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It takes a very skilled and experienced diver to cut these ghost nets that have been trapping marine life | Photos by Muhammad Iqbal

PAKISTAN’S LIFE AQUATIC

Exploring what lies beneath
Updated 23 May, 2021 01:33pm

Wreck diving — or recreational diving around the wreckage of sunken ships, vessels or aircrafts — is extremely rare in Pakistan. But the small community of dedicated divers who regularly go diving share a deep bond. As they discover new worlds underwater, they also discover things about themselves. One diver takes us along for the journey



The alarm goes off at 5am and I immediately wake up and spring into action. Today’s dive site will be around a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Karachi, followed by an approximately 40-minute speed-boat ride from Gadani. This means we will have to start off a little before dawn and get there right after sunrise — with a breakfast stop in between, of course.

I have woken up early but still, somehow, find myself trying to outrun the arms of the clock.

This part is always a race against time — and a difficult one. Scuba diving requires carrying a lot of gear and missing any of it can cause huge trouble. So you have to make sure you have it all.

You have several large cylinders containing compressed air (two to three per diver), a sizable bag with scuba gear and equipment, an additional bag for back-up gear and camera equipment, weight belts with additional weights on the side, a dry bag (designed to keep its contents dry even if it comes in contact with water) for personal items, towels and ice boxes containing food and drinks.

I double-check our list and then I am on my way. As I sit in the car, I allow myself a moment to revel in the glory of this moment. Diving is always a spiritual journey for me. To dive is to be one with nature. You learn to read the signs of the sun, the wind and the temperament of the sea. There is no mobile phone reception underwater. You disconnect from your worries and connect with nature­. Every dive is uniquely beautiful.

Transporting recovered ghost nets to the surface  | Photos by Muhammad Iqbal
Transporting recovered ghost nets to the surface | Photos by Muhammad Iqbal

But today’s dive is very special. I am finally being given the privilege of visiting a site that’s acquired a somewhat legendary status in our small scuba diving community.

We fondly call the elusive wreck the ‘Iqbal Wreck’, after Muhammad Iqbal, the senior dive master who was the first among us to track it down. Others including some members of the indigenous local fishing community knew of its existence all along, but they do not understand our fascination with it.

Being trusted to dive on ‘Iqbal Wreck’ means the world to me and my fellow divers. Our community is small, barely 20-odd divers from Karachi active in a season (this is not to be confused with the many more that get certified every year but don’t pursue the sport as consistently). But even in this close-knit community, the revealing of an otherwise ‘secret location’ can break friendships that are several years and hundreds of dives old.

These teira batfish were very friendly | Photo by the writer
These teira batfish were very friendly | Photo by the writer

If there is any written documentation of what lies beneath, it is not easily available to the public. Perhaps that’s why when more seasoned divers chance upon a location with a unique underwater architecture or one that is bustling with wildlife, they guard the coordinates of that site quite fiercely.

Another major reason for this secrecy is to prevent the sites from getting crowded by potential tourists and divers alike. One of the advantages of not having a bustling coastal tourism industry is that our seas are safe from the littering that comes with more people. The secrecy is also to avoid attracting too much attention to the sites — we could get ‘banned’ from accessing them, the way we have been by various government agencies at other sites.

Pakistan is a hard country to scuba dive in but, if luck and mother nature are on your side, it can also be one of the most rewarding.

A native but rarely sighted lionfish
A native but rarely sighted lionfish

When diving here, you need your community. Over the years, we form a bond that comes from seeing life underwater in a way most around us will never see. It is a bond we share not only with each other but, more importantly, with the sea and its inhabitants.

Most of our dive sites take us close to or into Balochistan, where the waters are relatively pristine and the sites remain untouched. That’s what makes diving in Balochistan so very exciting — you can never be completely sure of what to expect. Every dive into a new location is an adventure into the unknown.

