Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Hilma Hooker

A quick search of the Internet reveals many stories attributed to the shipwreck known as the Hilma Hooker. During my Fall '06 trip to Bonaire I dove on the Hooker twice, loving the time spent outside and inside this spectacular wreck.

The Hooker's story begins back in 1984 when a ship lost engine power and was stranded off the coast of Klien Bonaire. The crew and their papers identified the ship as the Hilma Hooker from Columbia. Local port authorities lent assistance and towed the ship to port in Kralendijk, Bonaire. But there were problems. Firstly, much of the crew suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. Then authorities realized that the ship's papers did not match the ship. Her length at port was clearly 50 feet larger than the registration information claimed.

The descision was made to fully inspect the ship. When boarded for inspection, none of the crew remained to be found. Nor could they be found on Bonaire and there were no records of them leaving legitimately. What was found was 12 tons of marijuana. And not surprisingly, no one stepped forward to claim the deteriorating ship or responsibility for drug smuggling.

Precisely how the ship sank in September of '84 is also a mystery. Some claim the leaky hull (which needed to be constantly pumped) simply took the ship down. Others make claim to which local divers purchased the ship from the Port Authority and sank her, with permission, in the sand between the double reef near Angel City. Still more stories say that the authority to sink her was never officially granted and that the sinking was thus illegal.


How's aside, the ship now rests on her starboard (right) side on sand, between two beautiful coral reefs. The bow faces south, in 30m / 99ft of water. The propellor and the port side of the stern are the highest points at 16m deep (as seen in the picture). Written here in raised letters on the hull, you can still read one of the previous names, "William Express", above the word "Panama".

The holds are wide open. Perhaps the safest wreck penetration a recreational diver could hope for. Giant openings lead to open areas wide enough for multiple divers to explore at once. For those with more confidence/experience, large holes in the bulkheads join the hold openings to each other. They are high and wide enough for a buddy pair to pass through side by side. There are smaller rooms with swim through openings, and technical wreck penetration opportunities with crew quarters, the bridge, the galley and other inner areas still in the condition they were in at the time the ship last sailed.

On my first visit (Nov 30 '06 - dive #93) Wanda and I explored the outside of the ship from it's lowest points (29m) to the highest, where Divemaster Chris gave demonstrations of shrimp providing dental checkups. At a porthole com cleaning station, tiny shrimp work all day cleaning the open mouths of much larger fish. A diver's open mouth, proferred to the shrimp, gets the same attentive cleaning.

Here's one of Wanda's pictures of Chris (needs a shave) having a dental checkup from cleaner shrimp.

We also explored one of the forward holds a bit, using my dive light to show all the amazing colours of sponge and coral life growing ontop of the ship's rust.

Our dive took 31 minutes during which I sucked my full tank of air nearly down to my minimum 500 psi reserve. There were certainly points when the combination of depth and "shade" played with my mind and increased my breathing. Overall the dive was a total rush! I surfaced and immediately enthused aloud," I've got to start taking wreck dive courses!"

I was so enthused by the wreck I resolved I had to visit it again. And this time I was going to have a (proper and legal) souvenier. So I went to visit Michael at the nearby Chat 'n Browse where I picked up t-shirt depicting the wreck. Next I waited until the morning boat from Capt. Don's Habitat was scheduled to go to the Hilma Hooker again.

Now I can bastardize a cliche line and say," Been there, dived that, brought the t-shirt."

Worn overtop my wetsuit, the shirt got multiple spots of rust on it; mainly from my swim through of one of the smaller rooms. By this time (Dec. 8 '06 - dive #117) my own confidence was up dramatically. I was much easier on my air, more used to dive profiles with long deep portions, and super excited to get deeper into the wreck.

The experience paid off! Buddied with Divemaster Ginny, I felt more comfortable inside the Hilma Hooker than I could have guessed I would. By then my Bonaire dives had taken me deeper multiple times and taught me to go longer on my air than I'd ever done before. When I did manage to squeeze through one of the smaller openings I was surprised by how calm my breathing remained (while my head tried to realize it was floating in a dimly-lit room deep underwater.) And I was really happy that by the end of the dive, after 37 minutes, I still had 1100psi of air left.

FYI Mom, both dives were done using Nitrox and the computer to keep me extra safe. Niether pushed any limits.

For me, it's time to start learning about mutliple tank diving, gas switching, and more so that the next time I visit the Hooker I'll be able to spend a lot more time there. Until then, I've got the t-shirt.

4 comments:

bex said...

hey, you! how was the rest of your trip?

x/o,
bex

Corine said...

I came across your blog when looking for ships my dad sailed on. My dad sailed on the Hilma Hooker when she was still the Midsland. He is now retired and I've been putting together a photo album for him. It was lovely to come across a description of your dive, I'm collecting all the stories to do with his ships to give to him on his next birthday, can I include yours?

I Dive At Night said...

Corine, thanks for asking. Yes, please share the story with your dad and stress to him that people are still enjoying, even loving, the old ship.

I think if you asked a hundred people on Bonaire, you'd hear a hundred different stories. They're all an important part of the island now.

Anonymous said...

The William Express was my first dive in 1985. Took a resort course and this was the dive site. What a great dive.