Technically Speaking: What's Missing From This Picture?

Every wreck has stories to tell. Stories of the crew, the journey, and ultimately, those final frantic hours. Diving these wrecks is the opportune way to learn these stories, and of course, is so much fun that it's easy to get completely caught up in the tangible remains as you swim gleefully around them.  But it's often what is not there that can provide just as much intrigue and information.

The desperate scenes that go on at the surface in a ships final moments can be anything from sheer panic to unbelievable heroics, as the crew no doubt struggle to save their own lives as well as their stricken vessel in sometimes unimaginable conditions. Captains may be striving to lighten the ship in a bid to maintain buoyancy, perhaps ordering the jettison of cargo, the discard of anchors, guns or other surplus materials. The crew may be frantically assembling supplies and operating life rafts in preparation to abandon ship. All these actions can be evidenced not by what remains, but by what doesn't - an empty cargo hold when the records show otherwise, a ship with far less anchors than was standard issue or decks void of life boats.  Some of these features can still be found far away from the actual wreck site as a debris trail of cargo, anchors or materials on the sea floor, highlighting the direction they were heading and what they were discarding. Or they can be found in the testimony of survivors who kept their lives due to the use of life vests and lifeboats.

If you spend much time voluntarily leaping off dive boats, you'll end up hearing enough safety briefings on emergency 'Abandon Ship' procedures to know that you can't take personal effects with you, and the emphasis is very much on getting into a lifejacket and raft as soon as possible. Bigger vessels like navy craft and merchant ships have somewhat more regulated procedures depending on their series and purpose. These have traditionally restricted the authority of deciding when to abandon ship to the Captain (lest it be called mutiny!) who would first order the sounding of the alarm which would trigger the crew into actions ranging from the systematic discard of materials, to retrieving and securing the ships log,  to shutting off the engines.

How many of these actions are evidenced through missing (or present) remains can also tell us how quickly the vessel succumbed to its fate. If a vessels 'Abandon Ship' procedures involve shutting off the engines, the controls in the wrecks engine room would indicate if they had time for this step or if it all happened too quickly, or perhaps raise questions around why they might have been left on otherwise. And a ship fortunate enough to have lost no hands likely had much more time to co-ordinate an orderly evacuation than one whose crew went down with no time for procedure or escape.

More information on the time it took for a vessel to sink can often be determined from mayday records. A ship's radio operators may be sending final position and distress signals from the radio room, even as the first lifeboats are launched. Where in the ship are they making these calls from - how long would it take them to get clear for a safe escape from their final transmission?  Their last call with co-ordinates might be already way off the final sinking site if the winds are high and current strong, but it does provide a baseline for a co-ordinated search for survivors (or a wrecked vessels final resting place).

Evidence isn't just what's left behind, but also what's missing that should otherwise be there. This is a key aspect of diving wrecks that it isn't just identifying what you can see, but also what you can't. It's also one of the most important reasons for protecting our wreck sites from looters and others means of destruction - not letting anyone ruin your dive experience  by warping the evidence, or indeed you ruining anyone else's.

Next time you go wreck diving, enjoy looking around what's left of the wreck....but then also try to see what's missing from the picture, and what other stories may only be evidenced in absence 

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