But this dive site obscurity also makes it difficult to collect information on potential dive sites — of the rocks, reefs and wrecks that lie deep underwater. It requires forging relationships with the local fishing communities, in the hopes that they will share information on which locations have the best fish stock. Sometimes one has to track older ‘retired’ divers (there are so few that they can be counted on the fingers of one hand) and seek their advice. Other times, one finds oneself in the open sea with a fish finder (a scanning device which senses movement underwater) hoping that luck is on their side.

THE EXPEDITION

Penetrating the unstable wreck can be very dangerous
Penetrating the unstable wreck can be very dangerous

It is around 8.25am and the scorching sun is already out. We are finally at the beach near Gadani. Seeing how far our boat is, I start panicking, imagining endless trips back and forth on the sand transporting heavy tanks, weights and gear. It’ll be fine, I am assured.

I turn around and see the other divers loading cylinders on to a donkey cart. Of course, we weren’t going to carry all of it ourselves! This is a relief (although I cannot help but feel bad for the donkeys). Unlike me, the donkeys are not overthinking things. They walk straight into the water and next to our boat, and the gear is transferred.

And off we go.

Small speed-boats, such as the one we are on, are fast, but they also jump over the waves in the sea quite hard. You will fly off your seat every time the boat hits a wave, so it is important to have a secure hold at all times.

Transporting our scuba gear to the boat
Transporting our scuba gear to the boat

On one side, as we move farther away from the shore, we can see the massive vessels parked on the ship-breaking yard at Gadani. These giants from around the world are waiting to be cut into smaller, transportable pieces. Some are farther up in the water, waiting to join them in the metal graveyard. After spending decades at sea, their journey has come to an end at Gadani.

But ours is just beginning.

As the ships at Gadani fade into the distance, we make our way towards the wreck. We do not know exactly how long it has been under water (some of my fellow divers estimate that it has been underwater for at least a decade), or under what circumstances it sank. But what we do know is that we are in for an experience of a lifetime.

“Do you see anything?” a fellow diver asks me, after the boatman stops the boat at what we hope is the location. I bend over one side of the boat and scan the water below, trying to see what lies beneath. There is no wind and the sea is calm — the conditions are primed for great underwater visibility.

At first, I can only make out a long shadow. I strain my eyes a little more and notice a shadow looking pale, almost silvery. “Whale shark!” yells the boatman’s son. “No,” I respond. “It is not moving. It is the wreck!”

The fact that I can see a wreck that starts at seven metres and touches the bottom at 27 metres from the surface — it’s mostly upright — is unheard of in Pakistan. The visibility is rarely this good.

From L to R: Muhammad Iqbal, Subhan Tinwala, Amer Bazl Khan and Usman Kez
From L to R: Muhammad Iqbal, Subhan Tinwala, Amer Bazl Khan and Usman Kez

We quickly start assembling our gear. On the bigger locally adapted ‘doonda’ boats, seen most in use in and around places such as Mubarak Village and Sunehra Beach, it is easier as the size and structure of the boat prevents it from rolling too much in the water. In these small speed boats, it feels like we are changing and gearing up on a giant mechanical ride at a theme park. The ground beneath our feet and the horizon is constantly moving up and down and sideways.

The motion, and the direct exposure to the sun — which is now right above us — is a perfect recipe for seasickness. And some of us, including me, fall victim to it, occasionally leaning over one side of the boat hoping our breakfast stays in. This does not stop us. We still get into our wetsuits and our gear, ready no matter how sick we feel. They say the best cure for seasickness is to either lie flat in the boat, or just jump into the water.

With one hand on our masks, the other on our belts, regulators in, legs folded and fins ready, we roll back off the boat and into the sea. My eyes sting as some of the water enters my mask and I can taste the salt of the sea. But I instantly start feeling better.

There is abundant marine life at this wreck. It is, essentially, their nursery
There is abundant marine life at this wreck. It is, essentially, their nursery

We are waiting for the other divers to join us so we can finally descend together. “Just dip your head in and look,” says Amer Bazl Khan, one of the divers, and a marine archaeologist and the director of the Maritime Archaeology and Heritage Institute (MAHI) — a non-profit research organisation.

