Durban Ghost Fleet – Part Three

Click here for Part 1 or Part 2.

At this stage Allan and I had done a several dives a month together in the 60 to 80m range searching for wrecks. We planned to dive with Peter Timm in Jesser Canyon to search for the elusive Coelacanths during July of 2013. It was now March and Allan said to me that he was ready for his first 100m dive. I searched the charts and marks I had been given and found a possible wreck site at 105m. We planned the dive for the 20th March 2013.

HMS Otus 3

The conditions were perfect when we headed out to the dive site some 11km from the launch site. We used two dive boats for the dive and had 5 support divers for backup. We arrived at the mark and dropped the anchor line overboard to hook onto the wreck. The line is 170m long and within minutes I felt the anchor hook onto the wreck below. We attached two massive orange buoys to the line and threw it over board. The current was so strong that it immediately pulled both buoys underwater.

I said to Allan that the wreck was no longer part of our mission and that we would still go for the depth and do a free descent. I checked the current speed and it was racing at almost 3 knots. So to have even the remotest of chances to see the wreck I calculated that we had to drop some 800m up from the wreck.

We kitted up and after doing all the pre-dive checks the skipper took a heading from where we thought the wreck was and headed up 800m from it.

The skipper started the countdown. Three, two, one, Go!


We did a bubble check and gas check at 5m and then headed down switching from travel gas to back gas at 40m. It was such a pleasure not to have to pull myself down on an anchor line for a change and just do a free decent. The visibility was once again incredible. It was at least 50 meters. We hit the sand at 105m exactly 4 minutes after hitting the water. Allan was facing me and I asked him to check his gas pressure, if he was feeling ok, no narcosis and if he was good to go. We had planned 15 minutes at the bottom. The current was still screaming but in the distance ahead of us we could make out a gloomy shape. Just then a school of Pinkie Grunters swam past us heading to the dark shape about 50 meters ahead of us. Pinkies love to hang around wrecks, so I was suddenly hopeful.

otus sidescan

A few moments later we were onto the wreck. “Submarine, Submarine”, I screamed through my regulator. I could not believe it. I knew that the HMS Otus had been sunk off Durban in 1946 and here we had just swum into it. What an incredible day that was. We left after 15 minutes on the bottom and had a total dive time of 121 minutes. What a way to celebrate Allan’s first 100m dive.

Wreck number three and a submarine at that.

I have been fortunate enough to have dived her 7 times now and every time I see something different or notice a new feature I had not previously seen. A special place indeed.

Whilst doing research for some more possible wrecks I came across a newspaper article dated 24 January 1980. It chronicled the story of the Fishing Vessel Cape Columbine that had sprung a leak and whilst heading back to Durban had sunk some 20 km from the harbour in 60m of water on the 23rd January. The search was on. It was now the 10th January and I thought it would be great to dive her on the 34th anniversary of her sinking. I called all my fishing contacts and eventually Jakes said he had five possible marks for her but that he was not sure if they were correct and they were about 1km apart from each other. The proverbial needle in a haystack.

HMS Otus

The weather was really bad on the 23rd January with strong North Easterly winds blowing but the 24th was stunning. Allan Maclean, Justin Jennings, Vinayak Maharaj and I headed in two dive boats from Durban towards Umdloti to the first possible mark, 22km away. We went over the first four marks with the sounder and nothing spectacular appeared. Two hours since stopping at the first mark we drove over the final mark and there she was on the sonar. A definite wreck.

We got kitted up and backward rolled. There was absolutely no current and we had about 10m visibility. Boom, there she was standing upright on the sand at 65m. The first people to see her in 34 years. Everything was still in place including cutlery and crockery, oilskin jackets and all the machinery and equipment standing ready. It was an eerie feeling for sure.

HMS Otus1

That was wreck number four.

Jakes called me up a few days later after I had shown him the video footage of the Cape Columbine and said he had another possible mark for me. I headed out to sea and after a few hours of searching in the general area finally got a hit of a wreck. And she was massive. I posted it on Facebook asking if there was anyone interested in joining in on the dive. She was at 75m so we would need to do some build up dives. Karl Kruger from Bay Divers in Swansea, whom I had dived with on a Tec trip to the Red Sea the year before contacted me and said he and Tristan Griffiths would travel out from Wales and join us on the dive. So we started with build-up dives a few weeks later once Karl and Tristan had arrived. Besides the two Welshmen, Justin Jennings, Vinayak Maharaj and I completed the team.

On the 13th February 2014 we backward rolled some 9 km out to sea and 75m later we hit the wreck. She was massive, over 100m long and 20m high. We spent 30 minutes exploring her and dived her again the next day with Allan Maclean joining in on that dive. She was a beautiful wreck with graceful lines. It took us almost two months to finally identify her after some excellent video and photos from Roger Horrocks when he dived her.

HMS Otus- China Sea - 4th Submarine Flotilla

We can confirm that she is the Istar but previously called the USS Nahma. She was built in 1897 for a New York property tycoon and then used during the First World War as a submarine chaser. She ended her days off Durban as a Shark processing ship when she was sunk on the 28th March 1931. Here is an excerpt from the newspaper article on her sinking.

The Istar was fighting a gallant battle. Her plates had obviously been strained and wrenched by the violent explosion but she showed no signs of sinking, she just seemed to settle more comfortably in the trough. Somewhere on the bridge of the tug was heard to say “There is a ship that will not sink”. And the Istar became known by that name in shipping circles ever afterwards as “The ship that would not sink”. Since the David Hunter could not leave her wallowing about as she was a danger to shipping and there was no other means of sinking her she just had to stand by and keep watch. Many hours went by when suddenly, as if in answer to a prayer the Istar decided to give up her battle. With a strange sound, almost like a sigh, she tilted and slid swiftly below the surface, sinking like a stone.”

More about her another time as she has such an interesting life story that it deserves to be told on its own.


Wreck number five had been found.

We have dived her now many times subsequent and every Technical diver that has been on her has rated her as one of the best wreck dives they have ever dived, if not the best. A truly magnificent ship.

The most recent wreck we have found was during a series of dives with Roger Horrocks and me on the 19th May 2014. We are not quite sure yet what she is or how she came to be there but she is at 72m and once we have confirmed her identity or history we will let you know for sure.

She is the sixth wreck in the past year or so.

The quest for ship wrecks off Durban has not always been an easy task and there are many times that we dive and find nothing but sand, or a ladder or a pile of junk. At times we face strong currents, bad visibility, shipping and considerable time and distance from the shore. But on those days that it all comes together there is nothing that can beat a dive on a virgin wreck.


Since the discovery of the Namaqua in October 2012, I have done 79 dives in search of wrecks. Average depth 62 meters with a maximum depth of 130 meters. Total depth dived 4892 meters. Total dive time – 7724 minutes underwater.

As you can see from those statistics it makes it really special when we do find a new wreck on a dive.

At the moment we have fourteen possible wrecks to be dived between 60 and 135m. If you are suitably qualified and would like to join us in the search for wrecks either as a diver or a support diver, please feel free to contact me or follow our adventures on or

When was the last time you did something for the first time?

Patrick Voorma PADI Course Director and TecRec Instructor Trainer

%d bloggers like this: