Hovering 35 feet underwater, I drew a long breath and peered down. Scattered over the ocean floor was a miniature mountain of stone, a curiously tidy pile of rectangular shapes stacked one on top of the other, stretching a hundred feet or more across the sandy bottom. With a quick snap of my fins, I swam down to take a closer look.
A shiny silver barracuda paused to give me the once-over before zigzagging back into the shadows. The water was alive: Bright purple sea fans. Blue coral. Slender sea anemones swaying with the current like strands of pasta. A green moray eel six feet long. Spiny lobsters, fat-faced groupers, tiny sea horses that wrapped themselves around long wisps of sea grass. Rising from the sand, and silhouetted against the filtered sunlight overhead, was a towering, coral-encrusted fragment of a ship, still connected to a broken bow filled with a menagerie of marine life.
I drifted over a rusty anchor chain lying half-buried in the sand. In the silence of the sea, sparkling blue angel-fish schooled in rhythm across my path. From a few inches above the mound of rock, I could see what it had once been: hundreds of sacks of cement. I reached out to pound one. The bag had long since disintegrated, but the cement held its shape, hardened to smooth stone by half a century in the water. The sacks had been cargo on the Constellation, a 192-foot American schooner that fell victim to these treacherous waters 57 years ago. Now frozen in time, both vessel and cargo have become a permanent exhibit in Bermuda's vast underwater history museum.
Bermuda may have more shipwrecks than any other place in the world: What was once a navigator's nightmare is now a diver's dream. Besides, Bermuda itself was a destination that had long intrigued me and my wife, Mireille. What's not to like: pristine beaches, balmy weather (especially in spring and fall), friendly people, interesting history -- and plenty of ocean. Once, years ago, we were attracted like magnets to Caribbean hot spots that boasted beachside bars and restaurants, live reggae and jazz and late-night cafes. Now, traveling with our 2-year-old daughter, Ariane, we had different requirements: a safe environment, a nonstop flight lasting no more than two hours, and a hotel with a pool as well as the all-important room service.
We arrived at Bermuda's elegant Hamilton Princess Hotel with what seemed like a ton of luggage -- nine bags, the most we've ever traveled with. Of course, three of the bags were mine: dive gear, including regulators, fins, masks, buoyancy compensator, snorkels, flashlights, dive computer and an assortment of backup equipment.
Our first day was one for relaxation, not exploration. We were in and out of the pool, chasing Ariane, ordering lunch and unpacking. While Ariane chatted up a couple from Scotland poolside, I worked the phones to set up my dives for the week, double-checked my dive computer (which keeps me informed of my depth, air supply and rate of ascent when I'm underwater), and monitored the local weather channel for news about a tropical storm, Arlene, that was slowly working its way toward Bermuda. Divers are always preoccupied with weather. One bad storm -- whether it hits or not -- can ruin diving plans, and Arlene was threatening to do just that.
As always, I scheduled my dives for the morning, from about 8 to noon, because the ocean is usually calmest then. That left the remainder of the day to play with Mireille and Ariane.
One afternoon we visited the Bermuda Aquarium, Natural History Museum and Zoo, which houses a huge coral-reef tank, more than 100 indigenous fish, exotic reptiles, pink flamingos, anteaters and tree kangaroos, all on one self-contained property. Another day Mireille and Ariane came with me to the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute, a new attraction in Hamilton with important collections on marine archaeology and great finds in maritime history. There I met Teddy Tucker, scuba diver and shipwreck expert, who had discovered several of the wrecks I hoped to visit. And we tried a simulated ocean dive, basically a darkened elevator that descended and let us out on a model sea floor; it gave a pretty credible sense of the underwater experience. And at the Bermuda Maritime Museum we studied up on the island's seafaring heritage.
In fact Bermuda is not just a single island, but a sprawling archipelago of some 300 islands surrounded by shoals, jagged reefs and churning currents. Shakespeare called it "the still-vexed Bermoothes," and in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the trade winds probably carried him fairly close to these treacherous shores. Instead, the islands were most likely discovered by the Spaniard Juan de Bermudez in the early 1500s. Navigators nicknamed them the "Isles of the Devil," and they remained uninhabited, despite visits by the Spanish and English, for more than 100 years.
Over the centuries, Tucker told me, hundreds of ships have sunk here: galleons, men-of-war, troop transports, frigates, brigantines, barkentines, fishing ketches, paddle-wheel steamers, schooners and sloops. Bermuda was but scattered specks of land in the wide ocean, low and unlit, with changing ocean currents -- a perilous place in the days when captains navigated by the moon and the North Star.
