The Wreck of the Hilma Hooker
Perhaps it was just the name that made someone suspicious or perhaps an inside tip. Regardless, when she lost power just off the coast of Bonaire and was towed to the main pier on the island, it was not too long before a search was conducted. Soon after that the cargo ship Hilma Hooker went into the history books as a drug smuggler: 25,000 pounds of marijuana were removed from between a real and a false bulkhead and placed on shore by the authorities.
All of this immediately induced Bonaire dive operators to appeal to the government. They wanted the ship to be purposely sunk as a dive site. Hopes ran high as everyone wrote letters and called meetings to discuss a location for the sinking and what would be necessary to make the ship safe for diving once it was sunk. All these hopes and plans were soon dashed. The ship could not be sunk because it was evidence for the Attorney General's office of the Netherlands Antilles. If the owner was proven innocent the ship would have to be returned in the same shape it was in when confiscated.
The Hooker, therefore, remained tied to the pier as legal processes moved on. Of course, leaving this unmanned ship tied to a pier was not only expensive but also dangerous because of the many leaks in the very poorly kept hull. The owner apparently was not about to come forward to answer questions and pay any maintenance or towing charges or dock time, not to mention possible jail time. It was necessary that something had to be done soon or the ship could sink right at the pier causing very expensive problems. A decision was made to move the Hooker to a permanent anchorage until all legal aspects were cleared. Owing to a great deal of foresight within both the government and the Bonaire Tourist Bureau, another meeting was called so the dive operators could suggest an anchorage that, in the event the ship should sink, it would be safe for navigation; cause the least amount of coral damage; and possibly, become a dive site.
After many months of being tied to the pier and pumped of water, on September 7, 1984 the Hooker was towed to an anchorage. As the days passed, a slight list became noticeable. The list was even more obvious one morning. The owner was still not coming forward to claim the ship and maintain it so the many leaks added up until on the morning of September 12, 1984 the Hilma Hooker began taking in water through her lower portholes. At 9:08 am she rolled over on her starboard side and, in the next two minutes, disappeared.
As spectacular a sight as it was, hardly anyone watched the last few minutes of the Hooker's topside life. Within seconds after she disappeared from the surface she settled in 95 feet of water on her starboard side. There was no fanfare because it was not legally intended that the ship should sink.
The Hilma Hooker was a general cargo ship with a length of 71.8 meters. She is about 11 meters wide, her tonnage, 1,027 and was built in Holland in 1951. Prior to being the Hilma Hooker the ship was known as the Doric Express. Before that she was the Anna and before that the William Express. Before that she was the Mistral and before that, the Midsland!
Because the ship was being held as evidence in a drug case, nothing was allowed to be touched. The Hooker sank with everything on board. It is not one of those totally stripped wrecks made for diving but a true, honest-to-goodness shipwreck. This can create problems, though. The bunk rooms were still filled with debris such as beds, dressers and, occasionally, some articles of clothing. Many doors were still attached and those made from steel can be hard to move. A great deal of caution and discretion is necessary for anyone planning on diving the Hooker.
For those familiar with Bonaire, the wreck is in the area of the well known dive site called Angel City. This is a system with an inner and an outer reef separated by white sand. The Hooker rests on the sand bottom.
Only 90 minutes after she sank, the first divers went down on the Hooker. The harbormaster of Bonaire wanted to know if the wreck was deep enough not to be a navigation hazard. He needed this information as soon as possible. Exactly 50 feet of water was between the surface and the ship, making it plenty safe for navigation and diving.
A reddish brown haze surrounded the lower half of the wreck as rust and dirt settled out of the cargo holds. It was an eerie feeling seeing a ship that was floating on the surface only a few hours ago. The temporary low visibility added to the feeling. Already, many fish were looking over the wreck, probably arguing about who would get which room for a new home. A large ocean triggerfish swam slowly over the hull, apparently not taken aback by this new addition to its territory.
Air still bubbled out of various holes rusted through the hull at the waterline. It was obvious that little was done to keep this ship in shape except for its one main job of making some quick money. An occasional drop of oil, mixed with the air bubbles, slowly made its way to the surface. It was amazing how little oil there was. The only real pollution from the wreck was an odd piece of wood that someone will eventually find washed up on shore on another island or coast.
Boats showed up the next day with many anxious divers waiting to get a first look at the Hooker underwater. Even from the surface it was obvious there was a shipwreck. Its outline, 50 feet below, could be seen easily from above. The visibility had already cleared up 100 percent and now one could see the entire ship in the crystal blue water.
The ship itself has two large deckhouses, one aft and one amidships. The galley and crew's quarters were aft. Amidships is the wheelhouse and chart room. In front of each is a huge cargo hold, completely open, with no debris. Below the aft house is the engine room: No one should venture here. Loose deck plates that once covered the bilge, and many other objects, are cast about haphazardly. There are countless Items upon which a diver could very easily get hung up. Visibility is very low with virtually no light penetrating the compartment.
Although the shipwreck has areas that are dangerous, it is still a wreck divers of all levels can fully enjoy if just a bit of good judgment is used. Beginners who want to explore it can easily stay at a depth of 60 feet and swim around the outside. Those with a bit more experience can dive to 70 feet and explore some open passages. This should be done with an experienced buddy. It should be planned well so no one gets too deep inside the wreck. Very experienced wreck divers may want to see as many different compartments as possible. The maximum depth is about 100 feet so everyone must really pay attention to bottom time and depth. One comment most divers make is that it is so easy to go a bit deeper than expected and for longer than planned.
Because of the size of the wreck, numerous moorings have been placed for the dive boats. All of Bonaire's dive shops visit the Hooker on a regular basis. Because it can be deeper than most, the trips to the wreck are usually the first dive in the morning. It would be very difficult to crowd this wreck. And, since it lies between two reefs, it is possible to finish the dive among the many varied corals in shallower water.
Photographic possibilities are unlimited. One of the favorite shots is with a diver next to the large bronze propeller. Another is the outside steering wheel on the aft cabin house. This is near the funnel of the engine room, which is another favorite shot. Views down the passageways and silhouettes are spectacular in the clear water. These areas are all outside the wreck at reasonable depths, making picture taking possible for everyone. Many fish have made the wreck a permanent home.
For years Bonaire has looked for a ship that could be used as a wreck. With the Hilma Hooker, what began as a bad idea for someone turned into a lucky break for Bonaire and its divers.
Post Script: Since completion of this article new evidence has been brought to light regarding the actual sinking. The source of this information wishes not to have his/her name mentioned but it can be said it comes from high up in the Cap'n Don's Habitat staff-sort of at the very top, you could say. This source says he/she witnessed a phosphorescent wake cutting through the water late the night before the Hooker sank. It is claimed it was a torpedo from the German submarine U-156, which has not been seen in these waters since last attempting to blow up the Aruba refinery on the evening of February 13, 1942, Capt., Hartenstoin, skipper of the U- 156 his not been seen since then either, so he was not available for questioning.