The Fathom II of Utila
A Wreck Diving Expedition that Put Utila on the Map

November 1st, 2010
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private]

Supply barge reaches one of the Utila Keys

Supply barge reaches one of the Utila Keys

A 1972 advertisement in a Diving Magazine marked the beginning of an odyssey for Gunter Kordovsky. While other crew of Fathom II came and went to continue their life, Gunter has stayed on Utila ever since. Gunter did find treasure, just not the one he was expecting.

It all started many years ago on a little island in Yugoslavia at that time under the communist rule of Broz Tito. A mountain boy from Innsbruck, Austria, I was born “on snow skis” and didn’t have a clue about diving or oceans. By my early twenties I had already finished a stint in the army’s mountain division special forces and was racing bikes in the summer with the lnnsbracker Schwalben and my buddy Haus Prasheberger. A three times Austrian champion that coached me at one time.

During winter seasons, I raced Alpine class A and earned my share of trophies. Suddenly, one day, by a stroke of pure luck, I had a chance to cruise the Mediterranean Sea on a friend’s private yacht whose passion was building boats and diving. He managed to put a tank on me even though I didn’t even know how to snorkel at the time. I overcame any hesitation and the only instruction I was given was: “Don’t come back till the tank is empty”. Then I was matter-of-factly kicked overboard. I barely survived this first dive, coming up out of the water with a mask full of blood and a hammering headache. It was only later I was told about equalizing, a way of managing the pressure as you descend and so avoiding bloody masks.
After three days of recuperation I was handed a heavy double steel tank rig with an old double hose regulator, a spear and a bag with the words “Get some fish.”
Once in the water, I spotted my first target- a nice size fish and I fired my first spear. The fish and the spear quickly disappeared into a cave. In my attempt to retrieve my catch I got stuck and had my first mild panic attack. I soon recovered and returned to the surface with no fish or spear. Naturally I was given hell by the others. I did three more stints of diving in Yugoslavia and a mountain lake in Austria and was sold! Hook, line, and sinker on scuba diving. I was beginning to discover the magnificent underwater world.
In 1967, I got a contract to be a racing coach and ski Instructor in Yay Peak, Utah. The following summer I did my first open water course with some New England divers and dove for the delicious cold water critters of Rockport and Cape Cod.
As the seasons passed by, my old skiing injuries came back to haunt me. A downhill race crash at 70 mph had injured my back. The injury was aggravated by frostbite damage I was dealing with. One day I was at the airport in Montreal and happened to pick up a diving magazine which ran an ad about a diving expedition to Utila, Honduras to look for a sunken wreck. The course of my life was redirected forever.
The $1,500 to join the expedition was a good enough reason to start saving and after several odd jobs I was financially ready. Arriving at the airport in Los Angeles from Toronto I called the telephone number from the ad only to find out the number was disconnected. I stood by the phone perplexed as I wondered to myself if I was a victim of some sort of hoax and my $500 down payment was gone.
It was a relief when the phone operator gave me another number I could call. I quickly dialed the new number and a guy by the name of Max answered: “Sorry Gunter, Fathom II left earlier. They tried to get a hold of you.” Going back to Toronto wasn’t an option for me and after ascertaining Utila was in Honduras, I decided to get to the island by myself.
After five days I made it to San Pedro Sula and spent a night in La Lima hotel where drunken soldiers continually shot off their guns. The next day I got on board a tiny three-person Cessna plane with a Utilian who, to my relief, assured me that Fathom II was real and on Utila. I’ll never forget my first sighting of the “Rock” as locals call this three mile by eight mile jewel of the Caribbean.
The island had breathtaking volcanic cliffs where huge breakers cascaded into the blue sky. Utila’s spans of green, lush vegetation were encircled by a beautiful blue ocean. I was euphoric to know I’d be spending the rest of the year there searching for lost wrecks.
While mesmerized by all that beauty that stood in such contrast to the cold ski slopes, the pilot maneuvered the little plane buffeted by the strong East breeze into a steep approach onto the rugged gravel landing strip. He was a professional. He put the little machine down close to the beach. Overshooting the runway would result in disaster as the landing strip was right next to a reef and a 200 foot drop-off. The airport building had holes in the roof and floor so you needed an umbrella inside in case it rained. A rusty truck was waiting for us next to the landing strip. That truck was pretty much the only means of transportation available. A brief ride brought me onto a sandy road where the Fathom II headquarter was located. As I entered the building, a scull from one of several Paya Indian sites glared at me amidst the dozens of pirate bottles. The locals referred to these artifacts as Yabba-Ding-Ding.
Nobody was at the headquarters because the guys were out diving. After several hours of waiting in the broiling heat some guys arrived wearing the cut offs, a standard uniform comprised of ragged T-shirts burned by the tropical sun. Unceremoniously, I introduced myself and was taken to another house where I was issued an army cot that lay in a corner. It was quite a change to my nice chalet in Quebec.
In the evening I went with the boys to the infamous Bucket of Blood, long ago called the most unique bar in the Western hemisphere by Newsweek. The bar was frequented by the black population and was the Fathom’s main watering hole.
After a rather restless night I got up at 5am and walked towards the airport with native legends of pirate treasures and sunken galleons haunting me. That stroll marked my first acquaintance with the no-see-ums locally known as sand flies and with a crab that took a liking and bit in to my finger as I played with it. I found out the next day that Fathom II had still not arrived yet.
Breakfast was rather simple and prepared by our local cook. To my surprise, most guys sat around doing nothing, so my gang-ho attitude wasn’t appreciated. The exception was our Russian diving director Anatol, who decided to take me to the reef by the airport to view an old pirate artifact. He took me there in a speedboat called the Shark.

