A fly-speck on the map, Addu Atoll and the island of Gan are located just below the equator at the southernmost tip of the Maldives, an island nation of twenty-six Indian Ocean atolls.
Established as a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm landing strip and base during WWII, Gan’s military significance remained undetected until late in the war when, despite the presence of anti-torpedo nets, the German submarine U-183 fired a long-range torpedo shot from outside the atoll at the tanker, ‘British Loyalty’. Although badly crippled the tanker did not sink and, once repaired, became a static oil fuel storage vessel.
In February 1965, one month shy of twenty-one years since the torpedo attack, the hulk was still a prominent feature of the lagoon, and while the Royal Air Force had, by this time, taken over military control of the island and its airfield and landing strip, RN vessels still regularly stopped over before the final leg of their journey to Singapore.
Shortly after anchoring in the lagoon, our frigate received a signal from the Royal Air Force contingent based on the island requesting the services of a diver. The immediate thought was that an aircraft had overshot the landing strip and crashed into the ocean; a salvage and recovery job to test the limits of diver training and add a degree of excitement to the routine of ship-board life.
Stories of sunken wrecks and the efforts to salvage their precious cargoes have always played a pivotal role in the development of diving. Throughout the nineteenth and on into the early twentieth century, salvage divers were often acorded celebrity status. Not least because at depths of 27-metres and more, it was widely accepted that, “the body is called upon to stand exceptional strains and so exceptional men are necessary. Quite apart from the many risks, deep diving is very arduous, and seldom are men found with the physique that will enable them to dive 100 feet (approximately 30-metres) and over.”
Always regarding salvage diving as a noble tradition – and only too happy to become a celebrity – I was loaded into the ship’s cutter and ferried across to the jetty to be met by a welcoming party of RAF NCO’s who briefed me on the task.
One of their number, an ‘elderly’ RAF sergeant, had apparently been among a small group sitting on the end of the jetty fishing. One of his companions had told a funny story that caused the sergeant to laugh so loudly that his false teeth fell out and plopped gently into the waters beneath the short pier. My task was to recover the dentures … a less expensive option than having him flown to Singapore for treatment and one that – if successful – would, I was assured, earn me a crate of beer.
Almost immediately finding the teeth nestled into the sand at a depth of about 5-metres – and very mindful of the fact to never make diving recovery jobs look easy – I swam out among the coral heads. It was my first dive into the crystal clear waters of a coral reef. Surrounded by thousands of darting reef fish and facing a living wall of shimmering barracuda waiting just beyond the edge of the shallow reef, the richness of life, the vivid colours and the brilliance of the light burned themselves into my mind’s eye.
Although I’d set out prepared to ‘seize the depths’ rather than the teeth, it was such an intense experience that I almost forgot about the beer … almost.