I comply. And there it is. The top of the wreck! The A-frame, a type of lifting gear installed on vessels, is completely covered in soft brown coral with the deep orange of the ship’s rusting surface, glinting in the sunlight that is penetrating the water. There are a few colourful fish around it, nipping at bits of food.

The view is majestic, and I cannot wait to descend.

Soon enough, it is time. We get a short safety briefing on the surface. I am paired with my husband, Abdullah, a scuba diver who I first met at sea. And then, finally, we do a line descent. We hold a rope and start moving downwards.

UNDER THE SEA

Freeing a trapped fish from the net
Freeing a trapped fish from the net

I focus on the fish before observing the wreck. They catch my eye because it is unusual to have such colourful fish so close to the surface, away from a reef or a rock. But these teira batfish — that are diamond-shaped with long fins, grey in colour, with bold black and white stripes and a little yellow fin in the front — are quite friendly.

The wreck seems to just open up in front of me as I descend deeper. Almost all of it is covered in coral, which gives the impression that it’s been there for quite some time. On one side there is the deck and hiding in that deck, near the base of the A-frame, is an animal native to our waters, but one I have never seen before in the many seasons I’ve dived here — a red lionfish.

A striking fish with orange, red and white stripes all over its head and body, they have fleshy tentacles above their eyes and below their mouths. Their pectoral fins are long and fan-like, and their dorsal fin is separated by 13 long spines. If they feel threatened they raise their dorsal and pectoral fins to give the impression of being larger, more intimidating fish.

They feed on small fish and invertebrates, and occasionally also cannibalise smaller members of their own species. Although lionfish are native to our waters, in the Pacific, for example, they are considered an invasive species. They are perhaps the only fish that scuba divers are encouraged to hunt because this top predator has a severe impact on its non-native habitats. They compete directly with native predatory fish, such as groupers and snappers for space and food. Known for their ravenous appetites, they multiply as they eat more and more.

Ghost nets can be very difficult to spot and are deadly for unsuspecting sea creatures
Ghost nets can be very difficult to spot and are deadly for unsuspecting sea creatures

But the true magic of the wreck exists under and around its massive frame. Light penetrates well in these waters and that, along with the many corners of the wreck that are perfect for nest building, makes this a very popular spot for fish.

There are massive shoals of both silver and yellow-fin trevally that, when on the move, go past very quickly and then round again. There are large angel fish under the shoals, closer to the opening of the inner-side of the wreck. Huge groupers are hiding under the deck; they are only visible to us when we flash a torch light through a door. We decide not to go closer for safety reasons (the inside of a wreck can be a very unstable place). Some divers spot moray eels, blue triggerfish, sweet lips (yes, that is their real name; they look like they’ve gotten botched botox jobs) and red snapper among many others.

When we move closer to the shoals while they are moving, they surround my husband and I and it feels like we’re enveloped in a wall of fish. It is utterly mesmerising. But there are also times when the shoals are not moving, and that’s when we observe that the fish in these large groups are mostly young and juvenile. This holds true for a lot of the other species. This wreck is, essentially, their nursery.

DEEP DOWN INSIDE

While there are other sites where fish are plentiful, the scale and density of the marine life on just this singular wreck sets it apart and makes it very special. But along with the abundant wildlife is another entity that threatens their existence — ghost nets; lots and lots of them. These are fishing nets that have been left or lost by fishermen. They can be very difficult to spot, and are deadly for unsuspecting sea creatures. At times they are spread in several layers, almost enveloping the entire top of the wreck.

At the far end of the deck is a steep fall to the ground. The bottom of the wreck is covered with fish and, of course, ghost nets. They are huge and dangerous, for the divers and fish alike.

It gets darker the lower you go. Colours change too. Red is quickly filtered out the deeper you go and what remains is blue light. Eventually, everything starts to look grey, black and blue. We counter this by using a red filter on our dive torch.