During winter seasons, I raced Alpine class A and earned my share of trophies. Suddenly, one day, by a stroke of pure luck, I had a chance to cruise the Mediterranean Sea on a friend’s private yacht whose passion was building boats and diving. He managed to put a tank on me even though I didn’t even know how to snorkel at the time. I overcame any hesitation and the only instruction I was given was: “Don’t come back till the tank is empty”. Then I was matter-of-factly kicked overboard. I barely survived this first dive, coming up out of the water with a mask full of blood and a hammering headache. It was only later I was told about equalizing, a way of managing the pressure as you descend and so avoiding bloody masks.

After three days of recuperation I was handed a heavy double steel tank rig with an old double hose regulator, a spear and a bag with the words “Get some fish.”

Once in the water, I spotted my first target- a nice size fish and I fired my first spear. The fish and the spear quickly disappeared into a cave. In my attempt to retrieve my catch I got stuck and had my first mild panic attack. I soon recovered and returned to the surface with no fish or spear. Naturally I was given hell by the others. I did three more stints of diving in Yugoslavia and a mountain lake in Austria and was sold! Hook, line, and sinker on scuba diving. I was beginning to discover the magnificent underwater world.

In 1967, I got a contract to be a racing coach and ski Instructor in Yay Peak, Utah. The following summer I did my first open water course with some New England divers and dove for the delicious cold water critters of Rockport and Cape Cod.

As the seasons passed by, my old skiing injuries came back to haunt me. A downhill race crash at 70 mph had injured my back. The injury was aggravated by frostbite damage I was dealing with. One day I was at the airport in Montreal and happened to pick up a diving magazine which ran an ad about a diving expedition to Utila, Honduras to look for a sunken wreck. The course of my life was redirected forever.

The $1,500 to join the expedition was a good enough reason to start saving and after several odd jobs I was financially ready. Arriving at the airport in Los Angeles from Toronto I called the telephone number from the ad only to find out the number was disconnected. I stood by the phone perplexed as I wondered to myself if I was a victim of some sort of hoax and my $500 down payment was gone.

It was a relief when the phone operator gave me another number I could call. I quickly dialed the new number and a guy by the name of Max answered: “Sorry Gunter, Fathom II left earlier. They tried to get a hold of you.” Going back to Toronto wasn’t an option for me and after ascertaining Utila was in Honduras, I decided to get to the island by myself.

After five days I made it to San Pedro Sula and spent a night in La Lima hotel where drunken soldiers continually shot off their guns. The next day I got on board a tiny three-person Cessna plane with a Utilian who, to my relief, assured me that Fathom II was real and on Utila. I’ll never forget my first sighting of the “Rock” as locals call this three mile by eight mile jewel of the Caribbean.

The island had breathtaking volcanic cliffs where huge breakers cascaded into the blue sky. Utila’s spans of green, lush vegetation were encircled by a beautiful blue ocean. I was euphoric to know I’d be spending the rest of the year there searching for lost wrecks.

