In Turkey, a Watery Grave Becomes a Park

The wind was choosing up and the ocean rising choppier as I rolled backward into the Aegean off the Eftelya Dina, a 33-foot dive boat primarily based within the northwest Turkish port of Canakkale.

I rose to the floor, minus my masks — knocked off throughout my plunge — and, in my momentary disorientation, swallowed a mouthful of seawater. Deniz Tasci, an athletic industrial diver who was serving as my information on this expedition, retrieved the masks, helped refit it to my face and tugged me via the churning swells to the anchor rope. I grabbed the slimy cable, let the air out of my vest and started my descent. Freed from the floor turbulence, I immediately relaxed. I gulped air from my regulator, cleared my ears and clambered down towards our goal: a 125-year-old British battleship mendacity on the ocean flooring 60 ft beneath.

We had been anchored simply south of Cape Helles, on the entrance to the Dardanelles, or, because the Turks name it, the Canakkale Strait, a slim, 38-mile-long waterway linking the Aegean Sea with Turkey’s Sea of Marmara. Known to the traditional Greeks because the Hellespont, this perennially gusty channel separates the continental landmasses of Asia and Europe and has been a fought-over bottleneck for hundreds of years. According to legend, Mycenaean warriors sailed right here in the course of the late Bronze Age, round 1180 B.C., to put siege to Troy, the highly effective metropolis overlooking the Dardanelles also referred to as Ilion (as the traditional Greeks referred to as it), in the course of the epic battle recounted in Homer’s “Iliad.”

Seddulbahir, or Wall of the Sea, is a village on the rocky tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula. The World War I shipwrecks are in close by waters.Credit…Ali Keskin for The New York Times

One hundred and 6 years in the past, the Dardanelles was the positioning of one other historic battle. At the outbreak of World War I, the Ottoman Empire allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary, attacked Russian ports within the Black Sea and closed the strait to maritime site visitors. In February 1915, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill dispatched a British-French fleet of battleships, submarines and minesweepers to the Dardanelles, to power open the strait and pave the best way for the conquest of Constantinople, now Istanbul.

“A good army of 50,000 men and sea power — that is the end of the Turkish menace,” Churchill optimistically declared.

But the Ottomans and their German allies had been prepared for them. On March 18, 1915, mines at Cape Helles sank two British battleships and one French battleship, severely broken three others and killed greater than 700 sailors. For the Royal Navy, it was the largest lack of life and treasure for the reason that Battle of Trafalgar a century earlier.

A month later, the Allied Powers launched a floor invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula, on the western, or European facet, of the Dardanelles. British and French vessels supported the forces by bombarding Ottoman fortresses and different strongholds, however the Ottomans dug in and fought again tenaciously. By the time the Allies retreated from the peninsula in January 1916, about 500,000 troopers on each side had been killed or wounded, and a few two dozen British, French and Australian vessels lay on the backside of the Dardanelles and the Aegean Sea.

A view of Seddulbahir and the Helles memorial from the Mehmetcik Lighthouse.Credit…Ali Keskin for The New York Times

A park is born

For a century, these sunken ships have moldered of their undersea graves, visited often by researchers, however — not like, say, World War II battle websites round a number of South Pacific atolls — off limits to the general public. The Turkish navy, which managed the Dardanelles, had little curiosity in selling the strategic area as a vacationer vacation spot.

But in 2017, within the wake of the centennial commemorations of the Gallipoli battle, supervision of the realm handed to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which determined to show the shipwrecks into an underwater park. “Our awareness of the possibilities began with the centennial and then picked up steam,” mentioned Ismail Kasdemir, the director of the Gallipoli Historical Field Department, the company accountable for the mission.

For the previous three years, vessels from Turkey’s Marmara Research Center have performed sonar mapping of the strait and pinpointed the precise location and depth of all 28 wrecks. Divers have surveyed and demarcated the stay torpedoes that lie among the many sunken vessels.

“In the whole Dardanelles we have many thousands,” mentioned Yusuf Kartal, a ministry official. Though crammed with explosive powder, they often require a severe jolt to detonate. “You can pet them, no problem,” Mr. Kasdemir assured me with a grin. He admitted, nevertheless, that one unfortunate fisherman had pulled up a torpedo in his internet a couple of years in the past, and, as he tried to untangle it from the online, “it exploded and killed him.”

An merchandise recovered from the HMS Majestic.Credit…Ali Keskin for The New York Times

Earlier this yr, the Culture Ministry designated HMS Majestic, a 421-foot battleship commissioned at Portsmouth, England, in 1895, as the primary wreck that might be made accessible to vacationers. A German U-21 submarine torpedoed and sank the Majestic on May 27, 1915, with the lack of 49 sailors. Half a century after the vessel’s sinking off Cape Helles, a French firm struck a take care of Turkey’s army authorities and blew up the Majestic for scrap metallic. The explosions diminished the ship to a tangle of iron and metal, however some sections stay intact.

