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The Zenobia


Howard Sawyer

OK, I know what you're thinking, and you're right, it's not a great title. On the other hand, I could've gone for 'The Art of Zen', or 'Heavy Metal Cyprus Style', so to be fair, it could've been a lot worse...

I liked Chris Demetriou from the moment we met at his stand at the London Dive Show. I was gazing at a cardboard cut-out depicting the Zenobia, wallowing on the surface, with her trade mark list. And we know what happened next.

As Operations Manager of Dive-In Larnaca, Chris has been exploring the wreck of 'The Zen' for the last fifteen years, during which he's acquired a comprehensive and intimate knowledge of this world class site. Yet this familiarity hasn't dampened his enthusiasm for the Med's signature wreck, not one bit. Indeed he spoke as if he'd only just been on his first ten dive Zenobia package, which he'd pretty much sold me by the time he handed me his business card and we'd shaken hands.
The Zenobia It was a stifling hot night when my charter flight from Gatwick arrived at Larnaca some months later. Officials swept other nationalities aside to accommodate us Brits to the express immigration channel, even those who weren't sporting a tattoo. Welcome to Cyprus, the little island that looks like a Christmas tree trying to do a runner.

Short wait at the bag carousel, then ten minutes in a cab and check in at the two star San Remo hotel, all efficiently pre-booked by Sheri at Dive-In. Clean, secure, TV, air con, pool, situated two minutes walk from the dive shop, and all for reasonable rates. Add to that a fine kebabery on the corner, an open all hours mini market across the road for bottled water and British red tops well, what's the point going to Ex-pat Heaven, diving one of the great wrecks if you can't shake your head at the sorry state of the nation, and pity all the poor sods back home where it's pissing down?
The Zenobia Which reminds me, I was so tired I tried to turn the air con on using the telly remote. Three times. I shouted at it in English, and stabbed the remote with more conviction as you would when poking Johnny Foreigner, before realising that those poor sods back home were probably better off without me. Truly I'd arrived.

7:45 next morning and I'm collected by sun beaming Steph, who drives me round the block with my dive gear to the store to meet the Dive-In cast. Paperwork was sent to the UK by Sheri in advance, so the formalities are a breeze. Kit is assembled outside the shop, then loaded onto 'Zeus', the RIB, which is then towed down the road to the slipway, leaving the divers to take their respective briefings in the shade, enjoying supplied water, before suiting up to wander down to the fishing harbour.
Ralf Tech
Before the RIB leaves the quayside there's a boat briefing, repeated every time there's a new passenger aboard. It's local regulations and common sense. Time to cast off before we melt under the morning sun. A chug to the harbour entrance, then hold on as we speed over flat water towards the marker buoys. Again, there's a comprehensive buddy check, with Mike and Sarah from Vancouver and our dive guide, Kelvyn with Billy-No-Mates, and in we roll, bath water warm, clear and blue, sinking down to the ghostly battlements of the behemoth that stretches as far as the eye can see.

Forty minutes later on the surface, helping hands take my lead and tank, leaving me to fin myself aboard with all the grace of a beaching seal, huffing and puffing, eyes wide as dinner plates. Or a seal doing an impression of a middle aged man in a wet suit flopping into a RIB.

The kindly bearded face of skipper, Andy, blots out the sun.

'Y'alright there, mate?'

(Andy's from Yorkshire. I can't do the accent.)

'You're never going to believe this, Andy. But there's a MASSIVE wreck down there!!'
The Zenobia was built in 1974, weighing in at 10,500 tonnes, a one hundred and seventy-two metre long roll-on roll-off ferry carrying a hundred and four trucks from Malmo, Sweden, en route for Syria. After a demonstration of the auto pilot, the vessel developed a list. The inability to tackle Inherent instability issues with the ship meant that although the Zenobia made it to Larnaca, it continued to list, and with water flooding in through an open door below the waterline, was finally abandoned and sunk in the early hours of the 7th June 1980.

She now lies on her port side in forty-two metres of water, half a mile from the fishing harbour, under the flight path to Larnaca airport, the upturned starboard side sixteen metres below the surface. A variety of penetrations of differing difficulty, and fish action in the shape of amber jacks, groupers and barracuda, means the wreck has something for everyone from Open Water to full blown Tech.

The RIB zips us back to the harbour in no time, or no time at all, depending on who is at the helm. We stroll back for brunch at Michael's cafe adjacent to the dive shop. The owner is a local of considerable character, who shares his views with his customers whether they like it or not, but he will also cook you a full English with a pot of tea for under a fiver. And you've earned it. The first dive on The Zen is in your log book, so mop your plate and digest the detail with new found friends and a sea view. God, it's a sunny day!