While mesmerized by all that beauty that stood in such contrast to the cold ski slopes, the pilot maneuvered the little plane buffeted by the strong East breeze into a steep approach onto the rugged gravel landing strip. He was a professional. He put the little machine down close to the beach. Overshooting the runway would result in disaster as the landing strip was right next to a reef and a 200 foot drop-off. The airport building had holes in the roof and floor so you needed an umbrella inside in case it rained. A rusty truck was waiting for us next to the landing strip. That truck was pretty much the only means of transportation available. A brief ride brought me onto a sandy road where the Fathom II headquarter was located. As I entered the building, a scull from one of several Paya Indian sites glared at me amidst the dozens of pirate bottles. The locals referred to these artifacts as Yabba-Ding-Ding.

Nobody was at the headquarters because the guys were out diving. After several hours of waiting in the broiling heat some guys arrived wearing the cut offs, a standard uniform comprised of ragged T-shirts burned by the tropical sun. Unceremoniously, I introduced myself and was taken to another house where I was issued an army cot that lay in a corner. It was quite a change to my nice chalet in Quebec.

In the evening I went with the boys to the infamous Bucket of Blood, long ago called the most unique bar in the Western hemisphere by Newsweek. The bar was frequented by the black population and was the Fathom’s main watering hole.

After a rather restless night I got up at 5am and walked towards the airport with native legends of pirate treasures and sunken galleons haunting me. That stroll marked my first acquaintance with the no-see-ums locally known as sand flies and with a crab that took a liking and bit in to my finger as I played with it. I found out the next day that Fathom II had still not arrived yet.

Breakfast was rather simple and prepared by our local cook. To my surprise, most guys sat around doing nothing, so my gang-ho attitude wasn’t appreciated. The exception was our Russian diving director Anatol, who decided to take me to the reef by the airport to view an old pirate artifact. He took me there in a speedboat called the Shark.

Gunter Kordovsky with three fellow divers

Gunter Kordovsky with three fellow divers

Shortly after hiking the length of the gravel runway barefoot, a torturous endeavor for my tender feet, Anatol showed me the first real artifact: A heavily encrusted five-foot cannon originally discovered by Yonny Bodden, a local diver.

Anatol was highly amused with my paranoia regarding sharks and barracudas and once underwater, next thing I knew I was startled by something. Anatol shot a four foot Tarpon fish right through the middle. It only took seconds for the powerful fish to rip the line. Next the fish swam into one of the nearby corals. With my very limited breath-holding capacity I came up fast only to have Anatol grab my shoulder and scream in my ear to “watch out! Sharks!” Out of nowhere, a shark made a tight turn and in one bite half of the Tarpon fish was gone. A second shark quickly attacked and took the rest of the fish. As fast as they came they disappeared. The only fish left were two big barracudas. I eventually made it out to the beach and with shaky knees stared at Anatol.

That event, my first of many shark encounters, became immortalized in a painting which was later purchased by German Ambassador Eckhard Schober.

A few weeks later the main crew of Fathom II arrived. Jan Malusek, a photojournalist and myself did some VM sledding; a technique where a diver is pulled VM on a rope by a boat to search for wrecks. We’d heard from a local old-timer there where supposed to be several cannons at the mouth of Lower Lagoon.

After several adjustments in speed we managed to keep our masks on, and not have them ripped off by the dreg or getting ourselves half-drowned. Cruising along effortlessly, looking for cannons or the elusive “Santiago” I spotted an eight to ten-foot shark below me. I turned back to Jan to point the shark out and he affirmed that he’d seen it. The young photojournalist continued taking shots while being dragged past the coral. After clearing my mask I looked back again to check on Jan and saw the big shark behind him. I started pointing like mad when my mask nearly flooded again. I cleared it and turned to find an empty sledge floundering on the rope. Jan was nowhere to be seen! I began to panic as I realized photojournalists could very well be on shark menus. I searched frantically for remains of man or fish. Finally I heard the signal to come up and found Jan was on the surface. This is about the time you are demanding to have an answer to the “Where the hell have you been?” question followed by an irksome “We were looking for your bones and whatever else the shark left behind!” We didn’t find the “Santiago” or cannons but had yet another one of our many adventures.

Finding the Oliver

Later on, myself, Chris Talbot and the rest of the team played shark bait once more using our underwater sleds, scouring the most likely sites to host sunken wrecks. Dangling on the 150 foot line we were covering the outer edges of Stuarts Bank. We had already searched the area with our metal detection unit donated to us by Barringer Research in Toronto. Toni Orton, an engineer, was on hand to coach us about the use of this state of the art metal detector. We found some things but few had any historical value; a few cannon balls, a Guidon (the small flag or banner carried by military units to identify their origin or affiliation) of three and some scrap metal. Even on Stuarts Bank, a well known Utila dive site, we never got any reading on our metal detector.

