Diving the UB-88 Submarine Wreck
What it's like to dive a 190' deep World War 1 U-Boat wreck
Part of the allure of technical wreck diving is getting the opportunity to experience bits of history that very few others, not even many other divers, get to experience. This is why when I received an invitation to go dive the UB-88, a German WWI U-boat off San Pedro, California, and the only U-boat wreck on the West Coast, I jumped at the chance.
History of UB-88
UB-88 was a UB-III type submarine launched in Hamburg in 1917. Armed with 10 torpedoes and a deck gun, she was credited with sinking 16 Allied vessels during the war. In November of 1918, UB-88, along with the rest of the German fleet, was surrendered under the terms of the Armistice with Germany. As one of six U-boats allocated to the United States, UB-88, manned by a U.S. Navy crew, traveled to the U.S. to tour over 40 cities along the Atlantic coast, the Mississippi River, and the West Coast as far north as Seattle, all as part of the Victory War Bond drive. She completed her tour in Los Angeles in 1920, where she was stripped and dismantled. Some of her brass was made into commemorative paperweights.
On March 1, 1921, UB-88 was towed outside of San Pedro Harbor and shot down by the destroyer USS Wickes. She sank in about 190 feet of water.
Diving the UB-88 Submarine Wreck
Surface conditions were beautiful--the sun was shining, the water was blue, and the wind and swell were virtually nonexistent. With our hopes up for a great dive, we started to drop down the shot line, and our optimism was rewarded when, at about 120 feet, we could see the first team on the bottom.
The first thing I noticed was the cloud of fish enveloping the wreck. The health of the fish population on our deeper and more remote wrecks is plainly evident, particularly in comparison to those wrecks that are shallower, more accessible, and more often fished. Penetrating through the fish layer, we found what we had come for--a 180ish-foot chunk of rusty metal that has been resting on the sea floor for nearly a century.
Given its time underwater, the wreck is in remarkably good shape. Unfortunately, submarines just aren't really all that much to look at from the outside, particularly one that was so thoroughly stripped as UB-88. Of course the most prominent feature on what was otherwise a fairly nondescript metal tube was the conning tower, which we swam around a handful of times. Every time I dive a sub, I'm reminded just how small submarines are. It's hard to believe that a crew of over 30 men sandwiched themselves in here.
Moving forward of the conning tower, we came across the majority of the damage inflicted during UB-88's sinking. Wickes purportedly fired 20 rounds into the U-boat's bow before the sub listed forward and nose-dived into the waves. Parts of the outer hull are gone, giving a view of the pressure hull.
We came across the biggest wolf eel I've ever seen in the wreckage. Its head was the size of a basketball.
Circling around to the port side, we came across the business end of the U-boat's four forward torpedo tubes.
The aft section of the submarine was not very interesting, save for some deck features and a few gaping holes in the hull.
I had been advised not to miss the ghost nets on the stern of the sub, and they really were truly spectacular. Decorated with Metridium and strawberry anemones and suspended by still-intact fishing floats, they hung over the wreck like an eerie—and deadly—curtain.
With nearly an hour of decompression looming over the dive, it was time to go. If one allure of deep diving is the exclusivity, another almost addictive quality is the necessarily ephemeral nature of the dives. There's just never quite enough time to see everything, and it keeps you wanting to come back for more. I'll definitely bite again the next time a UB-88 dive trip comes around!