The waters off the South of France hide a plethora of wrecks which offer easily accessible diving. Just a mile from the port of Marseilles, 30m below the surface, lies the wreck of the Liban – one of France’s best-loved wreck dives. The 90m-long wreck provides a sanctuary for an impressive array of marine life, including some big conger eels. Visibility here is good – sometimes as good as 30m, and often 20m. And the dive is an appealing mix of adventure and history. For British divers, it is a tempting proposition: in theory, you can fly out to Marseilles and find yourself diving a blue water wreck the same day.
A century has passed since the Libon sank, but its structure remains intact. Given the tragic circumstances surrounding its demise, it makes a poignant dive. In fact, the loss of the ship and its 200 passengers on Sunday 3 June, 1903, is still considered the biggest tragedy to have taken place in Marseilles waters.
The circumstances leading to the collision of the Liban and the steamship Insulaire on that fateful Sunday are unusual. Both vessels had been observed off the island of Tiboulen de Maire and visibility was down to 100m. The captains of the two ships intended to pass each other by and both ordered a turn to starboard – a straightforward manoeuvre in open seas. While the Liban duly changed course, the Insulaire was obstructed by the island of Maire and to avoid striking the rocks the captain ordered a turn hard to port, cancelling his original order. Suddenly the prow of the Insulaire struck the Liban, gashing her port side and penetrating deep inside the ship. Aboard the Liban, Captain Lacotte gave orders to try to free the ship from the prow of the Insulaire. When the crew did manage to free the ship, the extent of the damage and the gravity of their situation became immediately apparent. Lacotte decided to take his vessel as close to the shore of Maire as possible. Unfortunately, the almost vertical rock walls prevented the passengers from disembarking, so the captain headed for another safe berth – the rocks of Les Farillons. Lacotte’s idea was to save the ship by running her aground between two outcrops rising from the sea. Twenty metres from the rock, the unthinkable happened – the stern of the Liban began to rise slowly from above the surface of the sea. As her propeller churned in the air, the Liban began to vibrate dramatically – the ship was sinking, bow first.
The end was so fast that the crew did not have time to lower the lifeboats. Many ships responded to the Mayday signal and soon congregated in the area. They quickly lowered their boats to recover passengers, but the confusion meant that a systematic rescue operation was impossible. A great explosion ripped the air as the ship’s boiler burst, and with a deafening crack the ship split in two, before being swallowed by the waves.
Passengers were dragged down with the ship, and the precise numbers of victims has never been established – for some time there was a persistent rumour that a number of chained prisoners on their way to labour camps in Corsica had been trapped below decks.
Three years later the captain of the Insulaire was condemned for having given the fatal counter-order. After necessary repairs, the Insulaire crossed the Atlantic, meanwhile the Liban was abandoned to its tomb on the eastern side of Maire and there were never any attempts to salvage the wreck.
The wreck of the Liban lies in an area close to the rocks of Les Farillons and is protected from the winds from the north but completely exposed to the waves from the south and east. The ship is 90m long and lies at a depth of between 30m (at the bow) and 36m (at the stern). The stern makes the best starting point for a dive and is listing to the sea bed at 45 degrees.
The lines of the quarterdeck and the steering gear make for an impressive sight and if you swim over the bulwark and down to the rudder you can see the bronze propeller part-buried in the sand.
In this shadowed area the hull is completely covered with a myriad of dark red sea fans. After examining the stern, which is still in good condition, you begin to ascend towards the prow, eventually reaching the enormous boiler where you can see the effects of the huge explosion. Having seen the blast area, it’s easy to understand why the ship sank so rapidly.
The shallowest parts of the superstructure provide excellent shelter from currents, as well as offering numerous areas of interest. The saloon – once one of the ship’s glories – now caters for dense schools of damselfish, and huge schools of snapper patrol the decks. Hidden in the twisted metalwork are large conger eels which glare menacingly in the torchlight.
While the deeper parts of the wreck are covered with colonies of sea fans, shallower sections such as the deck and gangways are no less fertile, with yellow polyps of solitary corals dominating the scene. At this point of the dive the deck is almost level and the imposing anchor winch marks the prow. Here, there is a panoramic view of much of the wreck – from the port bulwark to the raised prow and one of the main masts which lies to the starboard side.