Most wooden boat wrecks become hard to visually detect within 10 years of their sinking due to the destructive torpedo worm (shipworm) which eats through even the hardest lumber. Only the ballast stones and heavy metal objects like cannons and anchors are left for treasure hunters to find. Many times, like in the case of The Oliver, the wreck is located under as much as 10 feet of gravel and sand.

Chris’s job was to check out strange looking coral formations and one day he spotted a strange metal grid imbedded in the coral. I got on the sled as well and noticed a few coral heads in a straight line. This seemed very unusual. After fawning around a little bit, I suddenly found a few hundred year old looking wine bottles, a piece of moldy dark glass and lead used on the wooden hull.

After finding a few more artifacts and part of the ships rigging, we were pretty sure we’d found a wreck site. Much later we were able to identify the wreck as a British log runner named “Oliver” captained by Mr. Mood sunk in 1802. It was the first real wreck we’d found so it called for a celebration at the Bucket of Blood.

Since the wreck was in 60 to 70 feet of water it was difficult to work with. We couldn’t use a mail box device which is typically mounted on the engine to reverse the propeller, blast down and blow sand away from the excavation site.

We decided to use a Hi-Lift: a plastic pipe with a nozzle, through which air is pumped into a small jet. As the air goes up, it creates a suction in which sand and gravel are removed from the wreck. It took us several months and 3 shifts of divers a day to reach the sections of the hull. In the process we found 2 1/2″ anchors, one cannon and numerous artifacts. Two preservation experts joined us who had worked on the “Wasa” a Swedish Warship that sank in 1628 on her maiden voyage and was raised intact 400 years later. They showed us how to preserve the various artifacts. We worked on the “Oliver” for over 6 months and it was very educational.

A highly professional excavation crew is an unrealized dream when you have a mottled crew of treasure hunters. You can get anything from the chronic screw-up to skilled pros or to the occasional guy who joins so he can lose weight.

Most of the guys who expected to get rich fast didn’t last. They didn’t realize that there was a lot of work involved and rough conditions such as dangerous sand-digging, very rustic living conditions, a different culture, mosquitoes, and sand flies. From several dozen members who joined us, only the hardcore guys kept going regardless of the hardship and lack of money coming in. We suffered the fate of most unsuccessful treasure hunters and had to operate on a shoestring budget.

Many times breakdowns, lack of supplies and other hindrances brought our work to a screeching halt. I don’t consider the time spent a loss, rather a fantastic experience. After 38 years of living on paradise island away from the madness of the rat race and 10,000 dives later, I love my extreme dive to 200 feet and deeper as much as ever. The real treasure I found wasn’t gold but a simple peaceful fulfilling lifestyle on one of the most beautiful islands I have ever seen. More and more people who visit end up staying longer than planned, often staying for good. I’ve found my Shangri-La and perhaps someday, I will also find another interesting wreck in this deep blue ocean. One never knows.

Gunter logs in an artifact found at the Oliver site

Gunter logs in an artifact found at the Oliver site

The raising of “Oliver” 12′ anchors

Lifting the 300 plus pound, 12-foot anchors with 50 gl. steel drums was quite a chore and a great learning curve for some of us. The 2nd anchor was imbedded and wedged in a coral head. We attached the cables and positioned the lifting device which was a bleeding valve incase we overfilled the drum. One diver filled the drum with air from a regulator while two guys tried to break the anchor loose. I was on top of the drum monitoring the airflow. Finally, the drum was full and the ropes taught as a fiddle string. The huge anchor resisted our efforts to pry it loose so one diver increased the air supply. Due to the overfilled drum, when the anchor finally came loose, with a big noise it started to rocket to the surface from 65 feet of depth. My efforts to bleed air through the valve were useless. At 40 feet of depth, I got off the drum which then broke through to the surface right beside the boat and scared the hell out of the other team of divers who were all chilling in the sun ready for the next shift. Unfortunately, the drum tilted, filled with water and both anchor and drum came crashing back down. A mad scramble ensued with half a dozen divers trying to get away from being crushed by the 300 pound anchor. After the excitement died down, we gave it another try and succeeded. The anchor was moved to Diamond Cay to be part of the marine museum later on. [/private]

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