From Ships to Reefs

The Directorate of Special Operations and Diving at Naval Headquarters (DSOD) had for sometime been contemplating on the idea of sinking a decommissioned Naval ship on the western seaboard for creating an underwater habitat. This was aimed at creating an artificial reef for divers and promoting scuba diving in the country. Such a project had never ever been undertaken by the Indian Navy and certainly the task was not as simple as letting the vessel flood till sinking. The identification of a site, planning and execution of the project was assigned to the Command Special Operations and Diving (CSOD) Section of the Western Naval Command. Accordingly, as CSOD, I was selected as the project leader.

I had served for four exciting years at Karwar between 1996 and 2000 when the civil works on Indian Navy's most ambitious state-of-the-art Naval harbour had commenced. As the Officer-in-Charge Project Seabird at Karwar, I wandered the length and breadth of the 12500 acres of the acquired land. The breathtaking beauty of the pristine beaches and the coves never ceased to fascinate me. The seabed around the Naval area is sandy near the shore with firm clay at deeper depths. One can spot abundant sea life including dolphins which hunt for mackerel near the shores.

The project Seabird site extends from the Karwar Head south of the commercial port of Karwar, and 20 km upto the fishing harbour at Bellikeri. These areas comprised undulating landscape, with sheer rock faces on the cliffs along the coast. The six beaches which are located within the acquired Naval land have a mix of calm and rough waters. Each site is unique and I have always wondered what the place would look like once the Naval project is completed.

Naval Headquarters had set certain conditions for selection of the site and dives by command diving team from Mumbai confirmed the suitability for the project at Karwar. Of the three sites identified, Site'A', off Baithkal Point met all the conditions. The main consideration for selecting the site was the absence of sensitive marine habitat and distance from established sea-lanes. The seabed was suitable for the ship to settle and negligible fishing in the area ensured that the site would be safe for diving. In the vicinity of the artificial reef is the Blue Lagoon from which flows rich organic nutrients especially during the monsoons. The depth is around nine metres and effect of currents is negligible.

Even before the ships' decommissioning, I assembled the designated team comprising a marine engineer from the ships staff, my colleague and fellow diver and demolition expert, Lt Cdr Mukul Rathi of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team (EODT), Cdr Vipul Maniar from the Naval Ship Repair Yard (NSRY), Karwar who is a Naval Constructor and would factor the ships stability into the scuttling plan. The team of four poured through all available literature relevant to our task and extensively examined every nook and cranny of the ship. This included the ships' underwater structure during the brief docking prior to her decommissioning. Relevant parts of the ship which had to be cut away for making diver access were carefully photographed and demarcated. After detailed examination of the vessel, the team members got down to work out their plans in their area of specialisation. Thereafter, various inputs were collated and a time-line plan was systematically worked out.

This envisaged the removal of top deck fittings namely, guard rails/stanchions, 40X60 and 30mm guns, vent pipes, hatch covers, Davit, temporary fittings, water tanks, exposed electric wiring, whip aerials etc. The mast was also planned for cutting at the base level. Fixed guard rails, the ship plate on port and starboard side, funnels, and reels were retained. As part of additional fittings, a disused shark cage was planned to be welded on the deck just aft of the bridge. As had been advised by a marine biologist, regular placing of organic material at the wreck site attracts neighbouring marine life and progressively promotes colonisation of the wreck. The shark cage was, therefore, planned for fitment on the vessel.

It was calculated that the ship would be in light ship condition with a displacement of approximately 162 tone. The planned flooding of the fresh water tanks on the port and starboard and forward and fuel and lube oil tank would present the ship with an aft heavy configuration. Hence, the forepeak tank would have to be flooded to get the ship on near even Keel. The demolition plan envisaged, placing of limpet mines on the engine room, on the port and starboard sides a metre below the waterline. Additional charges, one each in the forepeak and ASP, were planted for simultaneous firing. This would enable the vessel to flood with on an even keel.
On decommissioning of the ship, work began on preparing the vessel for her eventual role. Alongside at Mumbai, most of her machinery, weapons systems, 40X60 gun and 30mm turret were first removed. Adhering to strict Naval guidelines for dismantling and cleaning the ship, all potential contaminants that might impact on marine life were removed with the aim of making T-54 as practically and environmentally safe as possible.