Turkish officers had initially deliberate to open the marine park within the early summer time of 2021, however the pandemic has obliged them to delay till the tip of September. When I visited in July, Turkey’s Covid-19 circumstances had dropped to their lowest degree in almost a yr, and streets, eating places and retailers had been bustling in each Istanbul and Canakkale. But the numbers spiked in late July, largely due to the unfold of the Delta variant, and by early August, that they had quadrupled to 26,000 a day. In mid-August, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention positioned Turkey on its “Level 4 Very High” danger listing, and the U.S. State Department issued a “Do Not Travel” advisory. The numbers at the moment are fluctuating, and the C.D.C. nonetheless strongly advises solely those that are absolutely vaccinated to go to the nation.

When I used to be there in the course of the early summer time lull within the pandemic, I encountered no overseas vacationers, although a number of seashores alongside the peninsula had been filled with visiting Turkish households, music was blaring from seaside cafes and life appeared again to regular.

Half a century after the Majestic sank off Cape Helles, a French firm struck a take care of Turkey’s army authorities and blew up the Majestic for scrap metallic. The explosions diminished the ship to a tangle of iron and metal, however some sections stay intact.Credit…Ali Keskin

Plunging into the ocean

Early on a heat Saturday morning, my interpreter, Gokce Saracoglu, and I set off from our rustic resort exterior Eceabat, Gallipoli’s major city, to Seddulbahir, or Wall of the Sea, a village on the rocky tip of the peninsula. (The space is a whole bunch of miles west of the coastal area in central Anatolia that was devastated by wildfires this summer time, and it remained unaffected by them.) Dominated by a stone fortress from which Ottoman weapons bombarded Allied ships making an attempt to enter the Dardanelles, the city was featured within the latest hit Turkish TV collection, “Seddulbahir 32 Hours,” concerning the doomed final stand of a besieged firm of Ottoman troops in 1915.

Seddulbahir is dominated by a stone fortress from which Ottoman weapons bombarded Allied ships making an attempt to enter the Dardanelles.Credit…Ali Keskin for The New York Times

At a tea store beside the village mosque, excessive above the harbor, we met three ministry officers, together with Mr. Kartal and Mr. Kasdemir, who had agreed to present me a preview of the dive website. All of them could be becoming a member of me underwater. We then acquired again into our automotive and inched down a precipitous dirt-and-gravel highway to the port, the place Eftelya Dina and her crew, together with a help vessel carrying the air tanks, had been ready for us.

Only licensed divers can be permitted to discover the Dardanelles wrecks; for nondivers within the historical past of the Gallipoli sea-and-land marketing campaign, the peninsula abounds with memorial websites, previous Ottoman fortresses and a Gallipoli War Museum at Kabatepe crammed with weapons, battlefield pictures and personal possessions, together with letters from the entrance. And the tourism ministry plans quickly to transform the Mehmetcik Lighthouse, on a bluff close to Cape Helles, into a dive middle the place fans can get background briefings concerning the historic naval battles there and watch undersea footage of the websites.

The Mehmetcik Lighthouse, close to Cape Helles, will develop into a middle the place guests can study World War I naval historical past within the area and see undersea footage of the websites.Credit…Ali Keskin for The New York Times

A predawn thunderstorm had cleared the air and introduced comfy temperatures after days of 100 diploma warmth. As we motored out of Seddulbahir harbor, I might see, on the Asia Minor facet of the Dardanelles, the hilltop website of the ruins of historic Troy — first excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in 1870. Behind us, on the European facet, rose the Canakkale Martyrs’ Memorial, a stark, four-columned marble archway devoted to the 250,000 Ottoman casualties of the Gallipoli Campaign. Much of the peninsula has been became a nationwide park, preserved to look because it did a century in the past. Scattered among the many pristine seashores and rugged, pine-covered hills had been cemeteries and memorials commemorating one of many struggle’s bloodiest campaigns.

Eftelya Dina’s skipper motored a southeasterly course towards the positioning of the Majestic, simply off Cape Helles, conserving his eye on a massive display screen that displayed sonar pictures of the ocean flooring. The entrance to the Dardanelles is plagued by British and French vessels, Mr. Kasdemir informed me: They embody HMS Goliath, a pre-dreadnought battleship, just like the Majestic, that an Ottoman torpedo sunk two weeks earlier than the lack of the Majestic and that now lies principally buried in sediment at a depth of 207 ft. (The pre-dreadnought classification refers to boats constructed earlier than the 1906 commissioning of HMS Dreadnought, a sooner, extra closely armed ship that revolutionized naval warfare.) After 20 minutes, we anchored the 2 boats. Then I squeezed into my moist go well with, strapped on my tank and vest and, together with the three Turkish officers and two diving guides, plunged into the ocean.