Early on a Tuesday morning, I made my way to Darrell's Wharf in Hamilton and met up with the 11 other divers -- all men, as it turned out, and all Americans -- who'd signed up for the morning trip with Fantasea Diving. After splitting into two groups -- six novices, and six experienced divers like me -- we hopped aboard a 40-foot boat piloted by a Fantasea staffer, and headed out toward the ocean. Forty-five minutes into the trip, at a signal from the captain, we began layering on our gear. By 9 o'clock, we dropped anchor near the wreck of the Constellation; I checked my tanks, regulator and computer, and plunged backward into the warm ocean.
The Constellation now rests near the underwater overhangs and arches of the coral reef that laid it low in 1942. Those hundreds of bags of cement were just part of the ship's 2,000-ton cargo: It also carried sheets of plate glass, slate, tennis rackets, coffee cups, ceramic tiles, thousands of small bottles containing everything from nail polish to mineral water, an assortment of drugs, barrels of cold cream, yo-yos and 700 cases of Scotch whisky. Still buried under layers of sand are broken bottles, dishes and tiny drug ampules that occasionally work their way to the surface.
The Constellation was a four-masted schooner, built in Harrington, Maine, in 1918, long after the decline of the great sailing ships. It sailed for years as part of a commercial fleet, but by 1932 it had been made obsolete by more modern merchant vessels. It was sold to Robert L. Royall, who refurbished it with an eye toward turning it into a floating nautical school.
Interest in Royall's school failed to materialize, though, and within a year the schooner was put up for sale again. The Constellation ended up in New York and, after one or two short trips, remained there until 1942, when World War II stoked demand for ships of any kind. It was converted back into a cargo vessel, and in the late spring of 1942, more than a century after the first steamships crossed the Atlantic, the Constellation set out en route to Venezuela for one more commercial voyage powered by sails alone.
Not long into the journey, the pumping gear broke down, and the ship began to take on water. The captain headed toward Bermuda for repairs. On July 30, at 3 in the afternoon on a flat-calm sea, the Constellation smashed onto a reef, forced out of control by a powerful current. The ship was a total loss, but the crew survived, and the U.S. Navy managed to save some of the cargo -- including the 700 cases of Scotch.
Today, the Constellation lies completely broken up and scattered over a large area, its remains almost mingling with the wreck of the Montana, barely 50 feet away, a British paddle-wheel steamer that sank in 1863. The Constellation's final voyage may have been the last by an American-flagged sailing merchant ship. It was truly the end of an era.
Bermuda has so many wrecks, it was hard to choose among them. But, alas, Arlene did the choosing for me. The tropical storm never hit, but churned up enough high winds, surf and currents to force me to scrap the rest of my diving plans.
My greatest disappointment was missing the Cristobal Colon. A Spanish luxury liner built in 1923, it was 500 feet long, weighed 10,833 tons and was one of the grandest cruise ships of its time.
In October 1936, the Colon was steaming from Cardiff, Wales, to Veracruz, Mexico, when it ran onto a reef eight miles off Bermuda's main island. The ship was traveling with no passengers, but 160 crew members; some historians believe they were headed to Mexico to pick up arms for the civil war that had broken out in Spain.
For some time, the wreck sat high on the reef, easily accessible to scavengers, both legal and illegal. It lost much of its fine furniture, paintings and fittings. Motorboats filled with cargo from the ship would return to the island each night; hundreds of Bermudans took part in this modern-day piracy, but only 12 were ever convicted. Today, there are still homes in Bermuda adorned with artifacts from the grand old Cristobal Colon.
As we left Bermuda at the end of the week, I couldn't help thinking of the hundreds of other wrecks still out there, waiting to be explored. The newer ships, like the Constellation, are easily recognized, but the older ships lie deep in the sand, more mysterious, their upper timbers long ago eaten by worms or encrusted in coral.
Navigational technology has advanced; the waters of Bermuda have become safer. But they may never be entirely safe: In 1967, the reefs snagged another ship. The Ramona, a 120-foot Canadian steel-hulled yacht bound from Nova Scotia to Saint Lucia, crashed into a reef just off the main island's northeastern tip; five of its 10 crew members were lost. The Ramona joined two other ships already resting beneath the waves not far away: the Vixen, scuttled in 1896, and the Minerva, sunk in 1795.
More wrecks for divers to visit, more fractured ships with stories to tell.
Michael H. Cottman is a writer for the Post's Metro section and the author of The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie.
Bermuda offers dozens of shallow dive sites, many within 10 minutes of shore, accessible to divers of any level. Its waters are the clearest in the western Atlantic.
Local dive operations will take you out on a boat for three to four hours for about $55, and will rent you a full set of scuba equipment for about $50. I used Fantasea Diving and Snorkeling (888-362-3483); you could also try Nautilus Diving (441-295-9485); Scuba Look (441-293-7319); or South Side Scuba and Watersports (441-238-1833). -- M.H.C.