In Turkey, a watery grave becomes a park

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In Turkey, a watery grave becomes a park
An item recovered from the HMS Majestic shipwreck off Cape Helles, Turkey, Aug. 19, 2021. Off the Gallipoli Peninsula, the remains of some two dozen British, French and Australian ships — World War I relics — are memorialized in an undersea park formed during the pandemic. Ali Keskin/The New York Times.

by Joshua Hammer

NEW YORK, NY.- The wind was picking up and the sea growing choppier as I rolled backward into the Aegean off the Eftelya Dina, a 33-foot dive boat based in the northwest Turkish port of Canakkale.

I rose to the surface, minus my mask — knocked off during my plunge — and, in my momentary disorientation, swallowed a mouthful of seawater. Deniz Tasci, an athletic commercial diver who was serving as my guide on this expedition, retrieved the mask, helped refit it to my face and tugged me through the churning swells to the anchor rope. I grabbed the slimy cable, let the air out of my vest and began my descent. Freed from the surface turbulence, I instantly relaxed. I gulped air from my regulator, cleared my ears and clambered down toward our objective: a 125-year-old British battleship lying on the sea floor 60 feet below.

We were anchored just south of Cape Helles, at the entrance to the Dardanelles, or, as the Turks call it, the Canakkale Strait, a narrow, 38-mile-long waterway linking the Aegean Sea with Turkey’s Sea of Marmara. Known to the ancient Greeks as the Hellespont, this perennially gusty channel separates the continental landmasses of Asia and Europe and has been a fought-over bottleneck for thousands of years. According to legend, Mycenaean warriors sailed here during the late Bronze Age, around 1180 B.C., to lay siege to Troy, the powerful city overlooking the Dardanelles also known as Ilion (as the ancient Greeks called it), during the epic battle recounted in Homer’s “Iliad.”

One hundred and six years ago, the Dardanelles was the site of another historic battle. At the outbreak of World War I, the Ottoman Empire allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary, attacked Russian ports in the Black Sea and closed the strait to maritime traffic. In February 1915, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill dispatched a British-French fleet of battleships, submarines and minesweepers to the Dardanelles, to force open the strait and pave the 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 were ready for them. On March 18, 1915, mines at Cape Helles sank two British battleships and one French battleship, severely damaged three others and killed more than 700 sailors. For the Royal Navy, it was the biggest loss of life and treasure since the Battle of Trafalgar a century earlier.

A month later, the Allied Powers launched a ground invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula, on the western, or European side, of the Dardanelles. British and French vessels supported the forces by bombarding Ottoman fortresses and other strongholds, but the Ottomans dug in and fought back tenaciously. By the time the Allies retreated from the peninsula in January 1916, about 500,000 soldiers on both sides had been killed or wounded, and some two dozen British, French and Australian vessels lay at the bottom of the Dardanelles and the Aegean Sea.

A park is born

For a century, these sunken ships have moldered in their undersea graves, visited occasionally by researchers, but — unlike, say, World War II battle sites around several South Pacific atolls — off limits to the public. The Turkish navy, which controlled the Dardanelles, had little interest in promoting the strategic region as a tourist destination.

But in 2017, in the wake of the centennial commemorations of the Gallipoli battle, supervision of the area passed to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which decided to turn the shipwrecks into an underwater park. “Our awareness of the possibilities began with the centennial and then picked up steam,” said Ismail Kasdemir, director of the Gallipoli Historical Field Department, the agency responsible for the project.

For the past three years, vessels from Turkey’s Marmara Research Center have conducted sonar mapping of the strait and pinpointed the exact location and depth of all 28 wrecks. Divers have surveyed and demarcated the live torpedoes that lie among the sunken vessels.

“In the whole Dardanelles we have many thousands,” said Yusuf Kartal, a ministry official. Though filled with explosive powder, they usually require a serious jolt to detonate. “You can pet them, no problem,” Kasdemir assured me with a grin. He admitted, however, that one unlucky fisherman had pulled up a torpedo in his net a couple of years ago, and, as he tried to untangle it from the net, “it exploded and killed him.”