The water temperature dropped from 74 levels on the floor to a chilly 60 levels as we neared the wreck, although my moist go well with stored me insulated from the chilly. Soon, I discovered myself hovering over a subject of tangled iron and metal — a huge underwater junkyard, or graveyard, unfold out for a whole bunch of yards on the ocean flooring.

The visibility was surprisingly clear, contemplating the currents that always rip via the realm. As I adopted Deniz Tasci via the wreckage, I might make out the curved, intact stern of the ship, the stays of a number of decks, two stout smokestacks standing upright and one of many boat’s two masts, mendacity on the port facet of the vessel.

Toward the stays of the bow, a lengthy tube angled sharply upward — presumably one of many 4 12-inch MK-Eight naval weapons that pounded Seddulbahir to cowl Australian and French floor troops touchdown at Cape Helles. I noticed a enormous cylinder that may have been a part of one of many ship’s steam-turbine engines, and strewn in each nook of the wreckage had been cigar-shaped torpedoes coated in rust, but with their explosive warheads nonetheless very a lot so as.

Mr. Kartal had earlier informed me that divers had counted “more than 200 torpedoes” scattered across the Majestic alone. There’s virtually no probability of those exploding with out a highly effective jolt, however skilled guides keep near divers and discourage them from touching something.

The wreck abounded with sea life, together with two-banded sea breams, oval-shaped silver fish adorned with two black parallel stripes operating alongside their heads and tail fins; cuckoo wrasses, with vibrant blue squiggles down their elongated orange our bodies; pig-toothed corals, funguslike organisms sprouting contained in the wreck’s hole areas; and tubular pink and orange sponges clinging to many surfaces. Halfway via the 35-minute dive, one in every of my companions shone a flashlight into a vaultlike area within the wreckage, the place an octopus, now shying away from the unwelcome intrusion, had secreted itself.

Local fishing boats moored in Seddulbahir’s harbor.Credit…Ali Keskin for The New York Times

An environmental problem

Another type of sea life was inescapable and much much less welcome: a white-gray fibrous materials that had settled on each floor of the Majestic, reminding me of these spray-on Halloween cobwebs. The gunk is understood by the disagreeable identify “sea snot”— an natural matter secreted by phytoplankton that has proliferated to alarming ranges in Turkish waters due to international warming and the unregulated dumping of uncooked sewage.

The mucilage has clogged waterways, smothered shellfish, coated fishing nets and blanketed a lot of the ocean backside, constructing towards an environmental disaster. One Turkish photographer who has dived across the Majestic confirmed me pictures taken one yr in the past and in June 2021; the distinction between the colourful “before” photos and the monochromatic “after” photos was unsettling.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, has referred to as the phenomenon a “calamity” and has initiated a large cleanup drive, sending employees to gather the mucus for incineration, however scientists within the area say that the hassle in all probability gained’t be sufficient. The environmental mess is innocent to divers, however officers appear reluctant to speak about it. When I described what I’d seen to Mr. Kasdemir, he informed me it was a “kind of seaweed” after which modified the topic. (The similar photographer reported again to me that the ocean snot had principally disappeared from the Majestic by August.)

However grim the sea-snot calamity will get, the Culture Ministry is transferring quickly forward with its underwater park. Back on the deck of Eftelya Dina after the dive, Mr. Kasdemir informed me that his division quickly deliberate to open up different wrecks within the space that hadn’t been destroyed by scrap-metal scavengers, together with the British ships Goliath, Triumph and Louis, and a French battleship, Bouvet, which struck a mine on March 18, 1915, and sank in two minutes, with a lack of greater than 600 males.

There are plans to put in QR-coded panels at numerous spots alongside the wrecks, he mentioned, which might enable divers with waterproof telephones to obtain pictures exhibiting how completely different sections of the vessel appeared earlier than the sinking. He needed the diving expertise to be each an underwater journey and an immersion in historical past, he mentioned — and, for Turks, a reminder of a transient interval of glory earlier than the Ottoman Empire’s 1918 collapse. “We paid a huge price, but I think we were on the right side,” he informed me. “We were defending our country, and we won.”

We docked Eftelya Dina and made our manner again up the steep hill from the harbor, casting a lingering final have a look at the watery graveyard far beneath.

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