It is at the eerie bottom when I see flashes of silver moving vigorously away from us, their movement disturbing the sand. I manage to catch a long silvery shape followed by a flash of yellow and immediately know what it is: a group of yellow-tail barracuda. Barracuda always move in groups and are formidable hunters. Barracuda attacks on humans are rare, although bites can result in deep cuts and the loss of some tissue. But like most marine animals, they can be quite shy as well.

When we turn around to face the wreck, we see that the bottom half is also covered in ghost nets. Fish and other marine animals get caught in these nets and end up dying when they can’t set themselves free. There is a one-minute video on YouTube by a free diver (or a breath-hold diver), who goes by the name Yasir Diver on the video platform, in which you can see the sheer number of fish caught up in the nets that are stuck to the wreck. It’s a harrowing sight and gives a stark view of the perils these nets pose.

Another reason for our dive is to try and remove some of these nets, but this requires very experienced, careful hands. It’s easy for a net to almost inconspicuously trap you until it’s too late. That’s why we carry very sharp knives, to cut the nets out if need be.

PROTECTING A SAFE HAVEN

Muhammad Iqbal (Iqbal Saheb for the diving community) has spent the last couple of seasons (between October and April) removing nets from the wreck, but they keep coming back.

“Where are these ghost nets coming from?” asks MAHI’s Khan, before answering his own question. “Ironically, they’re coming from the same people who depend on this to resupply their fish stock — the fishermen. They are mistakenly trying to fish the wreck itself and their nets get caught in the structure.” But, he adds, it’s not just that. Nets tend to travel large distances. The problem is leaving the nets in the water in the first place.

“Ghost nets can travel vast distances with the help of the currents,” says Usman Kez, the project manager for Olive Ridley Project in Pakistan. In the last few years, he’s organised multiple ghost net recovery operations. “Scientists have found ghost nets that originated in Kenya that have ended up in the Maldives. These nets can ride the waves over large distances and for months on end.”

“This is not a place to go fishing,” says Khan. “It is a place to avoid fishing. You will lose your nets and your fish here.”

Khan describes this place as a “safe haven for juvenile fish.” “There are artificial reefs on the wreck that provide protection, but it’s under threat. It’s an important place to be protected,” he says. “From an economic perspective, there is a lot of potential for dive tourism since it’s at a depth that is accessible to divers. There is tourism value but [there is] also marine ecological value.”

Khan adds that while the wreck doesn’t have value for the fishermen directly, it does benefit them indirectly. “...The fisheries near Gadani are replenished through this particular site,” he says. “Places such as this, even though they are manmade, provide an additional place for fish to exist in areas where otherwise they would not be. The area along that coastline otherwise is quite inhospitable for juvenile fish. Places like this wreck allow for the deep-water fisheries to survive. It’s economically viable for the fishing community to preserve this place.”

These ghost nets are not just a problem for the fish and other underwater marine wildlife. According to Khan, they also contribute to a microplastic problem. “There are barnacles around some of the nets,” he says. “When the fish consume those barnacles, the plastic they are attached to becomes a part of the food chain as well.”

And why should anyone who does not eat fish care? “Because fish is used in chicken feed, fertilisers etc,” says Khan. So, whether we eat fish or not, we can be exposed to the microplastics.

***

Around 40 minutes into our dive, Khan signals for us to tell him how much air we have left. I check my gauge. I have just a little more than what’s considered our reserve limit — 50bars. He signals for us to ascend.

We’ll need that reserve air for our decompression stop (when we pause midway for a few minutes to expel excess nitrogen from our body, usually at a depth between 8m to 5m).

The decompression stop, while we wait as our body expels all of the excess nitrogen, is a great opportunity to take photos and gaze at the wreck one last time.

Once on the surface, I cannot help but feel overwhelmed by it all. I can understand why people like Khan and Iqbal are so protective of these magical spaces. I scroll through the photos I have just taken, reliving my experience of this magical dive.


The writer is a Dive Master Trainee and a member of staff. She tweets @madeehasyed

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 23rd, 2021