PT Hirschfield was intrigued to hear about an entire fleet of British World War One J-class submarines lying in the waters off Victoria
Photography as credited © Ben Claydon
If you’re keen to dive four remarkably intact British J-class World War One submarines, you can head out weekly from Portsea or Queenscliff to explore these hidden treasures. The subs await you between 26m and 40m in Bass Strait, and run times are typically 55 minutes.
These are serious dives that have claimed some divers’ lives along the way, offering challenging but rewarding diving for those who are well prepared. Divers need to be wreck and depth certified, carrying good lighting and guidelines, on either twin independent or manifold scuba cylinders or a rebreather. Redundant air is deemed mandatory for wreck penetration in Victoria.
Regular sub diver Andy Siddel says: “I dived down to the J4 as part of my AOW course in 2006. I didn’t even know there were submarines or wrecks in Melbourne. It blew my mind! I’ve been to Truk Lagoon and seen World War Two wrecks, but not World War One. Now I’ve dived the J1 12 times, J2 seven times, J4 29 times and J5 seven times. You notice over time bits of metal that were riveted are falling off, but you can still clearly identify elements like dials and equipment inside the solid tubes.”
Cave diver and Wreck Specialty Instructor Ben Claydon notes: “There are a lot of similarities between cave and submarine diving, both with overhead environments and lower visibility. Silt-out is a normal day in a cave. In the submarines, it clears quickly. There’s technical challenge. They’re relatively deep and intact, so there’s a lot of superstructure to dive in. Many of the other graveyard wreck dives at 60m and 80m have collapsed. If you want to explore an actual vessel, the submarines can be far more enticing, most with marine life on them.
“One of the joys of diving the J-class subs on a wreck course is seeing where submariners lived, where the enormous engines are. You can look down some of the torpedo tubes and see light out the other side. Entries and exits are funnels for currents, but the middles can be calm and clear, sometimes with awesome vis.
“Subs are fantastic for diving with scooters, with big open spaces to go through. Because the dives are deepish, most people don’t get a lot of time in a sub: just drop in through the hatchway, swim through for 20-25 minutes, have a quick look at the torpedo tubes and that’s the end of dive. But with a scooter and rebreather, you can also explore the nearby reefs.”
Andy Siddel says: “There are lots of tranquil dives. Sometimes you and your buddy are the only ones inside. You can go down there and touch a part of history. These subs were sunk in the 1920s to dispose of them. There were 60 years where no-one knew them, gathering speed for good dive tourism now.”
A brief history
Built then scuttled decades before the advent of scuba, the full fleet of seven J-class submarines were constructed by the British Royal Navy during World War One in response to false claims that Germany was developing subs able to keep pace with surface destroyers. The full fleet was in service by 1917, able to reach the fastest submarine speeds achieved to date. Altogether they were responsible for sinking a German U-boat and causing significant damage to two enemy battleships.
While the J6 was accidentally lost due to friendly fire, the remaining six vessels were gifted to the Royal Australian Navy by the British government in 1919. They were refitted and remained in service until 1924 when J1, J2, J4 and J5 were sold to a salvage company.
They were scuttled beyond Port Philip Heads in the aptly named ‘Victorian Ships’ Graveyard’ in 1926. Any unauthorised disturbance or collection of the submarines or their relics is strictly prohibited by legislation and penalties apply.
J1 ‘New Deep Sub’
J1 was the only sub to hit two German ships with one torpedo salvo. It was unintentionally rediscovered by divers searching for the J4 in 1984. It lies in 39m and points upwards, running east-west with an east facing bow, its keel on the sandy bottom. J1 is festooned with bright yellow zoanthid corals and fish life towards the top, though its conning tower has been lost. The ‘skeletal’ feel of the J1’s exposed ribs offers stunning photo and video opportunities due to increased light and contrast. While penetration is possible, it’s considered very hazardous due to tight doorways and potential silt outs.
Diver Allie Beckhurst shares: “I’ve completed over 100 dives on the subs. My first was on the J1 on 24 February, 1985. As my first dive past 30m, I opted not to go inside. It was striking to see this long tube with a conning tower sitting upright on the bottom, its bow clear enough from the bottom that you could easily swim under it.
Did you know?
The J-class submarines were seven submarines developed by the Royal Navy prior to the First World War in response to claims that Germany was developing submarines that were fast enough to operate alongside surface fleets.
The J1 was distinguished from the other subs by a verandah around the conning tower. It had only been discovered a few months prior, so the dive on the “New Sub’ would have been very exciting, had it not been for the tragedy.’ This dive was marred by the death of a very popular Divemaster, Lal. The coroner ruled that he died due to a massive embolism, likely stemming from an out of air situation near the end of the dive.
