Walker Bay is much more than a playground for marine species such as whales and dolphins, it also hides long-forgotten treasures of another kind in its deep, dark depths. Marx Möhr, owner of local diving company Neptune’s Divers and Cruises found what seems to be the wreckage of a historic ship not too far from Hermanus’s Old Harbour.
“The wreckage has been hidden in plain sight for many decades and while it is impossible to say at this time exactly what ship it is, or indeed if it is the complete wreck of a ship, we are extremely excited about what we have found. To date we have uncovered anchors, chains, and several other as yet unidentified maritime cultural heritage items,” said Marx, who seems to have a penchant for undersea treasures. (He even proposed to his wife, Makayla under water in the New Harbour, but that’s another story.)
He said the shipwreck adventure started some two years ago when Makayla gave him a metal detector for his birthday. “I was quite excited to try out the detector and went for a dive. It was not long before I detected a strong metal signal and found links of a chain. I followed the signal and that was when I discovered the first sea-encrusted anchor.”
Marx said he immediately realised that he’d happened upon a long-buried treasure that needed to be kept as undisturbed as possible to save it. “Many of the artefacts we have found are so delicate that should you bring them to the surface, they would disintegrate within minutes.” It is for this very reason that the location of the exact site will be kept a secret. “People removing souvenirs from diving sites can very easily disturb the site or create a lot of damage by removing pieces. We have to guard against that until we have a clear understanding of what is still buried deep under the sand and silt.”
Earlier this year, the Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage (MUCH) Unit of the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) inspected and carried out tests on the site, measuring some 200m² and 20 metres deep in Walker Bay. SAHRA approved Neptune’s application for a permit to undertake a pre-disturbance survey for an unknown wreck in Hermanus. This enabled Neptune to monitor and protect the site and to promote it exclusively as a heritage diving site.
Vanessa Maitland, a maritime archaeologist, undertook a magnetometer survey to define the boundaries and map the site. This process is ongoing.
Diving excursions planned for December
“It has been a challenge to get to this stage – secret dives, all subject to visibility and weather as well as the fact that our yacht from which we also do diving excursions, Ocean Quest, was not allowed in that part of Walker Bay during the whale season,” said Marx.
“After the initial find, Makayla and my father Dolf joined the preliminary exploration until we could involve SAHRA and Vanessa, with rewarding results. We hope this new heritage diving site, which we have named Neptune X until a name can be linked to identifiable remains, will lead to more interesting historic finds, and contribute to Hermanus as an enviable tourist destination.”
To date four different anchors and chains, as well as a huge anchor winch have been found alongside some other artefacts. Interestingly, the size and shape of the anchors indicate that they date from the mid to late 1800s and would have been used to anchor a ship of at least 200 tons – much larger than any of the whaling ships that used to frequent the Old Harbour. The chains also stretch out away from the anchors, indicating that the anchors were not discarded in the ocean as the chains would then have curled up next to the anchors.
Makayla has been doing research on some of their finds and she says it is still too early to positively identify some of the heritage items as belonging to a specific shipwreck.
“The remains lie at 20 metres on a predominantly sandy reef and it offers an exciting dive to qualified divers. We plan to start excursions to Neptune X in December,” Marx added.
The world-wide mysteries surrounding shipwrecks are legion and what still lies hidden at Neptune X is no exception. According to the records of SAHRA, there are about 200 shipwrecks identified along the Overberg coastline, dating from the middle or late 1600s.
Frieda Lloyd, Tourism Manager for the Cape Whale Coast, is a representative on the government’s Oceans Economic Working Group which, through Operation Phakisa, focuses on unlocking the economic potential of South Africa’s oceans. She says that developing responsible coastal and marine tourism is a key element of Operation Phakisa and that the discovery and potential of Neptune X could be significant.
“Experience and authenticity are crucial elements for the growth of sustainable tourism. Neptune X offers the possibility of both and, as a heritage diving site, it could become an important contributor to coastal and marine tourism in the Overberg and beyond,” she said.
Frieda is also looking at possibilities to unlock the marine experiences offered in Walker Bay. The bay closes for boating annually from June to November.