Earlier this year, the Culture Ministry designated HMS Majestic, a 421-foot battleship commissioned at Portsmouth, England, in 1895, as the first wreck that would be made accessible to tourists. A German U-21 submarine torpedoed and sank the Majestic on May 27, 1915, with the loss of 49 sailors. Half a century after the vessel’s sinking off Cape Helles, a French company struck a deal with Turkey’s military government and blew up the Majestic for scrap metal. The explosions reduced the ship to a tangle of iron and steel, but some sections remain intact.

Turkish officials had originally planned to open the marine park in the early summer of 2021, but the pandemic has obliged them to delay until the end of September. When I visited in July, Turkey’s COVID-19 cases had dropped to their lowest level in nearly a year, and streets, restaurants and shops were bustling in both Istanbul and Canakkale. But the numbers spiked in late July, largely because of the spread of the delta variant, and by early August, they had quadrupled to 26,000 a day. In mid-August, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention placed Turkey on its “Level 4 Very High” risk list, and the U.S. State Department issued a “Do Not Travel” advisory. The numbers are now fluctuating, and the CDC still strongly advises only those who are fully vaccinated to visit the country.

When I was there during the early summer lull in the pandemic, I encountered no foreign tourists, though several beaches along the peninsula were packed with visiting Turkish families, music was blaring from seaside cafes and life seemed back to normal.

Plunging into the sea

Early on a warm Saturday morning, my interpreter, Gokce Saracoglu, and I set off from our rustic hotel outside Eceabat, Gallipoli’s main town, to Seddulbahir, or Wall of the Sea, a village at the rocky tip of the peninsula. (The area is hundreds of miles west of the coastal region in central Anatolia that was devastated by wildfires this summer, and it remained unaffected by them.) Dominated by a stone fortress from which Ottoman guns bombarded Allied ships trying to enter the Dardanelles, the town was featured in the recent hit Turkish TV series, “Seddulbahir 32 Hours,” about the doomed last stand of a besieged company of Ottoman troops in 1915.

At a tea shop beside the village mosque, high above the harbor, we met three ministry officials, including Kartal and Kasdemir, who had agreed to give me a preview of the dive site. All of them would be joining me underwater. We then got back into our car and inched down a precipitous dirt-and-gravel road to the port, where Eftelya Dina and her crew, along with a support vessel carrying the air tanks, were waiting for us.

Only certified divers will be permitted to explore the Dardanelles wrecks. For nondivers interested in the history of the Gallipoli sea-and-land campaign, the peninsula abounds with memorial sites, old Ottoman fortresses and a Gallipoli War Museum at Kabatepe filled with weapons, battlefield photographs and private possessions, including letters from the front. And the tourism ministry plans soon to convert the Mehmetcik Lighthouse, on a bluff near Cape Helles, into a dive center where enthusiasts can get background briefings about the historical naval battles there and watch undersea footage of the sites.

A predawn thunderstorm had cleared the air and brought comfortable temperatures after days of 100-degree heat. As we motored out of Seddulbahir harbor, I could see, on the Asia Minor side of the Dardanelles, the hilltop site of the ruins of ancient Troy — first excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in 1870. Behind us, on the European side, rose the Canakkale Martyrs’ Memorial, a stark, four-columned marble archway dedicated to the 250,000 Ottoman casualties of the Gallipoli Campaign. Much of the peninsula has been turned into a national park, preserved to look as it did a century ago. Scattered among the pristine beaches and rugged, pine-covered hills were cemeteries and memorials commemorating one of the war’s bloodiest campaigns.

Eftelya Dina’s skipper motored a southeasterly course toward the site of the Majestic, just off Cape Helles, keeping his eye on a large screen that displayed sonar images of the sea floor. The entrance to the Dardanelles is littered with British and French vessels, Kasdemir told me. They include HMS Goliath, a pre-dreadnought battleship, like the Majestic, that an Ottoman torpedo sunk two weeks before the loss of the Majestic and that now lies mostly buried in sediment at a depth of 207 feet. (The pre-dreadnought classification refers to boats built before the 1906 commissioning of HMS Dreadnought, a faster, more heavily armed ship that revolutionized naval warfare.) After 20 minutes, we anchored the two boats. Then I squeezed into my wet suit, strapped on my tank and vest and, along with the three Turkish officials and two diving guides, plunged into the sea.

