SHIPWRECK DIVING  Shipwreck Penetration
The complete Diver's guide to the skills and training needed for entering the overhead environment of Shipwreck penetration.




   Capt. Dan Berg's Wreck Valley Collection   


By Capt. Dan Berg

Penetration is an advanced form of wreck diving. In fact, recreational wreck diving does not typically include penetration. It should only be done by those with adequate experience, training and equipment. The diver who penetrates a wreck must also be disciplined and have a good mental attitude. Penetration is not something you can learn from any book or article or even from years of open water experience. You must slowly approach it through experience and training and evolve into a penetration diver. The techniques and procedures listed below are derived from my own personal experiences. As a disclaimer, they are not nationally approved rules but only one wreck diver's opinions. Each diver is different, and each should use his own good judgment before entering into any overhead environment.
Photo: Inside the Deep Schooner Shipwreck in Bonaire. Photo by Jozef Koppelman.

Once inside a wreck, a diver has lost his direct access to the surface. He or she is now in an overhead environment and must use every possible advantage to insure safety. Before I go too far, let's talk about the fine art of entering a wreck. First, if you are using a double buckle weight belt, clamp down on the back-up buckle. Check all of your dive lights to make sure they are still working. If you have excess bulk gear such as a tool bag, or lift bag, you may want to leave it tied near your entry point. This reduces the possibility of snags inside the wreck. Some entries are easy; divers just swim in. Other openings require a few precautions. For example, whenever entering through a vertical hole, enter feet first. This way if you get stuck or just decide not to go in, you can kick to get out. If you enter head first, it is very hard to kick in reverse. It is also a good idea when entering tight holes like deck hatches to keep one arm in and one arm out of the hole. This way if you get caught on something, you have one hand to free the snag.

The key to safe penetration is duplication or redundancy. Hank Garvin, a noted wreck diver, says, "You can't depend on any one piece of equipment except yourself". Start with an air supply of two tanks, a pony, two regulators, two pressure gauges, two depth gauges, up to four lights, two knives and two bottom timers, but the redundancy doesn't stop with your equipment. A diver must be disciplined and know his limits. First, only use one third of your air for penetrating. The remaining two thirds should assure adequate air to exit the wreck and return to the surface. A penetrating wreck diver must be able to find his way out of the wreck. Now we are not talking about a small tug boat sitting in 30 feet of water in the Caribbean. We are discussing a penetration into the dark, broken down, silty remains of a wreck possibly the size of a football field. The diver should always do progressive penetration and slowly extend his comfort zone. This means he slowly learns the area by observation and mental memorization. This may take several dives just to get in past the light zone, but knowing by memory where each bulk head and hatch are in relationship to the exit may come in very handy.

Memory alone is not sufficient for finding the way out of a wreck, especially in an emergency situation when you're under stress. Divers should also use a penetration line. This line should be tied just inside the entry point and again within sight of the opening. The redundancy of tying off in at least two places gives the diver a direct back up in case one knot comes untied or if the line gets cut. Doing progressive penetration gives the diver a back up to his penetration line. The tether line should be unreeled, leaving as little slack as possible. This helps to avoid entanglement in loose line. The second diver in the team should maintain physical contact with the tether line at all times by letting it slide through his open fist. At the end of the penetration, the buddy should turn and exit first while maintaining contact with the line. The lead diver then reels in the line as both divers exit the wreck. A head mounted light comes in very handy when trying to reel and see the way to go.

I remember one dive about eleven years ago; I had penetrated deep into the remains of an oil tanker. At the time I thought I was doing everything correctly. I had bought and used a penetration line and was comfortable that this line would lead me back out. When I was about two levels into the wreck, my line went slack. I immediately realized that at some point it must have been cut, possibly by the sharp ragged edges and rusting steel of the ship. I didn't want to pull the line at all, so I put the reel down, and we followed the limp line, carefully, not to disturb it. Fortunately the line led to within sight of the entrance. I later found out that another diver had cut the line, without realizing that someone was at the other end. To say the least, the fear that was instilled in me that day has never let me penetrate into any area that I would not be able to find my way out of, even without a line. Remember, redundancy is essential. I have also learned to tie the line or at least wrap the line at several points inside the wreck. These wraps are located at the outer side of bends or away from ragged inside edges and help keep the line from wearing or breaking.

