Barbados Shipwrecks Ahoy!

Photograher Mike Toy takes an underwater tour of Barbados's best-known shipwrecks and finds a paradise of divers

  • Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Wreck of the Ce Trek. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Rock beauty, left, and French angelfish on the bow of the Stavronikita. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Divers on the Stavronikita. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Copper sweepers in the hold of the Lord Combemere. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Wreck of the Lord Combemere. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Diver with video camera swims over the Berwym. The Atlantis Seatrek submarine is in the background. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Divers ascending the mast of the Stravonikita. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Wreck of the Berwyn, Carlisle Bay. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Stavronikita's mast. Photograph by Mike Toy

sAsk most people what images the word “Barbados” brings to mind and they will likely answer “Rum, beaches. and sunshine”. Quite right, too. But ask any discerning diver and he will probably say “Shipwrecks”. The island has the highest concentration of wrecks in the Caribbean, ranging from shallow-water wrecks that can be explored with nothing more thank a snorkel to deep-water dwellers that lie more than a hundred feet down. And although history, evidence and legend suggest the presence of much older bounty, all but one of the island’s diveable wrecks sank in the latter half of the 20th century.

On the South-east coast, near Bridgetown, the sheltered waters of Carlisle Bay for centuries offered protection to the New World’s traders and adventurers, and at the height of the sugar boom dozens of wooden schooners could he found anchored there on any given day. Old cannon, anchors, glassware, ceramics, cannon balls and grapeshot are still to be found on the bay’s sandy floor, but the only wrecks still here are from a more modern era.

Here lie the Berwind, Ce Trek, Wolf and Eilon. Of these, the oldest is the Berwind (often spelled Berwyn), a French tugboat scuttled by her crew in the shallow waters of the bay in 1919. Sixty feet long, she rests in just 20 feet of water and is easily accessible to both divers and snorkellers. Encrusted from stem to stern with corals and sponges, this living wreck is home to a multitude of different creatures: hungry schools of sergeant majors patrol the topside of the wreck while a wary group of French grunts can usually be found drifting in the eddies around the prop. Schools of shining copper sweepers and smallmouth grunts drift in and out of the belly of the ship and stranger fish such as frogfish, soapfish and glass eye snappers lurk in her dark holds. Fireworms, arrow crabs, anemones and feather dusters are some of the many smaller creatures that make the wreck their home.

Some 200 feet to the north, on a now gently-sloping seabed, lies the cement hull of the Ce Trek. This 40-foot fishing vessel was deliberately sunk in 1985 and remains in good condition at 40 feet. Little of the superstructure and fittings are left but the intact hull is home to plenty of nocturnals. Glasseye snappers, blackbar soldierfish and bigeyes are among its sleepy inhabitants.

Another 75 feet to the north-east of the Ce Trek lie the remnants of the Wolf. A 42-foot wooden-hulled trader, she suffered extensive hurricane damage and sank at her mooring in 1955. Today all that remains of the vessel is her wooden keel sitting upright on the sandy bottom in 40 feet of water. Although it affords little protection, the keel does harbour an extensive collection of smaller invertebrates including tubeworms, sponges, coral crabs and shrimp.

The last of this silent quartet is the Eilon, the largest, latest and deepest of the Carlisle Bay wrecks. She was sunk in the spring of 1996, having languished in the Carenage for several years after her arrest for drug-running. The holds and cabins of this 110-foot steel freighter were stripped and the engines and engine room purged of oil. Holes were cut close to the waterline, and with great pomp and circumstance she was towed into Carlisle Bay, filmed, photographed, waved to, and sunk. The intact wreck sits upright in 55 feet of water and shows signs of a healthy marine colony. As well as plant and animal encrusting species, there are lobster around the keel, the usual array of nocturnals and a resident school of schoolmaster snappers.

