- Spencer, Mark
- Biographies and personal histories, History - WW1, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS AE2
- December 2008 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The excitement and anticipation when we jumped in for the first dive was almost crippling, but when we arrived at the bottom, there was no wreck in sight. While it could possibly have been only metres away, with the conditions at those depths, it may as well have been miles away. The weather was beautiful, the seas calm, and it looked like it would stay that way for tomorrow. We would try again the next day.
The next day, Selquk dropped one shot line beside the wreck, then, crossing over it in his inflatable tender (using a depth finder), straddled the wreck with another weighted line that slid down the first line. Just to make sure we would not waste another precious photography dive, Riley and Taylor went first just to make sure we really had the wreck. They ascended 92 minutes later with the glorious news that they had indeed dived on an early E-class submarine – the AE2! Merv and I then donned our four tanks and camera equipment to record AE2 for posterity.
The shadowy tear-drop outline of the flat top of the conning tower was the first image I had of AE2 as we slowed our descent. The visibility was about four to five metres, but it was dark due to the ever-present halocline – this time, hanging at about 18 metres. The temperature had improved on last year. It was 16 degrees C on the bottom and a warm 21 degrees C near the surface. I first stood on the rear casing just behind the conning tower. I took time to reflect on the significance of this moment. I was standing on the rear deck of AE2 just as those brave submariners had done way back then in 1915. This important Australian relic looked so humble down here in this immense sea. I had a hard time trying to reconcile this frozen sculpture with its 35,000 mile journey to and from Australia, and its nerve racking journey through the Dardanelles. I also thought of the men who occupied her, the soul of AE2. This wreck was my contact with history, and for some reason, it brought me closer to those ‘diggers’ at Gallipoli than I had been before.
I had seen Selquk’s video tape of the stern area, and was determined to first look at the bow region. I swam along the top of the conning tower on the port side, and made my way along the bow casing. I passed the stout aerial positioned on the starboard side of the casing, shooting pictures of everything I saw. I don’t mind describing myself as an underwater paparazzi in this instance. TTL twin strobe lighting, – 1.3 EV strobe compensation – flash – flash – flash. Failsafe ‘record’ photos are needed to construct a model of the wreck, document its condition and prove its identity. The fancy, moody shots would come later. For the moment, I had to pack as many well-exposed shots as I could into our 18 minute bottom time. Finally, we examined the top of the conning tower before ascending. A large conger eel we later named ‘Bunts’ (a nickname often given to wireless operators like John Thomson’s grandfather), protruded its head from the partially opened hatch. It’s obviously the new guardian of AE2. Maybe there’s a whole family inside. The opened hatch is just how Stoker left it, to assist the speedy descent of AE2 on what he described as ‘its last and longest dive’.
Our general assessment of AE2
We dived on AE2 three more times after the first visit. Our second dive, where I was accompanied by Selquk and his friend Kaya Yarar, saw visibility reduced to one metre. Most of our video and photography was confined to the conning tower.
The third and fourth dives concentrated on the stern region, with Riley and Richard working at the bow again on their last dive. The aft hydroplanes, just like the forward ones, were well above the mud floor. I attempted some vertical shots alongside the well exposed rudder (which was slightly turned to starboard). To do this, I needed support, so rested my hand on the silty bottom, only to feel my arm sink to the elbow in soft mud. Both three-bladed propellers (each weighing 360 kgs), had one blade protruding about a third of a metre from the mud. The well exposed stern of AE2 is not unlike many shipwrecks where currents seem to uncover more of the vessel at that end than anywhere else. The bulk of AE2 appears to be lying in its muddy substrate about the level it would in water – perhaps slightly more exposed. This water-line theory was promulgated by John Riley some years ago for iron and steel-hulled wrecks, and is now widely accepted by the archaeological community.