There are all sorts of little tricks wreck divers use to help them navigate inside a wreck. Remember that most wreck penetration is only entering the wreck maybe 20 feet or so. Always take special note of the surroundings. For example, one wreck we dive on lies upside down. By entering the wreck, divers will many times see beams that run on the ceiling below them into the wreck. These beams lead from the entry hole straight into the wreck and can serve as a permanent line for light penetration, as long as the diver keeps in contact with the beam.

Silt and suspended particles are another concern to divers who explore the interiors of wrecks. As a rule, divers usually finger walk or very gently kick, without letting their fins or the fin wash disturb the sediment. One useful kicking method is to have your head down and your feet slightly up. This reduces the amount of floor silt that will be disturbed. Silt can be raised by one fin kick, and even a diver's bubbles can loosen sediment and rust from the ceiling above. The end result is reduced visibility, sometimes to the point of zero visibility. Imagine exploring one room into a wreck with your entry point the only way out when your buddy picks up a porthole and in doing so kicks up the silt. Soon you are in total darkness. Even your powerful dive light won't penetrate through the heavy suspended particles. You put your hand on your mask but still can't see it. What should you do? If you had done everything correctly, the lead diver would have a reel and his buddy would be behind him in contact with the line. Simply carefully reel your way out. If you didn't have a line or if the line snapped right at the worst possible time (Murphy's Law), you could fall back on your knowledge of the area learned from progressive penetration. In situations like this, it is very hard not to get disoriented. Try remaining still for a few minutes; the silt may settle enough to see light, or turn off your dive lights and look for any penetrating ambient light. It may lead out. As with any situation, calm collective thought is mandatory. Panic will lead to disaster.

Wreck penetration divers can and should use a lot of the same rules cave divers do. They are 1)Be trained and dive within your own limitations. 2) Use a tether line and secure it in at least two places. 3) Reserve at least two thirds of your beginning air supply for the swim out. 4) Carry at least three dependable dive lights. Other cave diving safe practices that are important in wreck penetration are becoming proficient in emergency procedures through practice. Never depend on another's ability to get you in and out of a wreck, know your own limitations. Maintain contact with the guide line. Avoid silt by maintaining correct buoyancy. Avoid passageways where you can not turn around, and remember that anyone can cancel a dive at any time for any reason. A diver should never be pressured into attempting or continuing a dive if he feels fearful or apprehensive.

The Shipwreck Diving E-Book  Instant Downloadable E-Book 

Shipwreck Diving, by Capt. Dan Berg is a complete how to book about the sport of wreck diving. This book is packed with information and heavily illustrated with over 80 sensational color photographs.


Shipwreck Diving ebook
The complete diver's guide to mastering the skills of shipwreck diving.

Buy Now   only $9.95
6 MB instant download, printable  PDF file

Shipwreck Diving is a complete how to ebook about the sport of wreck diving. This downloadable PDF e-book is packed with information and heavily illustrated with over 80 sensational color photographs. Daniel Berg, a noted wreck diver, instructor and author of ten shipwrecks related books, describes all the basics of wreck diving. Topics include everything from equipment modifications, communication, and wreck penetration to artifact preservation. Dan also tells how to navigate on a wreck and be able to return to the anchor line after the dive. Why some divers find more artifacts and explains how to catch lobsters. Shipwreck Diving also covers such diverse topics as shipwreck research, photography, spear fishing and how to use an underwater metal detector. This exciting book tells all the tricks of the trade that until now have only been learned through years of experience. Shipwreck divers of all caliber will find Shipwreck Diving informative, rewarding and entertaining

Check out Capt. Dan's other shipwreck and Diving eBooks



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