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  • Teamwork in Norddeich: four adventurers and their trusty companion – the Mercedes-Benz X-Class.
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    Treasure hunters.

    Combing the floor of the North Sea, intrepid “drift divers” go in search of forgotten wrecks and marine thrills in a place usually visited only by seals. This time they’ve got the X-Class with them.

    Text: Marc Bielefeld | Photos: Malte Jaeger

Bones and skulls.

Listening to these friends talking about their hobby, you wouldn’t necessarily conclude that it sounds like a good time. You’re in the dark, cold, wet and it’s “a bit complicated”, Dirk Terbeek tells us. Wilfried de Jonge describes their leisure pursuit as quite strenuous, going on to talk about how extremely dependent the divers are on winds and currents, and of the potential dangers involved. Oh and also, you can hardly see a thing. Dirk Heinemann points out that you’d have to like that about it. Question him further and he’ll also tell you about the bones and skulls they come across every now and then. Their wives would prefer them to put this pastime behind them, but that’s never going to happen.


Dirk Terbeek, Dirk Heinemann, Holger Buss and Wilfried de Jonge (from left to right) gather their bulky gear from the truck’s spacious load bed.

Dirk Terbeek, Dirk Heinemann, Holger Buss and Wilfried de Jonge (from left to right) gather their bulky gear from the truck’s spacious load bed.

Briefing: the divers study sea charts on the bonnet of the X-Class.

Briefing: the divers study sea charts on the bonnet of the X-Class.


Tumultuous waters ebbing and flowing unceasingly.

This morning, four of the eight friends have taken a blue Mercedes-Benz X-Class to the harbour of Norddeich, a small village on the East Frisian coast. The Wadden Sea stretches out before them, in the distance you can make out the islands of Juist and Norderney. The coordinates they’re navigating to will take them somewhere out there towards the North Sea shipping routes: simple points on the sea chart which fail to ­convey the reality of tumultuous waters ebbing and flowing unceasingly.


A journey into amorphous darkness.

The bed of the X-Class has been loaded with compressed air and gas tanks, crates of diving regulators, floating devices, carabiners, buoys and weights, all securely stowed and fastened. Next to them are black, trilaminate Kevlar suits; you’d be forgiven for thinking they were for a trip into space. “It does sort of feel that way,” Heinemann nods, as he gathers a good 60 kilos of his equipment from the back of the pickup.


The companions can usually get to around 30 metres below the surface, passing through a universe of sediment and suspended particles which limit visibility to around five metres – rarely more and often less. It’s a journey into amorphous darkness until a shipwreck emerges like an apparition, encrusted in a layer of mussels and algae. These East Frisian friends do this for fun, but it’s a serious activity that requires them to face powerful North Sea currents.


Everything in its place: wreckage found, gear worked without a hitch, and fun was had at the wheel – a good day for the North Sea drift divers.

Everything in its place: wreckage found, gear worked without a hitch, and fun was had at the wheel – a good day for the North Sea drift divers.


A real adventure.

Special mixtures of breathing gas are needed, and the divers go underwater wearing dry suits, heated thermal vests, and equipped with cameras and bottles of argon – a dense gas that they can use to inflate their suits for better insulation against the cold. They have even developed their own underwater lamps; with a strength of 95,000 lux, they shine eight times brighter than standard car headlights. Considering all the gear required, it’s no surprise that up here in the north, wreck diving doesn’t have a following apart from this group of men. “But it’s a real adventure,” Terbeek says. “We often go where no one has ever been before. And some of the ships we discover haven’t been seen for a hundred years.”


A shared dream.

The drift divers met at the local diving club, each already an experienced scuba diver in his own right. Together they wondered why they should restrict themselves to their region’s lakes, with just the occasional diving trip to Croatia, the Red Sea or the ­Andaman Islands? After all, there are plenty of wrecks to search for right here in their own backyard. It wasn’t long before they became a team. They took courses on technical diving, learned about underwater archaeology, and fine-tuned their equipment. “We all dreamed of diving in the North Sea and discovering sunken ships,” explains de Jonge, who has been with the team since the very beginning.


