Le Polynésien (Malta — 205 fsw)

Background

The Polynesian is probably one of the most famous technical dives in Malta — I’m guessing this is due to her massive size and also to the fact that she was sunk by a torpedo from a German submarine during World War I in August 1918.

SS Polynesien as a passenger liner (Photo: University of Malta)

There has been a LOT written about the Polynesien so I won’t give a long history but will provide a brief recap for those that don’t want to spend time searching around the Internet.

The Polynesien started life as a 19th century luxury French ocean liner and was launched on 18 April 1890. She is about 500 feet long and had a beam of 50 feet and had a triple expansion steam engine and also three sails. Passenger load was 172 first class, 71 second class, 109 third class, and 234 “rationnaires.”

She started operating between France and Australia by routing through the Suez Canal. She later changed her route to be between France and the Far East and for a while operated between Australia and New Caledonia (French colony) and then was sent back to Europe.

Like many passenger ships and merchant ships during wartime, she was requisitioned by the French authorities at the start of World War I and put into service as a troop transport and had guns added at the bow and stern.

On her final voyage — which was only three months before the end of the war — she was going from Tunisia to Greece and transporting Serbian troops and cadets. On 10 Aug 1918, she was torpedoed by the German coastal minelaying submarine SM UC-22 a few kilometers off Malta. She was hit in the port side near the engine room and quickly sank. Most of the cadets survived but eleven crew members and six passengers died.

The UC-22 was a prolific raider and sank at least 26 ships between 1916-1918. Below is a picture of a submarine from the same UC II class (UC-56):

German Type UC II Submarine (from Wikipedia)

The Dives

Given the size of the wreck (500 feet long!) it really needs more than one dive. We did two dives and it still wasn’t enough and we had a little bit of an adventure. The bottom of the wreck is at about 210 feet and since her beam is about 50 feet, the starboard edge of the ship is about 160 feet deep. The Polynesien is exposed in open ocean and can have currents — which we found out on our first dive.

Below is a link to a very good photogrammetry model that somebody built of the entire wreck (given the size of the wreck, this is pretty impressive):

The idea was to drop the downline amidships and then spend one dive on the stern and one dive on the bow. We dropped the line down and noticed that there was definitely some current. Karsten when down the line first to check the placement. What we found out later is that once he got down, he saw the large bundle of weights skipping along the bottom away from the wreck! Thinking fast, he tied a line to the downline and then swam against the current to the wreck and tied in there. All of this at 200 feet deep and on open circuit.

John following the guide line to the wreck on the second dive. Note how close it is to the bow which explains why we never reached the stern on the first dive.

John and I jumped in and had to do a “hand over hand” pull down the downline to fight the current and get down to the bottom without expending too much effort. I was first in the water and met Karsten and we communicated the plan that he was going to leave given the depth and his gas supply and I understood the plan to retrieve the line and bring back his spool. I put a strobe on the end of the line at the wreck and hoped that it didn’t snap.

John got down and we started exploring towards the stern. The visibility was good but not great and I wasn’t sure where on the wreck we had started. We keep heading to the stern and after about 15 minutes we still had a ways to go so I signaled to John that we should turn around and head back to the line. Luckily, in the “shadow” of the ship, the current wasn’t too bad on the wreck.

I left the spool and line in place for our second dive and turned off the strobe and we did our deco in about 1 knot of current — looking like flags on a flagpole I’m sure.

We did a decent surface interval and then went down for our second dive. The current had subsided quite significantly which was nice and the visibility had improved. When we got to the bottom of the downline, we followed the guide line to the wreck and I realized that we were almost at the bow. No wonder we kept swimming aft on the first dive and never made it to the stern!

We spent some time taking pictures of the cool gun at the bow and exploring around before getting the strobe, disconnecting Karsten’s spool and then reeling back the line to the downline and doing our deco.

Overall, it is a very cool ship to dive. I wish we had more time and will definitely dive it again now that I have a better feel for where things are on the wreck.

Photos

Below are photos from both of the dives.

Near the engine
Not a great picture, but note the size of fellow diver John (in the middle of the picture) relatively to the wreckage
More wreckage in the engine area where the torpedo hit
Lifeboat davits. The yellow sponges remind me a LOT of the wrecks in Vis, Croatia
More of the engine area
Steam pipes to power the engine (?)
One of two “wheels” amidships. I’m guessing these were to raise and lower the rigging/sails (?)
The second of two wheels amidships
More of the area around the engine. Heading back to the line at the end of the first dive.
Mast out in the sand near the bow
Encrusted gun at the bow
John peering into the bow
Anchor lashed to the deck near the bow

Looking towards the stern just back from the bow
Looking towards the bow. Note the winches for the anchors and the bow gun in the distance.

References

Dive Systems Malta

Heritage Malta

Wikipedia SM UC-22

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