Visiting the ships’ graveyard

I really didn’t think this would be on the itinerary – after all my focus was on a cruise that took us from Durban South Africa all along the Mozambique coast, through the Mozambique channel and up to the beautiful islands of the Seychelles. Just looking at the map you could see that this would have been a popular route for traders and pirates before the opening of the Suez Canal. It is also notorious for its storms – especially cyclones – which rip along this channel and is the cause for many shipwrecks.

We were en route from Maputo, the capital of Mozambique to the Comores Islands. This group of volcanic islands is sometimes known as the perfumed islands and are located in the northern end of the Mozambique channel. We were looking forward to exploring these and the other islands on our itinerary including Mauritius and Madagascar so were a bit puzzled when the Captain said that we would be doing a slight deviation to visit Bassas da India.

Where? We all thought. That wasn’t on the itinerary. Are there any tours we can go on? No, said the Captain. No-one is allowed to visit this uninhabited atoll which is the product of a submarine volcano that soars 9,800 feet (3,000m) from the ocean floor. At the surface, this peak has created a band of exquisite fringing coral reef, within which lies a lagoon 7 miles (11km) in diameter and just 50 feet (15m) at its deepest point. For six hours a day during high tide the ragged tips of the fringe are submerged under water and create a nightmare for ships, especially during the storms frequent in this area.

More than 100 ships have been wrecked here – the most famous being the Santiago – this extract from scuberdiverlife.com describes it perfectly –

Of all the wrecks that populate Bassas da India, perhaps the most famous is the Santiago; tales of this ship and its misplaced treasure certainly captured my attention. After the discovery of the trade route between Portugal and India via the Cape of Good Hope at the end of the 15th century, armadas of Portuguese merchant ships frequently made the journey between Lisbon and Goa via Mozambique. One such ship was the carrack Santiago, which departed from Lisbon on April 1, 1585. Captained by Fernão de Mendonça, the Santiago carried a valuable cargo, including 400,000 silver pieces of eight.

It rounded the Cape of Good Hope in excellent time, but later ran aground on the shoals of Bassas da India while attempting to navigate the treacherous waters of the Mozambique Channel at night. The majority of the ship’s crew perished when the tide rose over the shoal and drowned them, with the exception of 50 survivors who eventually came ashore near the mouth of the Zambezi River in the Santiago’s tiny tender.

The ship’s treasure was lost along with the greater part of its crew, and it wasn’t until four centuries later that the Santiago’s cargo was discovered. In 1977, a Swiss sailor named Ernst Erich Klaar read about the Santiago while poring over maritime archives in Durban, South Africa. He became fascinated with the shipwrecks of the Portuguese-India run, and set out with his family aboard a Thai cargo junk to find the wreck of the Santiago.

Incredibly, despite having no real background in salvage and only very basic equipment, Klaar and his family succeeded in their wild dream of finding the Santiago. While snorkeling at Bassas da India in search of rare shells, Ernst’s 14-year-old son, Hans, spotted what looked like a rack of cannons protruding from the profusion of the atoll’s reefs. Thereafter, the Klaars salvaged and brought back to Durban not only those cannons and others like them, but also pieces of gold jewelry, several pounds of silver coins, emeralds, religious artifacts and a rare astrolabe used to calculate the ship’s latitudinal position. They sold the majority of their finds to Portugal’s Museu de Marinha and the Kwa-Zulu Natal Museum, the latter of which positively identified the cannons as having belonged to the Santiago.

Wow – what a story. Now this place suddenly seemed WAY more interesting than any of the regular stops on our itinerary. The lagoon is apparently home to some of the biggest sharks as well as possibly more sunken treasure but the French Government is very strict about who is allowed to visit and getting there to scuba dive in the lagoon seems to be a long and complicated process.

As we approached Bassas Da India everyone came out on deck to catch a glimpse of the crater on the horizon. Someone spotted the flash of white as waves crashed on the rocks. We were getting closer, but not too close. The Captain knew this area and he was not going to take any chances. An announcement was made and suddenly the crew were circulating with glasses of Ouzo – one for each guest.

Standing on the deck we all faced the crater while the Captain made a toast to all sailors who lost their lives in this ships’ graveyard. As legend had it when making a toast on board a ship you should never clink glasses for it awakens and disturbs the souls of dead sailors. This brings bad luck to the voyage. We didn’t want that so we all stood very quietly and sipped our ouzo as we thought about the shipwrecks and the sharks.

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By Lesley Keyter

Lesley Keyter is the face of travel in the fast growing city of Calgary. Every week since 1997 she has has featured live on the Morning News Global TV.

9 comments

  1. I thought that you were going to talk about Namibia and its Skeleton Coast. Mozambique is not on my list but Namibia is on my list of places to visit, reportedly being quite different to other parts of south Africa (not the country) with cheetahs etc. So many places to go, so little time.

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  2. Another great story Lesley! But Yikes!! We have been on many sailing charters and can’t count how many times we’ve clinked our glasses on board with a “Cheers” after dropping anchor at the end of a great day at sea! We always managed to make it back safely to the marina ……. maybe they were “kind souls” we disturbed – lol! (;

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