Time for a breather: three frogmen cross the sandbar off the island of Juist.

Time for a breather: three frogmen cross the sandbar off the island of Juist.

The dinghy is ready to go and the four-man crew is prepared for the underwater world that awaits them off the island of Juist.

The dinghy is ready to go and the four-man crew is prepared for the underwater world that awaits them off the island of Juist.


The boat is in the water now.

And before long, it wasn’t just a dream. They bought a seven-metre-long dinghy with a 225 PS motor and headed out to sea, just ahead of the islands. There, between high and low tide, they took the plunge. The boat is in the water now, and the tanks and flippers stowed away as we cut through the choppy waves beneath a grey sky, opening up the throttle after passing a ferry. A sandbar becomes visible in the distance: it’s the tip of the island of Juist. The crew navigates a nautical mile or two further north and consults the sonar. The contour on the screen lets them know that they’ve located a wreck.


Like seals.

“Let’s get ready,” calls out Holger Buss, the fourth member of today’s crew. He heaves a double tank onto his back and adjusts his mask. After the final commands are given by hand signal, they fall backwards into the water and disappear like seals. Breaking bubbles on the surface are the only sign that they were ever here. In the depths, they’ll have to rely on their own experience, skills and courage – because no one else will be there to save them if something goes wrong. What was it that Dirk Terbeek said? “If there’s a problem – say, for instance, the diving regulator freezes up – you have to have a mental reserve.”


In other words: nerves of steel. But the diving is just one part of the adventure. A lot of preparation goes into finding the wreck locations, too. The drift divers talk to local fishermen about the location of potential obstacles (they’re in a position to know, as their nets often get tangled in certain spots) and study the pertinent marine archives, sinking reports and sea charts. They then set off in their boat, towing sonar buoys that will detect conspicuous objects underwater. The excitement on board is palpable.


A satisfying ritual: the first thing they do after the dive is wash the seawater out of their face and hair.

A satisfying ritual: the first thing they do after the dive is wash the seawater out of their face and hair.


“You dive into another world.”

It’s certainly not just crustaceans and starfish down there. The team has dived wrecks off the East Frisian Islands before, finding sunken motorboats, trawlers, minesweepers, even the 130-metre-long Mongabarra cargo ship. They measure the dimensions of the remains and identify the parts, half-swallowed by mud and vege­tation, with detective-like precision. Later, they make sketches of the rusty wrecks to scale – records which are useful to fishermen and the maritime authorities. The divers don’t go looking for awards or trophies: their mission is simply to document the location of these sunken ships and get them declared as official landmarks of the sea.


An underwater lunar landscape.

Forty-five minutes after they submerged, two red buoys shoot out of the water. The men have sent them up on a rope so that the skipper knows where they will surface. At this point the divers are still drifting in the current five metres below the surface, up to two kilometres away, making a necessary decompression stop to physically re-acclimate to the pressure above the water before they come up. The men are soon back on board. They exchange high fives and head back to the harbour, full steam ahead, beaming from ear to ear. The cameras have captured an underwater lunar landscape, with barnacle-covered wreckage on the sea floor: “That’s what we love about this – you dive into another world!” says Terbeek.


Discovery: a wreckage covered in mussels and algae sleeps soundly at the bottom of the sea.

Discovery: a wreckage covered in mussels and algae sleeps soundly at the bottom of the sea.

Homeward bound through Frisia: the X-Class on an old drawbridge in Großefehn.

Homeward bound through Frisia: the X-Class on an old drawbridge in Großefehn.


There’s no place like home.

Free of their breathing apparatus, the adventurers peel off their wetsuits, unscrew their bayonet gloves, and load the gear back onto the bed of the X-Class, where a little puddle of North Sea water collects. An intense diving experience; space travel courtesy of the North Sea. But once they’re back on land, it’s all earthly ambitions for these drifters. Holger Buss gets behind the wheel of the X-Class and starts the engine. There’s no place like home, nothing like a warm shower.