… 1,400 m afar from the harbor of Larnaca in Cyprus, the former RORO ferry Zenobia lies on sandy ground in a depth of approx. 40 meters. The sleeping beauty is one of the biggest diveable wrecks of the Mediterranean and has some unraveled mystery about the reason that led to her sinking.
story of the ship
The ZENOBIA was the flagship (length 172 m long, width 23 m) of the Challenger-class of 3 RoRo ferries (RollOn-RollOff ferries) and was delivered at the end of 1979 by the yard Kockums in Malmö (Sweden) to the owner, the shipping company AB Nordö. The vessel started its service with its maiden voyage on 04 May 1980 from Malmö to start ferry traffic on the Greece Syria Express Line. The route originally went from Volos (Greece) over Tartous (Syria), where the Zenobia would be joined by the ferries „Falster“ and „Skandinavia“. These ferries, both former Scandinavian ferries on the Puttgarden-Rödby (Denmark) route, were replaced later. In January 1980, the route of the Zenobia was changed, due to the new addition of Koper (Slovenia) to the route. On 22 May 1980, the Zenobia passed through the straits of Gibraltar and entered the mediterranean sea for the first and unfortunately the last time.
The Zenobia sank on her maiden voyage, shortly before the end of its crossing from Koper via Volos to Syria at the harbor of Larnaca (Cyprus). There are at least 2 theories about the reason that led to the downfall of the Zenobia.
the sinking of the ship
In the early morning of 02 June 1980, a massive inclination of the ship by more than 40 degrees was noticed. This had to be connected with a computer-controlled error in the ballast system. In the following 5 days, everything was tried to save the ferry from sinking. In the meantime, a service team succeeded in reducing the inclination of the ship to approx. 2 degrees. But after a renewed, inexplicable inclination of the ferry by more than 40 degrees, the cargo of 104 trucks slipped and the ship could no longer be saved. On the 07 June 1980, 1400 meters ahead of the harbor entrance of Larnaca, the ferry sank with its whole cargo at approx. 2 o’clock in the morning.
How does such a ballast system work? It is an assumption that such ferries can`t be loaded evenly. And to compensate for this, the ferries are equipped with ballast tanks, which are filled with water, to bring the whole ship into a straight position if necessary. This is done automatically by a computer on board, which is supposed to bring the ship back into balance. Depending on the inclination of the ship, the computer ensures fast or slow filling of the ballast tanks on the lighter side. Evil tongues claim that the computer wasn`t connected correctly. This is one theory that leads to the sunk of the Zenobia.
story by an eyewitness
One source, which is handled secretly, but seems to be authentic, tells a different story. A passenger of the ferry saw this during the disaster: the ship came from Volos (Greece) and a stop in Larnaca (Cyprus) was not planned. Since the summer weather and a calm sea prevailed no or only a little ballast, water had been loaded. Due to seamanly incompetence, the computer-controlled ballast system was switched to manual handling. The ship was steered away from the coast in a sharp maneuver. Due to the high center of gravity „listed the ship portside“ which means capsized. A possible explanation, why the autopilot was switched to manual control, is unknown. However, it is quite conceivable that someone in the steering position could want to correct his fatal mistake and thus consign the ship to sink. So the history of the wrongly connected computers for the ballast tanks would only be a nice but distracting story.
diving the wreck
Today, however, the Zenobia is an attraction and to thus who dive the wreck, a challenge. In the harbor of Larnaca, the divers start their adventure onboard of dive boats. The transfer to the wreck takes only a few minutes. The Zenobia lies on its port side on a sandbank at a depth of up to 43 meters. The wreck is usually submerged by one of the thick ropes attached to the railing of the Zenobia, to which the dive boats usually moor. Already from the surface, the view falls on the wreck in the depth. This view alone is worth it.
The first level of the ship is the starboard plateau, which forms a steel plateau at 18 meters. This makes this wreck an experience even for diving beginners. After a short dive, the plateau of the starboard side is used to gather the group of divers around the dive guide. On the almost horizontal surface of the sleeping wreck, the diver may feel small considering the steel plates, against which the waves hit before the sinking. This is the starting point for all dives with different levels of difficulty.
Divers with little experience will explore the Zenobia by diving in circles around the vessel. At the stern, one of the two propellers rises in front of the diver and makes clear how big the wreck is. Each of the propeller blades is as tall as a man. Floating freely along the stern flap, divers are reaching the open, upper loading deck in the rear part of the ship. Since the loading deck was rotated in vertical, divers can discover a truck hanging from of the ship. The truck was lashed down in steel chains and ended hanging they’re permanently when the ship sank to the ground.
Following along the upper rail, the whole wreck is diveable in a depth of 18 – 23 meters. The route goes up to the bow and turns again in the direction of the stern. Divers can now have a look over the ship’s side and throw a view over numerous portholes of the former ferry. When the circle around the ship is finished, the rope will lead the divers up to the surface.
More experienced divers have the opportunity to enter the wreck and swim through the former passenger corridors. The entrance to the inside lies 23 meters above the upper loading deck. Inside, the beautiful play of light cones shining through the still intact windows is a special experience.
While diving further and further alongside the light cones, in some parts, the way back to the bow is blocked by debris. This can be dived down by a small detour. The ship’s side above is separating the diver from the surface, below are the cabins and rooms of the ferry. The former corridors now seem like a labyrinth for divers. The exit is a bulkhead below the former bridge at the same depth. Even the view downwards shows the dimensions of the Zenobia. At the lowest point, in a depth of 43 meters, lies the command bridge of the formerly proud ferry on the ground. It is awesome to dive through a ship of this size.
For very experienced divers and only with a very experienced guide, some can venture into the lower loading deck, where there are only two accesses. One of the entrances is located in the covered part of the upper loading deck as a bulkhead of approx. 75 x 75 cm. By diving into the upper loading deck under the former superstructures of the ship, an open hatch at the upper edge of the now vertical roadway is the finding. Behind the hatch is a cage made of steel tubes.
In earlier times this ladder led directly from the lower to the upper loading deck on the ship’s side. So by diving through this cage, divers can get stuck everywhere. There is just enough space here for claustrophobia and a very checked dive is needed to manage this passage. But when this hurdle is cleared, a big reward is waiting. Divers will find the great room on the lower loading deck, where the cargo and the trucks were stored for transit. This room takes nearly the full length and width of the ship.
Trucks are lying on the floor, some hanging around, gradually emerge ghostly from the pitch-dark nothingness. There is no more light source – only the light cone from the diving lamp. Passing trucks and cargo, diving towards bow or stern. In a corner in the bow, a flannel shirt floats since the downfall like on threads, but there are none. Because there is neither current nor light here.
Apart from one’s breath, only the hammering of the air bubbles can be heard when they hit the ship’s side from below. Here, it is particularly advisable to pay attention to the air, because even the most experienced divers need more here. Further in the stern (approx. 2/3 of the total length of the ship) is the second exit. Not quite as demanding as the first one, but a bit more twisty. Back outside and at the railing, where the rope is moored upwards, divers leave the Zenobia. A wreck that is still mysterious, even after several dives. It belongs to the top 10 diveable wrecks in the world. Although it can be easily reached with compressed air, Nitrox is recommended for longer bottom time. Unless you are interested in deco dives. Is someone interested?