The Discovery of HMS Otus

On March 20 2013, two SCUBA divers from Durban embarked on a deep sea training dive. Patrick Voorma and Allan Maclean are part of a team that are planning to dive with Coelacanths in Sodwana Bay later this year, a feat which will involve diving to depths of 120 meters. When they rolled off the boat on this particular dive, they did not expect to make another deep sea discovery.

HMS Otus was a British Navy submarine, built by Vickers Armstrong in 1928. She served in the East Indies until the outbreak of World War II; in 1940 she went to the Mediterranean where she was stationed for 2 years. In 1942, she returned to the Home Fleet and was then send to the South Atlantic in 1943 for anti-submarine training exercises.

When WWII ended, she was decommissioned and sold, then scuttled 8km south east of Durban Harbour’s entrance. The exact location of her final resting place was unknown and her story became something of a local legend as divers searched for her over the decades. Voorma and Maclean were among these hopeful divers and have joined in on the search in the past. However, while they knew there was a wreck in the general area of where they were diving, they were not looking for HMS Otus on this particular day.

When the divers reached the sea bed at 105 meters, they noticed pink grunters, small fish that often congregate around shipwrecks. Realising they could be close to something, they drifted for about 40 meter and swam right into the submarine. Describing it as a “wow” moment, Voorma and Maclean were understandably excited by their chance discovery.

The discovery of the final resting place of HMS Otus is Voorma and Maclean’s third shipwreck find in a month. When WWII ended and the whaling industry in Durban collapsed, many vessels were towed out to sea and scuttled because they had no further use and were expensive to maintain. Few records were kept of these events and the scuttled ships because known as Durban’s Ghost Fleet. Many more are waiting to be found in the deeper waters off Durban Harbour.

The find is important for several reasons. From a cultural resources management perspective, HMS Otus represents the only remaining example of a submarine of her class. Of the 8 Odin class submarines that existed, 2 were scrapped and the other 6 were sunk. This means that HMS Otus is the only remaining specimen of this phase of naval engineering.

Furthermore, like the SAS Pietermaritsburg scuttled near Simonstown, HMS Otus represents a tangible link to South Africa’s involvement in WWII. As in centuries past, South Africa was a strategic naval position and thus required substantial defenses. Submarines and war ships patrolled our coasts, covered by batteries on the shore. While most of the batteries, along with museum collections, can still be seen today, other artefacts of South Africa’s naval past are often not available for the public to appreciate.

Since the submarine lies in very deep water, only divers with specialised training are able to visit the site. However, Voorma and Maclean intend to return soon with camera equipment to record the submarine, which will allow the public to study, appreciate and remember HMS Otus.

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