The Different Types of Wreck Diving

Learn the types of wreck diving, and the skills and training necessary to do it

There are three main types of wreck diving: non-penetration wreck diving, limited penetration wreck diving, and full penetration wreck diving. Learn about three types of wreck diving, and the type of skills and training you need to participate.

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Non-Penetration Wreck Diving

Person Seen Through Shipwreck In Sea
Paul Cowell / EyeEm / Getty Images

Non-penetration wreck diving refers to exploring the outside of a wreck, and it's probably the most common type. 

Non-penetration wreck diving appeals to divers who have no desire to venture inside wrecks, or to those who don't yet have the skills to do so safely. Many divers get more enjoyment out of seeing the beauty of the wreck and surrounding marine life as a whole.

At some wreck sites, only non-penetration wreck diving is possible. Some wrecks are decayed and unstable, and others have already collapsed.  There's also plenty of wrecks that are fun to see, but too small to safely go inside, like some submarine wrecks.

In some cases, the wreck may be so old that only fragments of its structure remain at the site. Fragmented shipwrecks can be exciting in their own right, as there are often artifacts scattered among the remains. It's challenging to look at all the pieces of the wreck and reconstruct in your mind what the how ship must have looked, like visualizing how a jigsaw puzzle will look once you put all the pieces together.

Two popular things to see on wreck sites are the propeller and the boiler, and they make great subjects for photography.

No special training or additional equipment is needed for non-penetration wreck diving, you can just go and start exploring. However, wreck diver training will give you skills to help you to maximize the enjoyment you get from even non-penetration wreck dives. 

Even experienced wreck divers do non-penetration wreck diving. No matter the type, ​wrecks are always interesting. Before you can safely penetrate a wreck, it's important to familiarize yourself with its general layout. Often divers will sketch the outside of a wreck before planning penetration dives ​if plans or diagrams are not available.

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Limited Penetration Wreck Diving

Female diver on a wreck.
On a limited penetration wreck dive, divers can explore the daylight zone of the wreck. © Getty Images

On a limited penetration wreck dive, divers may swim inside the wreck but must stay within the sight of natural daylight, similar to cavern diving.

Divers need the training to develop the skills to safely penetrate wrecks.  Although ambient light can provide some reference, navigation is more difficult. There are many hazards in wreck diving, and a course trains divers to use a penetration line and plan their dives to safely reach the surface. Specialized wreck diving equipment includes penetration line, lights, and possibly a redundant air supply.

Limited penetration wreck diving allows divers explore more of a shipwreck. The main attraction of many wrecks is the bridge. The bridge of some wrecks still contains the helm, telegraphs, and even the binnacle. If you are really lucky the compass may still be inside the binnacle!

Limited penetration wreck divers can often explore cabins that open onto decks or even hangars on some of the military wrecks. Being able to explore inside wrecks also means you get to see things that are left inside of wrecks. If the wreck hasn’t been salvaged or looted, everything that was on board when the ship went down is probably still inside the wreck!

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Full Penetration Wreck Diving

Wreck Diving
Full penetration wreck diving requires technical diving gear. © Getty Images

Once you start exploring the inside of wrecks, it's only a matter of time until you want to leave the daylight zone and explore further into wrecks. This is known as full-penetration wreck diving, and it's a type of technical diving that requires a specialized certification.

Full penetration wreck diving allows you to explore the whole wreck. You can explore cabins and see personal possessions left behind by the people who used them or see exquisite glassware and the ships crockery still neatly stacked up in the galley.

Engine rooms are always interesting and surprisingly picturesque. On ships that sank suddenly, divers will often find the engine room telegraph still in the position it was in when the ship went down, with all the tools still in place ready to be used.

The training for full penetration wreck diving builds on the skills developed for limited penetration diving. You'll learn skills that enable you to safely dive in a full overhead environment. This requires specialized gear such as a redundant air supply, longer penetration reels, and diagrams of the ship.

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All Types Wreck Diving Are Fun

Whatever your level of skill and experience there will be wrecks that are interesting and suitable for you to dive. All wrecks have stories associated with them, and when we dive them we get to connect with their history. Awesome adventure awaits when you go wreck diving.

Jo Edney is a dive researcher, currently focusing on wreck diving.