Sacrilege or History?

Diving the Christena Wreck

 

The Observer, January 26, 1997




f they're allowed to dive the Christena they should be allowed to go in the cemetery and dig up the dead," maintains Kenneth Samuel, owner of Kenneth's Dive Shop, the first and oldest of the four commercial scuba dive operation in St. Kitts-Nevis. While Samuel isn't the only person with this view, some feel that "it's history and people should know about it," in the words of Chief Fisheries Officer Joe Simmonds.

"There is nothing in the law to prevent diving there," says Simmonds. However, it is clear that many in the community feel vehemently that it should be prohibited.

Some Background;
The Christena sank on the afternoon of 1 August 1970 in the channel on its way from St. Kitts to Nevis. Of the nearly 320 people on the overloaded ferry at the time about 90 survived. Family and/or friends of nearly every person in the Federation can be counted among the 57 who were identified as dead and 170 who were still missing when the search was called off.

After four days of efforts to recover additional bodies, "identification of the bodies became virtually impossible and so had to be abandoned," according to the offical report on the tragedy. There were 66 unidentified bodies which were recovered, six of which were buried on Nevis and 60 on St. Kitts. A little arithmetic reveals that the remains of just over 100 people remained on the sea floor. A decision was made to leave the boat and bodies undisturbed notes Arthur Anslyn, Captain of the Caribe Queen, who was hired by the Commission of Inquiry to dive the site in the period after 1 August.

In the late 1980s, a foreign dive operation was observed diving at the site of the Christena wreck. Protests from Anslyn and Samuel led to the practice being stopped. However, in recent times both these men and others report seeing an increasing number of dive boats in the vicinity of the Christena.

.The Diver's Discretion?;
Some assert that there is no need for special regulation of the site of the wreck. "I don't have any problem with it," says Sam Lake, a survivor of the wreck who now operates a sailboat. Although he's a diver, "I wouldn't want to dive it," he says, recalling "when I'm sailing over that area I get a bit of a chill." Ian Kelsick, another survivor, feels "it's allright to dive just to look at it, but people shouldn't touch anything."

Simmonds who dove it last August for the first time, calls it "the most interesting dive I've ever done." Simmonds, a very experienced diver, describes the boat as sitting upright in the sand with human remains clearly visible. While he is concerned about reports that some divers "have disturbed the remains," Simmonds doesn't believe special regulations are needed.

Ellis Chatterton's Scuba Safaris occasionally takes people to dive there. "It's a solemn dive, not an enjoyable dive," he relates. Saying "it's a graveyard basically," Chatterton points out that he had family on the boat. He asserts that "we treat it with the utmost respect" and don't advertise it as a regular dive site. "It is the only wreck in close proximity to Nevis," notes Chatterton who has been diving it for close to five years now.

Austin McLeod of Pro Divers insists that he doesn't dive the Christena, telling The Observer ,"I don't even know exactly where it is." However, several divers with whom we spoke reluctantly admitted that they have dived the site with Pro Divers. One of the other operators said that a recent visitor was very eager to dive the Christena, but he told her they wouldn't take her there. The following week, the tourist returned to say she had gone to the site with Pro Divers. McLeod declined to discuss the issue in a follow-up call, reiterating that he doesn't dive there.

The Prohibitionists;
"After about 15 minutes at the site I decided that I would never go back and would never take anyone else there," says Riley Copple the divemaster at St. Kitts Scuba. He says that many visitors ask, "Can't we dive the wreck?" His answer is "no."

"I think government should restrict people from going there," argues Kenneth Samuel. "Kenneth's Dive Center has never been there and will never go there," he says emotionally. A prominent Nevisian used more temperate language, saying "I don't think it is wise. I don't think they should take peole down there. The people who they take wouldn't have any real feeling toward it. We really wouldn't want them inspecting our dead," she says.

The question of foreigners diving the site and not respecting what it means to the people of St. Kitts and Nevis was a common thread among those who don't want diving at the Christena. "I can only compare it to a circus carnival sideshow," says Copple who is not a native of the Federation. Some people expressed the belief that local people diving the site is fundamentally different from allowing tourists to do so.

Although divers are generally advised against touching or picking up pieces of coral, shells or other objects from the ocean floor, most dive operators acknowledge that this happens anyway. Cutting right to the point, Copple declares, "I don't want remains ending up on a desk or entertainment center in Canada, England or the U.S."

While it's not likely that anyone would condone such an occurrence, one of the disagreements is how well regulations can be enforced. Of course, the same could be said for a prohibition on diving the site itself.

Several of those who have dived the wreck recently believe that human remains have been moved. They note that there are exposed skulls and bones which show little sign of weathering. Samuel says that they would normally be covered with moss and other growth. He believes that they were disturbed by divers not by hurricanes or other natural causes.

Prospects for Change;
This is the "first time it's been mentioned to me," said Minister of Agriculture Timothy Harris, whose portfolio includes the Fisheries Department. He feels that "the area may be considered special and require some policy." Harris would like to study the issue in greater depth before taking any action, noting the importance of forming "some public consensus" on the question.

Joe Simmonds says that his department "would have to coordinate with the Department of Environment to prohibit diving there." The National Conservation and Environment Protection Act, 1987, clearly gives the department the power to make such regulations.

Perhaps the forging of a general public agreement on this issue can help people to take an additional step in overcoming the grief caused by this terrible event nearly 27 years ago.