Some time after noon, we start to gather for our respective briefings, the RIB able to take two or three small groups who can drop in at the stern, middle or bow, such is the size of this wreck. Newly filled cylinders are driven to the harbour and passed down to the divers in the 'Zeus'. Within ten minutes we're rolling back in and dropping down at the stern. Now there's a fresh perspective to fully appreciate the wreck. The size of the prominent starboard propeller dwarfing divers, the graffiti scratched into the grey lichen covering the hull. Big block capitals; 'SIMON, IS GAY'. Now that is a claim to fame.

We creep to the edge of the stern looking down into the depths. Over we go, base jumping underwater, free falling in slow motion through the thermoclime into colder, darker water in the shadow of the two massive stern doors, checking our decent to slide between them at twenty-eight metres. Now along the deck to view the twisted trucks, discarded like toys to boredom. Below us the open rib cage of a lorry once full of butchery, now bare bones.

As if this sight weren't surreal enough, now we penetrate the upper levels of the wreck. With the Zenobia lying on the bottom at ninety degrees, doorways have become human letterboxes. Carpeted floors become furry walls. It's a weird world halfway towards 'The Poseidon Adventure': Pipes, tubes, wires, cables, dotted with alien sponge life, chunks of collapsed partitions, sanitary ware seemingly stuck like art in this topsy-turvy gallery. There's room to move in here, and plenty of ambient light, but hanging cables provide numerous opportunities for snags over the top of cylinders. Ascending we exit into the blue through one of the windows where the glass has been removed to allow plenty of access from a potentially dangerous environment.
Back in the harbour before 3pm, cameras and divers are carefully unloaded, leaving all the kit in the RIB, which is then towed back to the shop to be washed down. The staff diligently go about their boat chores in good spirits and there's a clean rinse tank and plenty of rails to hang suits and BCs, a shower, change cubicles and storage crates for accessories in the adjacent wet room. Once in civvies it's time for a habitual Cyprus coffee, possibly a nap, bearing in mind they're showing reruns of 'Knight Rider' staring David Hasselhoff at 5:30ish.

And if all that diving has given you an appetite, try Melitzi's outdoor eatery ten minutes stroll along the front, heading towards the bright lights. The locals eat here too, and no wonder.

Now I'm joined by Vlad and Diana from the Ukraine, and British technical divers, Neil Black and Adam Florio, who've been creating their own hardcore penetration route into the bowels of the wreck, besting sealed doors with hammer and chisel. This is their third 'holiday' of exploration on the Zen, as they painstakingly move into areas closed while the ferry was still afloat. You can hear them banging away as you fin over the outside of the wreck. Their earnest discussions over dinner about the potential pitfalls awaiting them on the Dark Side of The Sealed Door, silt, debris, hanging cabinets, chemicals, it all sounded like something out of 'Dungeons and Dragons'. Only real.

For me, it's the Upper Cargo Deck, an experience I describe on a postcard home as 'a bit like finning through a church in the dark, jumbled trucks strewn on the floor, thousands of blue bottles littered against the ceiling'. Obviously I'd know. I scuba through churches underwater all the time. Just without the trucks and bottles.

Next day it's all the way down to the bottom at the stern, threading a route between the wheels of symmetrical trucks at a site I christen 'Axle Alley'. Inevitably the deeper and longer dives start to build up deco time on the bar slung at 5 metres on Dive-In's permanent mooring. Chris suggests an SDI Nitrox course, I can even read the manual on Sunday, the shop's dry day. However, Vlad and Diana suggest chicken doners and a carafe of red wine. We occupy the restaurant for six hours and the Nitrox course gets put back a day.

But under Kelvyn's easy tutelage I'm soon getting to grips with the upgrade. After all, if compressed air was so great, everyone would be using it. The benefits soon become apparent within the operating range of the dives, although it adds to the final bill, as does the souvenir polo shirt at the end of the week, but you wouldn't leave for home without it.

I've had a brilliant time here, exceeding my expectations which as this is a world class wreck were already pretty high to begin with. And before you think this is some kind of Love- In with Dive-In, I'd suggest their web site would benefit from a dedicated Zenobia photo gallery, and a second table with shaded seating outside the shop would be a welcome addition. There are other dive shops in Larnaca offering the wreck, if that's the way you choose to live your life.
The Zen's exact position in 'Top Wrecks of The World' can be debated, but it makes the top half of any serious list. Throw stones, but I prefer it to Thistlegorm.

Nearest recompression chamber
The Oxygen Centre, 15 Amathountos Ave, Kypreopoulos Ct #2 Limassol, 4532, Tel: +357 25 230 101
Diving Chamber Treatment Trust

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