When it comes to odd jobs, Anuar Abdullah’s might top the list.
The Malaysian artist and coral conservationist has spent the past few months diving off the coast of Brunei, sketching the skeletons of sunken ships.
Last year, Brunei-based Poni Divers hired Abdullah to immortalize the sultanate’s eerie collection of more than 30 shipwrecks.
From the 1942 Australian Wreck — a Dutch steamer sunk by a Japanese mine — to the 1945 American Wreck, a victim of World War II, each provides a unique diving experience.
“Southeast Asia is really the diving capital of the world — (people) fly all over the world to dive in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia,” Thye Sing Wong, founder of Poni Divers, tells CNN.
“Most people don’t even know there is diving in Brunei. But some of the world’s best sites are here.”
An underwater mission
Ranging from shallow-water skeletons to 230-foot-deep goliaths, the shipwrecks dotting Brunei’s ocean floor chronicle the sultanate’s maritime history.
“A lot of them are natural wrecks, with a lot of history behind them from World War II (when the Brunei Bay was invaded by US and Japanese ships),” says Wong. “We even have a decommissioned oil rig wreck. It was sunk by a partnership between fishery departments here and Brunei Shell Petroleum (the oil company).”
The sketches, he says, help to promote Brunei as a diving destination, and also act as maps, enabling his team to properly brief divers on the underwater territory they face.
“Whenever you go to a really established dive destination, they have maps of the dive sites on the wall,” says Wong.
“That way you can explain where you enter the water, where you enter the wreck, and how you get back up.”
That process is especially important for divers in Brunei, where the visibility — the distance divers can see underwater — can be limited, due to brown water from silty inland rivers which flows into the Brunei Bay.
On a good day, divers can expect up to 66 feet of visibility in Brunei, whereas in the Philippines 150 feet is not unusual.
Artist at work
This isn’t the first time the Brunei shipwrecks have been sketched. Back in the 1980s and 90s, some of the more popular wrecks were sketched by the Brunei Sub Aqua Dive Club.
But nearly 25 years later, Wong felt it was time to update the artwork.
Enter Abdullah. A Malaysia sketcher and the founder of coral re-population program Ocean Quest Global, the veteran diver started sketching the wrecks earlier this year.
So far, he has drawn roughly six shallow underwater hulls. Each work takes about two days, during which he dives, takes notes on a plastic slate, snaps underwater photos for details, and then jots down an initial sketch.
“You can only see a small section at a time. You don’t know if you are on the front or the back, or in the middle of the wreck, because it’s such a huge structure.”
To orient himself, Abdullah finds an edge and traces it until he identifies a distinctive marker — an anchor, a propeller or a rudder.
“I have to estimate the size. I can’t be measuring it with measuring tape, because it takes too long. Due to time underwater, especially in deep dives, time is limited.”
From there, he starts with an outline and fills in the details on his subsequent dives.
“For example, I’ll add in the ship frames — they look like ribs. I have to count how many are visible, how many are not, so it’s accurate,” says Abdullah.
“If somebody dives, they know there are eight ribs. The drawing is precise.”
In the world of scuba diving, anything below 98 feet is considered a “deep dive.”
This year, Abdullah started mapping the deeper wrecks for the first time — some of which sit 230 feet below sea level.
With these deeper dives, the most time-consuming part of the process is the slow ascent required in order to readjust to reach equilibrium and eliminate gases in the body.
“It’s not hard to be under water, but it’s hard to surface,” explains Abdullah. “It takes three hours to get back to the surface from 230 feet (70 meters). It takes time for decompression, about 2 hours, and the journey up takes another hour.”
The wrecks are beautiful, he says, pointing to the 302-foot-long Cement Wreck, which sunk in the 1980s.
Carrying a cargo of cement — which would have been used to build the sultan’s Istana Nurul Iman palace in the capital of Bandar Seri Begawan — the ship wasn’t a victim of warfare, but rather a deadly sandbank.
With multiple decks, maze-like interiors and colorful marine life, this is one of the area’s most fascinating dives.
Most people don’t even know there’s diving in Brunei.
Thye Sing Wong, Poni Divers’ founder
The Blue Water Wreck is another favorite, thanks to relatively good visibility in its locality. Located roughly 22 miles offshore, the 262-foot-long ship sank in 1981, due to a fire on board.
Today, it attracts barracuda, giant batfish and, occasionally, white-tip sharks — a type of small reef shark.
“I love (the Blue Water Wreck) because I can put together the entire history of how it sank, the history of what it looked like — it’s the most comprehensive story I can get.”
It’s not only a dive underwater, but a step back in time.
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