A great dive in average conditions, and a world-class dive in good conditions, this maverick shipwreck down since 1981, holds a special allure for wreck diving fans. The 246-foot refrigeration vessel originally built in Shimizu, Japan, was part of the fishing fleet on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. The prop had been damaged in a storm and she was retired to the docks, causing damage to the dock. The owners were afraid that the ship would cause further dock damage or break free and drift onto the beach. A plan was hatched to set her afire at the dock and let her drift away to sink in deep water. This stubborn vessel refused to sink, and drifted ablaze in strong winds ahead of a hurricane all the way from St. Maarten to the waters of the British Virgin Islands.
The runaway ship was headed straight for the tiny island of Marina Cay as local islanders worked frantically to attach cables to the hull and tow her out to sea and out of harms way. Still burning above the waterline, The Chikuzen was under tow when the cable broke and she sank in 75 feet of water between Beef Island (north end of Tortola), and Anegada.
Resting on her side on a sandy bottom at 75 feet, The Chikuzen has taken on a new life of her own as an artificial reef and dive attraction. Surrounded by miles of white sand, this wreck is an oasis in the middle of an underwater desert that attracts huge numbers of fish. Regular visitors besides divers, include schooling barracuda, grunts, jacks, and snappers. Eagle Rays, stingrays, sharks, African pompano, Atlantic spadefish, nurse sharks, and cobia are seen often.
Swarms of grunts and snappers ebb and flow over the ship in rhythm with the current and waves above. Swirling barracuda fill the mid-water space between the wreck and the surface. Shark-like cobia, amberjack and schools of spadefish often sweep in from the blue to circle divers. A giant sea bass is spotted disappearing into the dark recesses of the wreckage. The hull and superstructure of the ship are nicely encrusted with growing corals and sponges making this an intriguing feast for the eyes of exploring divers and a wonderful underwater photography subject. The top of the deck area lies at about 50 feet and the picturesque propeller covered with orange cup corals rests on the bottom at 70-75 feet. Penetration of the wreck is not allowed, as she was not cleaned out and opened up as a dive site before she sank. Unstable refrigeration piping is tangled inside the vessel.
Conditions need to be conducive for the long boat ride out to the site, and not too swift current conditions for this to be attempted by any island dive operator. Swells average 3-5 feet in this open ocean setting, so seasick prevention is always a good idea. The wreck can be easily circled twice in a dive, with time for peering into the dark openings and hovering in front of the masses of schooling inhabitants. The Chikuzen's remoteness and exposure to rough sea conditions will hopefully preserve its wild spirit for years to come.