The Grenadians are known for their hospitality but few nations have been called upon to open their homes to hundreds of bedraggled and confused strangers, as was the case on October 22, 1961, the day the 600-foot, 18,000 ton, Bianca Costa cruise liner sank in St. Georges bay. Any Grenadian over 40 years old remembers the selfless response of the town to the repeated urgent blast of the ships fog horn as a fire took hold, first in the engine room and subsequently throughout the boat.
The newspaper of the day, the Torchlight, conveys the drama of the event and carries the story of a customs officer who, not content with helping people from the safety of his boat, leapt into the turbulent waters of the bay to assist with securing tow lines to the lifeboats.
There must be many untold tales of bravery that day as a flock of local boats dashed to the aid of the Bianca Cs 400 passengers and 200 crew. It is not hard to imagine the fear, panic and potential for disaster, yet every person was saved barring two members of crew who were burnt in the initial explosion that led to the fire.
The rescued crew and passengers were cared for by the local people. Their contribution was acknowledged by the shipping company who erected a statue which stands on the Carenage in St. Georges. The other legacy to Grenada is one of the most exciting and sought after dive sites in the Caribbean.
The Bianca C lies in 90 to 160 feet of water and it is possible to explore right down to the swimming pool, at 130 feet, as a no decompression dive. Every dive operator does this dive differently, some use a descent line, some do not. Most take a route from the swimming pool area to the bow before either ascending or swimming across to nearby Whibble Reef to complete the dive in shallower water. Bear in mind that you will only get about 10 minutes on the Bianca C, because of the depth, so be prepared to dive it more than once to have a good look.
A nitrox course is based on the Bianca C each year. (See contact information for Mad Dog Expeditions.) These are the only divers penetrating the ship and doing decompression and technical diving on her.
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We do our dive on the Bianca C with NeilWinsborrow of Dive Grenada, the only Grenadian instructor working on the island. His claim that he finds the ship without the use of GPS means he accompanies two highly sceptical divers to the site, over a mile offshore.
We drop into the algae-clouded blue with only the line from Neils floating buoy to give us any sense of perspective and at 100 feet see only the empty sea bed below us. Undeterred, Neil leads us a short swim until the outline of the powerful bow draws itself in the murk ahead of us. When you know what you are expecting to see you think you will be immunised against its effect, but some spectacles retain their power to wow and Bianca C is one of those. Despite its demise, the ship still exudes an elegant dignity, commanding due respect, but in no way dampening our curiosity and we are quickly absorbed in an exploration of her.
The Bianca C at 600 feet is the size of two football fields thus with the limitations of depth you will not see very much of her on one dive. The shipstrangely we were reluctant to call it a wrecksits upright, though the stern has broken away and more recently the funnel has fallen on its side. Because of its depth, it is only practical to dive the bow and part of the mid-section as a no decompression dive.
It is a pity that a lot of artefacts have been taken from the Bianca C, including the ships bell. The wheel has been removed and sits in Grenadas museum. Nature has replaced many of these sights by decking the ship with elegant black coral trees, delicate hydroids and sponges, all of which cope well with the depth, as they require little light.
One of the favourite areas for divers is the large deck swimming pool. Recently, one side of the pool has collapsed but you can still swim right into it, as you can the cargo hold. Moving forward, the top of the bow is at 90 feet and the foremast is still standing, although now draped with a tapestry of coral and circled by barracudas like art critics at an exhibition. There are plenty of deck features to explore such as the steps to the upper promenade, and one gains a real sense of the ship as it once was.
Meanwhile the Bianca C is on its own schedule of deterioration. It is slowly collapsing in on itself as evinced by the recent collapse of the pool. The time might be limited when you can sit on the side of a swimming pool 130 feet under the sea and imagine the chic Italian waiters busily delivering the pre-lunch Pimms while dodging the barracudas.
Thanks to Neil Winsborrow of Dive Grenada.