Once upon a time during World War 2 Dutch ships surrounded the German merchant ship Antilla, which came to Aruba seeking a neutral harbor on the day Germany invaded Poland. This 397 foot long nearly new German ship crossed the Atlantic on its maiden voyage, never to return home. When the captain of the Antilla refused to lower the gangway to allow the Dutch to board in the dark of night, the Dutch expected heavy resistance from the German crew and waited for daylight to board the enemy vessel. The Dutch intended to confiscate the Antilla, but the delay gave the Germans time to open outside valves to flood the ship, set it on fire, and evacuate the crew to the lifeboats where they were arrested. The Dutch got the crew, but not the ship which sank to the bottom forming an artificial reef for fish to live on and a place for divers and snorkelers of the future to visit. The Antilla is the largest sunken ship in Aruba and one of the biggest in the entire Caribbean, exceeded only by the 600-foot passenger ships Bianca C in Grenada and Antilles near Mustique.
The tale the told on the way to the ship was quite exciting. The Germans opened the seacocks and left the steam engines burning hot so that cold water slowly filled the ship while the captain and his accomplices evacuated before the loud KABOOM when the ship exploded and sank to the bottom of the sea.
Researching this online looking for more details turned up a story of a ship seeking safe harbor and then not being allowed to leave for quite some time before the fateful night when the Dutch decided to board the ship. The Germans not lowering the gangway and the Dutch waiting until daylight to do anything about it gave the Germans time to flood the ship and set it ablaze as in the other version of the story, but it sank intact in 1940 rather than breaking apart in an explosion and the breakup of the ship was caused by heavy swells and first noticed in 1953.
In some versions of the story the captain and crew escape and row to shore, in others they are captured by the Dutch on the Antilla before evacuating the ship. All versions of the story have open seacocks and the ship on fire, but beyond that they differ as to whether the ship explodes, just sinks, or the Dutch actually shoot the burning ship down. It always ends up on the bottom of the sea though, can’t dispute that since it did sink there that day.
Many years later Arubans bring cruise ship passengers and other visitors to their island out on snorkel excursions over the wreck. After snorkeling on a nearby reef for awhile on a wreck and reef sail and snorkel shore excursion from the MSC Divina, our catamaran named Rumba brought us to the wreck, leaving a channel between our boat and another catamaran.
“Stay between the two boats,” the captain instructed.
With some fairly good-sized waves coming at the back of the boat and a semi-sub prowling around the wreck circling the two moored catamarans, nobody questioned that bit of advice as neither getting carried away by the current nor getting sliced up by the semi-sub’s engines sounded appealing to anyone. (A semi-sub has a barge-like top above the water and a windowed area below the water where people can stay dry while viewing things under the sea.)
Looking at the waves, I decided that jumping in first and then putting the snorkel mask on in the water like at the first site would be a bad idea. Since the quickest exit point was from the far back corner a quick swim across the stern and into the area between the boats would be required. Besides the likelihood of getting taken out by the current while trying to get the mask in place, jumping in without it also would invite a mouthful of water from landing in the path of a wave. So I stopped to dip my mask and put it on after donning my fins and before jumping off the back of the boat and making a quick swim for the other side.
The crew had suggested swimming toward the bow and letting the current take us back. While swimming through the waves I felt ever so grateful that I have a dry snorkel each time it had no air because that meant a wave had gone over the top of the snorkel. If I had the open tube sort of snorkel like they normally hand out to people who don’t bring their own gear on these sorts of excursions that would have been a mouthful of water each time rather than a brief break in the airflow.
I’m an avid snorkeler, my husband is not. I stay in the water until the whistle blows. He always gets out early and does what he prefers – take pictures. Somehow a couple other people got in between us in the line to get off the boat and apparently he did not see that I had jumped in with my snorkel mask in place and did not follow suit. He also made the mistake of putting air in the annoying snorkel vest that they usually make cruise ship passengers wear. Between the mouthful of water he got upon landing and the air-filled vest catching the current it was all he could do to just to get back to the ship, let alone swim across the stern and down the side of the ship to the bow.
The sheer size of the wreck made it impossible to see the whole thing at once, but swimming over it you see quite a bit. Mostly it looked like a random metal monstrosity, but portions of it were recognizable as a former ship. The ship rested on its side and the bow still looked like a bow, with deck intact. Unlike the freshly sunken Kittiwake in Grand Cayman, this ship has had many years under the sea for things to grow on it, and so they have. Though much of it is still recognizable as metal, other parts have coral and other things firmly attached, some of them quite large.
Structure attracts fish and this wreck had plenty. Swimming along I found myself in the midst of a school of the little yellow striped sergeant majors common to most snorkel sites in the Caribbean. Never shy, these curious fish seem very willing to come close and investigate the people. Perhaps they wonder what we are, or maybe they are so used to people snorkeling over the wreck that we seem to them just like other types of fish.
It’s hard to dive down while wearing a snorkel vest even if it’s not inflated and the dry snorkel inhibits diving too, but sometimes I manage to get down a ways. I saw a couple guys diving down just beyond most of the crowd. I swam there to get some pictures of them and managed to dive down a bit myself. All too soon the horn sounded time to get onboard. In spite of the waves the majority of people had stayed out the whole time.
On the way back to the MSC Divina the sails on the Rhumba went back up, but the engine never went off. Perhaps they’d have sailed a bit for real if the wind was favorable, but once it started to flap the sails about as if attempting to shred them to bits they all came down and we traveled under power without even pretending to sail.
For anyone who wants to go snorkeling, the catamaran sail and snorkel excursions are a great way to get out on the water and see things. Anyone wishing to do some real sailing would likely be disappointed and probably better off looking for an excursion with sailing only.
I loved your telling of this slice of history and, of course, I appreciated all the pictures. Shipwrecks do hold a fascination for me. I don’t quite know why since I can’t even swim. I’m very glad that you can and you’re also a snorkeler who allows me to indulge on dry land.
I agree, shipwrecks are fascinating. The semi-sub would probably be right up your alley. Not only can you see what’s under the sea without swimming, you don’t even get wet.
I would love that semi-sub!
One of these days I’ll try one of those and write a blog about it.
With pictures please!
Do they offer diving on the wreck? It’s also fun to see inside ship wrecks. There is totally different life growing inside the wreck where light can’t get to it.
The same outfit that provided the snorkel excursion also does dives. Other places offer diving over the wreck too. So yes, you can dive on it since you are a diver.