The water temperature dropped from 74 degrees at the surface to a chilly 60 degrees as we neared the wreck, though my wet suit kept me insulated from the cold. Soon, I found myself hovering over a field of tangled iron and steel — a vast underwater junkyard, or graveyard, spread out for hundreds of yards on the sea floor.

The visibility was surprisingly clear, considering the currents that often rip through the area. As I followed Deniz Tasci through the wreckage, I could make out the curved, intact stern of the ship, the remains of several decks, two stout smokestacks standing upright and one of the boat’s two masts, lying on the port side of the vessel.

Toward the remains of the bow, a long tube angled sharply upward — possibly one of the four 12-inch MK-8 naval guns that pounded Seddulbahir to cover Australian and French ground troops landing at Cape Helles. I spotted a huge cylinder that might have been part of one of the ship’s steam-turbine engines, and strewn in every corner of the wreckage were cigar-shaped torpedoes covered in rust, yet with their explosive warheads still very much in order.

Kartal had earlier told me that divers had counted “more than 200 torpedoes” scattered around the Majestic alone. There’s almost no chance of these exploding without a powerful jolt, but experienced guides stay close to divers and discourage them from touching anything.

The wreck abounded with sea life, including two-banded sea breams, oval-shaped silver fish adorned with two black parallel stripes running along their heads and tail fins; cuckoo wrasses, with vibrant blue squiggles down their elongated orange bodies; pig-toothed corals, funguslike organisms sprouting inside the wreck’s hollow spaces; and tubular pink and orange sponges clinging to many surfaces. Halfway through the 35-minute dive, one of my companions shone a flashlight into a vaultlike space in the wreckage, where an octopus, now shying away from the unwelcome intrusion, had secreted itself.

An environmental challenge

Another form of sea life was inescapable and far less welcome: a white-gray fibrous material that had settled on every surface of the Majestic, reminding me of those spray-on Halloween cobwebs. The gunk is known by the unpleasant name “sea snot”— an organic matter secreted by phytoplankton that has proliferated to alarming levels in Turkish waters thanks to global warming and the unregulated dumping of raw sewage.

The mucilage has clogged waterways, smothered shellfish, covered fishing nets and blanketed much of the sea bottom, building toward an environmental catastrophe. One Turkish photographer who has dived around the Majestic showed me shots taken one year ago and in June 2021; the contrast between the colorful “before” pictures and the monochromatic “after” pictures was unsettling.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, has called the phenomenon a “calamity” and has initiated a massive cleanup drive, sending workers to collect the mucus for incineration, but scientists in the region say that the effort probably won’t be enough. The environmental mess is harmless to divers, but officials seem reluctant to talk about it. When I described what I’d seen to Kasdemir, he told me it was a “kind of seaweed” and then changed the subject. (The same photographer reported back to me that the sea snot had mostly disappeared from the Majestic by August.)

However grim the sea-snot calamity gets, the Culture Ministry is moving rapidly ahead with its underwater park. Back on the deck of Eftelya Dina after the dive, Kasdemir told me that his department soon planned to open up other wrecks in the area that hadn’t been destroyed by scrap-metal scavengers, including 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 loss of more than 600 men.

There are plans to install QR-coded panels at various spots along the wrecks, he said, which would allow divers with waterproof phones to download images showing how different sections of the vessel looked before the sinking. He wanted the diving experience to be both an underwater adventure and an immersion in history, he said — and, for Turks, a reminder of a brief period of glory before the Ottoman Empire’s 1918 collapse. “We paid a huge price, but I think we were on the right side,” he told me. “We were defending our country, and we won.”

We docked Eftelya Dina and made our way back up the steep hill from the harbor, casting a lingering last look at the watery graveyard far below.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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