In December last year, INS Matanga towed the vessel to Karwar for final preparations and scuttling. At Karwar, considerable length of electrical wiring and all loose fittings on the weather deck were wrenched out. The ship was stripped of radar and communication systems and progressive stripping of upper deck fittings gradually gave the vessel a ghostly appearance. All traces of oil were cleaned from the fuel tanks and bilges. A series of large holes were cut into the bulkheads, and hatch covers and watertight doors were removed. The fuel compartments were cleaned and then thoroughly flushed through with fresh water. Large holes were cut into her hull to allow safe penetration by divers.

Early in the morning on January 30, the ship was towed to the site by Naval tug Madan Singh. On reaching the designated position, the forward and aft anchors were dropped to moor the vessel. All lines were taken off and the tug took position at a safe distance. The Clearance Divers from EODT(Mumbai) were the last to board the vessel. They fitted the limpet mines and improvised charges and disembarked. The charges were initiated by safety fuzes on the port and starboard side and the geminis retreated to outside the 100 metre safety zone.

Since this was a 'once in a lifetime spectacle', sufficient publicity was generated in the Naval base. A sizeable crowd had gathered at the helipad in Kamath Bay Naval enclave to watch the unique event. Naval divers in geminis, fishing trawlers and tug, Madan Singh, took position at the perimeter of the safety zone as if to pay their last respects to the ship. A Chetak helicopter from INAS Hansa encircled overhead for aerial photography.

The limpet mines initiated the flooding of seawater into the compartments. Two loud blasts followed and a black smoke ring broke the tense silence. At first, the ship shook with the blast, then started sinking slowly, stern first and then the stem. The ocean rushed into her deck spaces through the blast holes, then through deck openings, hatches and doorways. The stern filled faster and the vessel reared, raising her stem as if in final salute. An additional charge below the forward mess triggered the rush of water into the forward section and, within twentyfive minutes, water closed over the bridge top. Water plumes and rush of bubbles was the last of the vessel seen on surface and then all was still.

In the next thirty minutes, the EODT team dived to check that all the charges had fired as planned. Then they surfaced giving the 'All Clear' signal. Subsequently, a check survey dive was carried out to ascertain the settling of the vessel. With its stem nestling a metre or so into the muddy seabed the vessel had come to rest with a slight list to starboard. The vessel settled in position Latitude 14 46.966 degrees North Longitude 74 06.665 degrees East and heading 180. The underwater visibility was around two metres in the bright sunny condition and it was possible to make out the bridge top a metre or two below the surface.

The vessel would be open for wreck diving after four months of initial settling down. The visibility at the reef is good during forenoon and afternoon period, however it reduces slightly at other times of the day and during monsoon months. Two large openings, each on the port and starboard sides of the bridge, the forward and aft mess and on the weather deck provides a good aspect for wreck penetration and photography. After the settling down period, the underwater visibility would improve to about six metres and it would be possible to view the weather deck from glass bottomed boats and by snorkellers.

As the Coordinator and Supervisor of the project, I have placed a time Capsule' in a glass bottle in a locker, forward of the Captains Cabin on deck 2. The record of the events leading to the creation of the artificial habitat and team members who made the project a reality would be available to some bold diver, daring to penetrate the wreck. In a scenic area of Binaga beach, with landmarks as the Pakyas Cove, and St Anthony's Cross, T-54 had been immortalised as Divers Reef 54.

The Clearance Diving Unit at Karwar will play an important role in the coming years as it would have to undertake the regular 'culturing' of the reef by placing organic waste in the shark cage which would attract fish from the nearby cove. Fishing activity and use of explosives is to be prohibited in the Kamath Bay area and possibly a jetty could be constructed near St Anthony's Cross for providing easy access. One will have to wait and watch the slow colonisation of the reef by marine fauna and flora. The successful proliferation of marine life on the artificial reef would also be an indicator of the highest standards of environment protection in force by the Indian Navy at Karwar.

-Capt P S Chandavarkar