The only wreck south of Carlisle Bay is that of the Friar’s Craig, lying in 45 feet of water some 200 yards off the Asta Hotel in Christ Church. This 170-foot Dutch-built inter-island trader was deliberately sunk in July 1985 after a decade on her mooring in Carlisle Bay, and became the second of Barbados’s underwater parks. Fifteen years of south coast swells have seen the ship break into three pieces, which sit on a sandy bottom with a reef on either side. They are heavily encrusted with sea rods and sea fans, and home to a multitude of fish species including sergeant majors, trumpetfish, chromis, grunts, Spanish hogfish, gobies, and blennies. The wreck is home to a breeding pair of French angelfish, and stingrays can often be found on the surrounding sandy bottom. Anemones, feather dusters, coral shrimp, sponges and fireworms are among other resident species too numerous to mention.

North now, to the parish of St Peter and the Pamir, sister ship to the Friar’s Craig, located a few hundred yards off the Almond Beach Village. A 160-foot freighter sunk in 1985, she sits upright and intact in 55 feet of water on a sandy bottom just yards from the edge of the reef. Huge gorgonians and whip corals decorate the hull and hundreds of Bermuda chubb and blue chromis school around the wreck.

Access hatches have been cut at intervals along the hull, making the wreck easy to explore. All areas are accessible, even the recesses of the engine room. The large open holds are empty save for a battered container and a little miscellaneous debris, and the ship’s crane dips forlornly into the forward hold. A porcelain toilet still sits in its designated place and a few or original brass portholes remain. The current has scoured sand from under the front section of the hull and this dark abyss is the lair of many a watchful pair of eyes. Beyond this at the base of the reef is the ship’s anchor, encrusted now with a large vase sponge.

Barbados has two more sister ships, the Lord Willoughby and the Lord Combemere, both 60-foot steel-hulled water carriers. Both lie off the west coast but are seldom dived. The first to go was the Lord Combemere, sunk in 1974 in 50 feet of water off Prospect in St James. Perhaps the least-visited of all the Barbados wrecks, she is, nonetheless, an interesting dive. She is intact, upright, and shelters hundreds, if not thousands, of copper sweepers in her dingy holds.

Sunk two years later in 1976, the Lord Willoughby lies at the bottom of Silver Bank Reef, a couple of miles north Bridgetown. Her stem is in 90 feet, the bow in 120, and her depth, coupled with the often strong currents found at the site, means she gets few visitors. Yet she too is an interesting dive, particularly as you must traverse the entire vertical profile of the reef to get to her. Even at this depth there is still an abundance of marine life, and the wreck is colourfully encrusted and home to many species.

Last, though certainly not least, is the wreck of the Stavronikita. If I were given the sorry option of doing just one dive in Barbados, it would be here. The victim of a fire that killed six people, the Stavronikita drifted at sea for three days before being towed into Barbados in August of 1976. After protracted negotiations, the 365- foot Greek freighter was purchased by the Barbados Parks and Beaches Commission and sunk in November of 1978 to create the island’s first underwater park.

Twenty-something years down the line she has become a world- renowned wreck and has been visited by thousands of divers.

She sits upright on her keel with the main deck at 80 feet and the propeller at 130 feet. The tip of her mast is a mere 20 feet below the surface. There are a dozen blast holes in the hull and a large section of the starboard side near the engine room has been removed. She is relatively free of obstacles, and access to most of the ship including the engine room is quite straightforward.

Little grows in the inky blackness of her deeper voids, but from the main deck up she has been colonised by both hard and soft marine growth. Her crane derricks host several huge gorgonians and barrel sponges, and her winches, air intakes and vents provide sanctuary for many of the sea’s more reclusive creatures. Schools of chromis drift around the sponge-encrusted masts, and colourful Spanish hogfish and coneys are among the many larger species to be found here.

Visibility and current vary, but on a good day you can see the entire wreck from the moment you hit the water. Falling through liquid space toward this leviathan is an experience not to be missed. If there is an ultimate dive in Barbados, this is surely it.