item of British and South African history and folklore. The wreck of the Birkenhead is famed for the story of the soldiers who stood by while the women and children were loaded into the few boats that were seaworthy. There are various tales of heroism and stupidity, and a large number of apocryphal anecdotes about shark attacks and bodies being eaten by huge red steenbras. The engines are still in fairly intact condition, and differ considerably from later triple expansion steam engines which were more or less standardised in general layout for a long time.
This site is in a Marine Protected Area (2004) and a closed area. A special permit is required.
The name "HMS Birkenhead" is the name of the ship wrecked on 26 February 1852 at this site
Maximum depth is about 28m. and the top of the adjacent reef is about (depth)m. (Average depth on the wreckage is likely to be about 25m.)
Visibility will vary, but may exceed 15m on a good day. Visibility at depth may differ considerably from nearer the surface, but you will not know until you dive.
Large sandstone reef to the south east of the wreckage (Birkenhead Rock) sloping down to about 27m at the edge of the sand. Edge of sand runs roughly east-west magnetic. Bottom is fairly flat to the north, and is sandy patches and low rock reef with scattered wreckage. The paddle wheels and shafts are clustered in much the same alignment as when on the ship, with a boiler between them.
The engines are piled on top of each other at the edge of the reef and sand. They are recognisable from the illustration in Allan Kayle's book “Salvage of the Birkenhead”, but differ from the illustration in some details.
Geology: Ordovician sandstones of the Peninsula formation.
Information is needed on what weather conditions are best for diving this site.
This is a boat dive, as it is about 1.5km from the nearest shore. The usual access is from Gansbaai harbour at S34°35.041'S E019°20.807'E', where there is a good commercial slipway available to the public.
The alternative launch site at Kleinbaai at S34°36.951' E019°21.348'E on the other side of the Danger Point peninsula is slightly closer, but a less protected slipway.
The site is about 10.5km from Gansbaai harbour, or 8.5km from Kleinbaai slipway.
Lots of sponges, colonial ascidians and small sea fans. There are large numbers of noble corals on the reefs nearby.
Scattered wreckage of a historical wreck of great cultural significance. The wreckage includes remains of the paddle wheels, boiler and engine, which is a very early model and quite interesting in design. There are also a few anchors, cannon and similar generic type artifacts.
The site is fairly deep, and lighting is likely to be poor. The wreckage is generally fairly large items, which require a wide angle lens to fit them in the picture without losing too much detail, and powerful external strobes are recommended. Natural light photos may be acceptable if the visibility is good and the lighting better than usual, but it is likely that not much detail will be picked up. Macro photography will produce adequate results on small subjects, but these are not why you dive this site. You dive here to see the wreck, so try to get some photos of it. You may be lucky.
Video will produce best results with a wide angle lens, and preferably powerful lights.
If a large swell is running, there may be a break at the rock. This could be dangerous to the boat, and it should stay clear, however in those conditions there may also be strong surge on the wreck and poor visibility.
The site is near to one of the world hotspots for the Great White shark. This may be considered a hazard, and the reports of survivors indicated that many of the shipwrecked crew and passengers were taken by sharks. Most Scuba divers report that they have seen no sharks during the dive, nevertheless this may not be the best place to dive in low visibility. It is also recommended not to spend a long time at the surface, or to plan to do long decompression stops.
There may be slight currents, and the biggest hazard from this is not finding the wreck.
Certification appropriate to the depth will be required by most charter boats. Tha ability to navigate by compass and to deploy a DSMB will be very useful.
This is a wreck that is not easy to get to, so it is desirable to maximise your dive time by using Nitrox. It is also recommended to carry a compass, and a DSM to alert the boat that you are surfacing, so it can pick you up without a long delay on the surface.
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