Diving Inside the Zenobia's Parking Deck

by B. N. Sullivan

This is part five of the story of our seven dives on the wreck of the Zenobia, a ferry full of commercial vehicles that sank off the coast of Larnaca, Cyprus in 1980. Here are the links to the story so far: the Introduction; a Brief History of the ship (including a photo of what it looked like before it sank); the story of our first dives on the Zenobia; and our visit to the ship's stern area and propellers.

Earlier, I mentioned that the Zenobia was a "ro-ro" ferry. "Ro-ro" is short for roll on - roll off, a reference to the fact that the ship was designed to transport fully loaded commercial trucks, which are driven onto the ferry at the departure point, and driven off again at the destination. In the Zenobia's case, more than 100 articulated lorries -- also known as double-trailer trucks -- were on board when the vessel sank. All of those lorries were full of goods that they were to deliver when they reached their destination port. They never made it. Although her crew members were safely rescued, all those lorries and their cargo went to the bottom with the big ferry when it sank.

After a few dives on the exterior of the Zenobia to orient ourselves to the vessel, we were ready to penetrate one of the parking decks to see what was inside. The Zenobia had several parking decks, in layers. We made three dives inside the upper parking deck, which was the most accessible.

For the first of the three penetration dives, we entered at the bow end of the Zenobia's upper parking deck, through a doorway located under the bridge deck. Because the ship was lying on its side, the doorway was horizontal now. As I said in an earlier post, it looked more like an oversize mail slot than a doorway. Ian, our guide, told us to stop once we passed through the doorway into the wreck, so that our eyes could adjust to the darkness.

We entered one by one, and paused for a moment. The interior of the parking deck was enormous and very dark, with almost no ambient light. Imagine a large gymnasium with high ceilings, then turn it on its side, and turn out all the lights. That was the sort of space we were in. Off in the distance, in the direction of the stern, we could see the faint glow of daylight at the opposite end of the parking deck. The stern end of the parking deck had a large opening. That would be our target for exiting the wreck on this first penetration dive.

We shined our spotlights all around before we proceeded. We saw ahead of us a hanging jungle of pipes, cables, and other material. We were near what had been the outer wall of the parking garage -- except now that the ship was on its side, that wall was overhead. After slowly deteriorating underwater for 12 years, all of the insulation and wiring and conduits that had been attached to the wall now were hanging down in a tangle.

Ian had briefed us ahead of time about this disorderly mass of obstructions that had the potential to entangle us. We had to descend quite a bit to avoid most of the hanging debris. We swam ahead cautiously, sweeping our spotlights in every direction in order to avoid getting snagged, and intermittently shining our lights onto our instruments to monitor our depth, elapsed time, and air supply.

We felt very tiny as we passed through the vast parking garage. The beams from our lights shone only a couple of meters in front of us, so there were few visual reference points as we swam. Because it was so dark, it would have been easy to become disoriented. We had to be careful to stay level, and not to drift down too deep for too long.

At first we were so focused on avoiding all these potential hazards that we almost forgot about the lorries inside the parking deck. Then we saw them, piled up in a huge heap against what had been the opposite wall of the parking deck. Some of the trailers had broken up, revealing -- and in some cases releasing -- their cargo. For example, we saw lots of shoes, and items of clothing. Some were floating around freely inside the wreck (creating yet another hazard), while other items littered the heap of trucks.

Ian had warned us ahead of time to watch out for the paint. At least one of the lorries had been carrying a full load of house paint, in large cans. The cans had typical pry-off lids on them, and over time, some of the paint had begun to seep out of the cans. Because the paint was thick and cold, when it seeped out it formed globs that were shaped like large, richly colored, upside down teardrops. It was fascinating to see them bobbing about here and there.

Ian had admonished us not to touch the paint globs. He said he had learned from experience that when the paint globs were touched, they burst like bubbles, and whoever did the touching ended up with paint all over themselves and their dive gear as a permanent souvenir. Then the paint-christened divers also brought their colors back aboard Ian's runabout after the dive. He teased us that if we came back to his boat covered with paint, we would just have to swim the mile or two back to shore. We didn't touch any of the paint globs, just in case he wasn't teasing.

Now that we had a clearer picture in mind of what to expect inside the Zenobia -- and now that Ian was satisfied that we could manage our dives inside the cavernous parking deck -- we were ready to make two more penetration dives, but in the opposite direction. On our next two dives through the parking deck, we would enter through the larger opening at the stern end, and exit through the 'mail slot' doorway near the bow. In the next (and final) episode of this tale, we will tell you about what else we saw inside the Zenobia -- including both living creatures, and some that were, shall we say, formerly alive. Stay tuned...

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