How a scuba diver from Leamington brought a shipwreck back to life
A Leamington scuba diver who has spent two decades researching and helping to preserve the wreck of the first British merchant ship to be sunk by the German Navy in the First World War has won a top award for his work.
Steve Dover has won the British Sub Aqua Club’s (BSAC) prestigious Wreck Award almost 20 years after he bought the wreck of the City of Winchester for £1 in a bid to preserve its remains.
The ship has lain in 30 metres of water, in a bay of one of the remote Halaniyat Islands off the southern coast of Oman, since it was sunk in 1914.
Steve, 60, discovered its existence in the late 1990s and negotiated with the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Glenda Jackson MP, before handing over a cheque for £1 to the government of Oman.
He then organised and led two Royal Geographical Society expeditions to the islands, with half of the team being marine biology students of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos University and the other half British support divers.
The 6,608 tone British cargo steamer, which was loaded with a cargo of tea and antlers, was captured by the German light cruiser SMS Konigsberg on August 6, 1914, before being scuttled of Hallanija Island with no loss of life.
Steve, a BSAC general branch and advanced diver, says he is delighted to have been awarded the Wreck Award which was launched in 2014 and aims to celebrate Britain’s underwater heritage by using BSAC members and clubs’ first-hand experiences to bring their favourite wreck sites to life.
He said: “I really wanted to purchase the wreck and had a meeting with Glenda Jackson MP and explained how helping out the Oman government would be a good thing.
“I paid the cheque. It was never actually cashed and I believe it was framed and hangs on a wall in a government office somewhere to this day.”
“It was always my intention to lead an expedition to explore the wreck and to then hand it over to Oman so it could be protected.
“The wreck had lain undisturbed until March 1986 when it was discovered by a Derek Brown and Chris Neely.
“Derek was a founder member of the second only civilian dive club in Oman in 1984, Crown Divers BSAC, which was a club I formed during my time working
“Derek told me the story of his dive and after 12 years of on and off research I was certain the wreck he and Chris had briefly seen was the City of Winchester.”
Steve launched the Hallaniyat Expedition in 1998.
He was among the first on the expedition to dive down to the wreck.
As well as being impressed by the wreck itself he says he was amazed by the volume of marine life there - which includes dolphins and Arabian sea humpback whales - and describes the experience as one of the most fulfilling moments of his then 18 years of diving.
He added: “One of the dive team, Chris Lees, is the grandson of Alan Lees, the City of Winchester’s radio operator.
“For Chris to dive on the wreck was something really special and I know it left a huge impression on him.”
Steve returned to the wreck this year and is working to preserve the once pristine eco-system around it which, he says “is in critical decline”.
BSAC is the national governing body for scuba diving and is made up of 120 dive centres and 900 plus clubs, run by volunteers, up and down the country and abroad.
It represents more than 28,000 scuba divers and snorkellers and welcomes new members from complete beginners upwards.
BSAC chief executive Mary Tetley said she is delighted Steve Dover has won the Wreck Award.
She said: “The City of Winchester is a really important wreck.
“It’s also important that since returning to the wreck again this year Steve is able to describe and record the changes to the marine eco-system that have taken place.
“I hope this award helps to publicise and highlight the damage being done to the world’s underwater heritage.
“I’m also delighted that Chris Lees enjoyed seeing the wreck of the ship his grandfather served on. It’s a fantastic story and I’m delighted Steve has won this award.
“I hope it helps raise awareness not just of this wreck but the current plight of many underwater environments damaged by over fishing and pollution.”