THE HILMA HOOKER

Bon­aire has over 60 of­fi­cial dive sites—one of the best­known in this shore diver’ s par­adise is the in fa­mous cargo - ship- turned- drug - smug­gler Hilma Hooker . T he ori­gin soft his pop­u­lar dive site are the stuff of div­ing folk­lore —you’ ll never heart

Scuba Diving - - Encounters -

The Hilma Hooker is a 236-foot Dutch freighter built in the Nether­lands. It was orig­i­nally chris­tened Mid­s­land on May 20, 1951.

Ac­cord­ing to the Gen­eral Ma­rine Mer­chant In­dex of Colom­bia, it was owned by the ship­ping com­pany N.V. Scheep­vaart En Steenkolen Maatschap­pij for 13 years be­fore be­ing sold to an­other ship­ping line and re­named Mis­tral.

The ship would change hands — and names — mul­ti­ple times over the next two decades.

On July 18, 1975, Hooker, then known as Wil­liam Ex­press, fore­shad­owed its even­tual fate when it sank off Santa Bár­bara de Sa­maná in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic. But it was raised from an early grave and sold once more, re­named Anna C.

The last reg­is­tered com­pany to own the ship, the San An­dres Ex­port & Im­port Com­pany in San An­dres, Colom­bia, pur­chased Doric Ex­press in 1979 and gave it the now-fa­mous moniker, Hilma Hooker.

Fewer than five years later, in sum­mer 1984, Hooker faced tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties off the coast of Bon­aire — whether prob­lems with steer­age or an en­gine fail­ure is a matter of de­bate — and was towed into Kral­endijk. Au­thor­i­ties be­came sus­pi­cious when the crew failed to pro­duce papers for im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials, though, de­pend­ing on whom you ask, it could also have been an in­side tip or sim­ply the ship’s col­or­ful name that prompted the in­creased scrutiny.

Ac­cord­ing to the National Un­der­wa­ter and Ma­rine Agency, when port au­thor­i­ties in­ves­ti­gated, they found that both In­ter­pol and the FBI had been track­ing the ves­sel for months as a po­ten­tial drug run­ner. Though tales con­flict on what ex­actly was the key ev­i­dence that tipped off au­thor­i­ties, the re­sult of their search is con­sis­tent from one to the next: 25,000 pounds of mar­i­juana stashed be­hind a false bulk­head. The crew was ar­rested and the ship was im­pounded on June 6, 1984.

A DEL­I­CATE SIT­U­A­TION

One of the most in-depth ac­counts of Hooker’s trou­bles prior to sink­ing comes from Bruce Bowker of Bruce Bowker’s Carib Inn. Ac­cord­ing to Bowker, lo­cal dive op­er­a­tors were quick to rec­og­nize the gift that the tide had brought and ap­pealed to the gov­ern­ment to use the ship to cre­ate a new dive site. De­spite an out­pour­ing of sup­port, noth­ing could be done. Hilma Hooker was ev­i­dence in an ac­tive case; if the own­ers were found not guilty, the ship would need to be re­turned in the same con­di­tion as when the au­thor­i­ties con­fis­cated it — hard to do if the ship were sit­ting on the seafloor.

Un­for­tu­nately for the gov­ern­ment,

the own­ers had no in­ter­est in step­ping for­ward and fac­ing charges. Main­tain­ing the ship was quickly be­com­ing costly and po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous — years of ne­glect had Hooker poised to go down at the pier. A de­ci­sion was made to move the ship while the le­gal pro­ceed­ings dragged on. The gov­ern­ment and Bon­aire Tourist Bu­reau called a meet­ing with lo­cal dive op­er­a­tors to find a more suit­able spot to an­chor the ves­sel. That way if — or more likely, when — it did suc­cumb to the sea, it wouldn’t cause a nav­i­ga­tional night­mare or crush a coral reef, and would make a suit­able wreck dive.

The ship was moved to a new an­chor­age, next to a dive site called Angel City, on Septem­ber 7, 1984, where it would strug­gle to re­main afloat for just five more days.

A SINK­ING, AND A NEW BE­GIN­NING

On Septem­ber 12, 1984, the ship be­gan tak­ing on wa­ter. Its pumps had failed, and the ship be­gan to sink. At 9:08 a.m., it rolled over onto its star­board side, slip­ping be­neath the sur­face two min­utes later.

“There was no fan­fare,” Bowker says, “be­cause it was not legally in­tended that the ship should sink.”

Its lo­ca­tion was essen­tially hand­picked for scuba divers: within swim­ming dis­tance of shore, next to two coral reefs, and within recre­ational lim­its. When the ship sank, there was lit­tle fuel or oil in its tanks to pol­lute the sur­round­ing wa­ter — for­tu­itous co­in­ci­dence or a fore­sighted con­spir­acy? Ru­mor sug­gests that the pumps that kept the leaky ship afloat didn’t mal­func­tion but were de­lib­er­ately sab­o­taged by im­pa­tient divers.

Where does the truth lie? Only the Hilma Hooker could say for sure, and it took its se­crets to its watery grave.

SCUBA DIV­ING THE HOOKER

Hilma Hooker lies on its star­board side with its bow fac­ing south and the stern — com­plete with rud­der and pro­pel­ler — point­ing north. With a length of 236 feet and a beam of 36 feet, this wreck of­fers am­ple deck space to ex­plore for divers of all skill lev­els. The ship­wreck has two large deck­houses, a gal­ley, crew quar­ters, a wheel­house, a chart room and a large, empty cargo hold.

Pen­e­tra­tion should be left to ex­pe­ri­enced wreck divers. Be­cause the ship was ev­i­dence in a crim­i­nal case, it couldn’t be touched. This meant that it wasn’t prepped prior to sink­ing to be ac­ces­si­ble for scuba divers — fur­ni­ture, de­bris, heavy steel doors and other po­ten­tial haz­ards wait in­side. The en­gine room, be­low the aft deck­house, is es­pe­cially dan­ger­ous due to many en­tan­gle­ment haz­ards, low vis­i­bil­ity and a lack of nat­u­ral light pen­e­tra­tion, and should be avoided.

Ma­rine life can be found all over the wreck. Yel­low snap­per, par­rot­fish, an­gelfish and shrimp can be found on deck. Tar­pon and bar­racuda are also seen. Mas­sive sponges have ac­cu­mu­lated on the pro­pel­ler blades, and large pur­ple tube sponges and tubas­trea corals grow along the hull. You can also find gar­den eels along the sandy ocean floor, and even more ma­rine life on the two reefs on ei­ther side of the ship.

The Hooker is ac­ces­si­ble by boat thanks to nu­mer­ous moor­ings, as well as by shore — just look for the yel­low rock em­bla­zoned with its name. If you visit early in the morn­ing be­fore the dive boats ar­rive, or later in the af­ter­noon after they’ve moved to shal­lower sites, you’re likely to have the ship all to your­self.

To­day, Hooker lies in swim­ming dis­tance of Bon­aire's shore­line. With plenty to ex­plore for all skill lev­els, it's a divers’ play­ground.

DEPTH The mast of the ship reaches just shy of 100 feet, while the port side sits about 60 feet be­low the sur­face. Usu­ally ex­ceeds 100 feet Av­er­ages in the 80s is part of the Bon­aire National Ma­rine Park; all park rules and reg­u­la­tions must be fol­lowed...

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