“To honour Lal, a memorial plaque was placed on one of the verandah uprights. In 1994, a severe storm with seas to 11 metres lifted the J1 off the bottom, slamming it down so hard the rock underneath shattered. There was no longer a swimthrough under the bow and now there was a crack around the hull aft of the conning. The verandah and plaque were ripped off and lost.’ In 1999, Allie successfully retrieved the missing plaque. This mission accomplished was soon followed by a phone call from a Sri Lankan man, asking whether misleading reports 14 years earlier that his cousin Lal had been run down and killed by a submarine had been accurate.
How to dive the J-class subs
Melbourne diver charter operator Redboats can take you to all four of the J-class subs outside the Port Phillip Bay Heads, in addition to a regular roster of more than 70 wrecks, reefs and wall dives within the bay. Visit Redboats or call 0400 068 627 for more information.
Allie reflects: “It’s been sad watching J1’s deterioration. These wrecks are so iconic to Melbourne, and the window to dive them while they are relatively intact and identifiable as submarines is fast closing.”
Ben Claydon adds: “J1 is a lot more dilapidated than the other subs, but it’s the most interesting and beautiful because it’s so broken.”
J2 ‘Broken Sub’
Lying on its keel at 38m, broken in two places with the section behind the conning tower having collapsed, the J2 (aka ‘Broken Sub’) is considered the most hazardous for divers. The swim-through at the front cone hosts an abundance of fish and bright benthic invertebrates. A three-metre wobbegong and blue devilfish are known residents, and while you won’t see crays inside J2, you can definitely hear them.
Those opting to penetrate the subs must navigate risks associated with fine silting. A plaque in memory of a diver who died in 1997 is a sobering reminder of potential dangers. Andrew Siddel stayed calm and kept filming when he experienced a silt-out in 2012: “If you get trapped you can find the exit, but there’s a lot of silt in there.
My buddy had stirred things up in the small compartment we were in and silt was cascading down. He swam out and I got such a black out, I knew I was going to lose sight. It’s a straight tube, so I knew if I grabbed a wall, I could feel my way out. I started to panic and thought, ‘Why? I’m holding onto the edge of the hull; I know which way to go. I’ve got my air. I’m ok’. I got through the first hatch completely blind; I’ve dived it quite a few times since.”
J4 ‘26m Sub’
A clear favourite among Melbourne wreck divers, J4 (aka ‘26m Sub’) lies on its keel, running North-South in 26m. Its bow extends over a rocky sea floor, its stern practically melding into the reef with its nose cone broken off. The conning tower remains intact and well preserved.
The four forward torpedo tubes are exposed and accessible to divers without penetration, surrounded by schools of bullseyes. The J4 is penetrable through several hatch openings, though divers should remain wary of potentially strong surge that can pump through the wreck. This prevents silting, but can suck and catapult unsuspecting divers through the vessel’s orifices. Bubbles can exit up from a hatch, only to be brought back down again in the surge.
Did you know?
Although larger and more powerful than previous British submarines, the J-class could not keep up with surface vessels, and operated independently during World War One.
Deep tech, wreck and cave diver Banjamin Gro has dived the J4 a dozen times as part of the double-dive offered by local charter company Redboats, alongside the HMAS Canberra: “Outside it’s a bit deceiving as it looks narrow. Inside it’s so much bigger, like a plane. It’s often a really photographic wreck, so it’s great to get a group of three or four people to swim through the hull together.”
Penetrations of the wreck can be illuminated by natural light streaming through the hulls’ holes and cracks, lighting bulkheads that provided strength to the sub at depth. While the engine is gone, divers can clearly see the engine bed at the stern of the wreck. The reef outside the sub is also worth exploring.
J5 ‘Yellow Submarine’
Deriving its nickname from its yellow zoanthid encrusted hull, the J5 sits at 40m. Its stern sits proud of the bottom, showing three prop shafts and support bearings. A massive storm in 1994 stripped sheeting off the hull, along with the zoanthids which never fully recovered. Allie Beckhurst says: “Half of the conning tower came off shortly after that storm, so my dive club Getunder approached Heritage Victoria with a plan to fit sacrificial anodes to the wreck to try to preserve it for a while longer.
“We surveyed the wreck and did electrical continuity testing to plan anode placement. Then we started taking the 40kg anodes down into the wreck. This developed our tech divers’ skills and many passed their marine archeology qualifications. Despite maintaining the anodes for several years, the wreck continued to deteriorate.” Such stories reinforce the need for interested divers to visit the J-Class submarines sooner rather than later.
This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #71.