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Diving Into “Ghost Ships of the Baltic Sea”

Veteran magazine editor/designer and wreck diver Jesper Kjøller, who grew up on the Baltic, examines what is arguably the most extravagant and uncompromising wreck photo book ever produced.



by Jesper Kjøller

Header image by Jonas Dahm: Diver assessing the guns from Swedish Navy warship Svärdet

If you’re a sucker for well-preserved wrecks with historical significance, Ghost Ships of the Baltic Sea is a must. It is an amazing photo book featuring some of the most spectacular wreck photography ever published in an extravagant and uncompromising design.

As a kid in Denmark, I spent time every July in my grandparent’s summer house on the shores of the Baltic Sea. I loved swimming, fishing, sailing, and snorkeling in the brackish ocean. The distinctive feel and smell of the Baltic water remain an integral part of my childhood memories. The same sentiment emanates from every page of Ghost Ships of the Baltic.

But what makes the Baltic so special, and why is it a wreck explorer’s dream hunting ground?

The Baltic Sea is the world’s largest inland brackish sea with a salinity considerably lower than typical ocean water. It is diluted by freshwater runoff from the surrounding countries balanced against evaporation from its relatively shallow basin.

The sea generally has a salinity between 0.3% to 0.9%, which is almost freshwater. The low salinity supports sparse marine life, and the absence of ships worm and marine growth results in exceptionally well-preserved wooden wrecks. By comparison, wrecks in tropical waters are quickly covered by corals, and the structures eventually crumble under the weight of the growth. In the Baltic, the wrecks often look like they just went down a few hours ago, even if they are several hundred years old. So, from an ecological standpoint, the Baltic is unique. 

But the cultural and historical significance of the Baltic also contributes to its uniqueness.

Truk Lagoon and Scapa Flow are often heralded as the wreck diver’s nirvana. Exciting as these destinations are, they are dwarfed by the Baltic Sea, which is believed to contain more than 100,000 shipwrecks: the result of a rich (and often violent) 1,000-year history. The seabed of the Baltic feature Viking ships, 15th century warships, WWI- and WWII-era battleships and submarines, and  modern vessels such as ferries and cargo ships.

Diver approaching the “Porcelain Shipwreck.” Photo by Jonas Dahm

A Labour of Artistry and Love

After more than two decades and some 3000 dives, Deep Sea Productions, led by Swedish business entrepreneur Carl Douglas, has located around 400 wrecks in the Baltic. Throughout their explorations, Carl and his team have collected stories and images from the wrecks, publishing their results in Ghost Ships of the Baltic for readers to enjoy. The book, which was 14 years in the making, showcases a collection of the most exciting and prominent wreck discoveries made over the last 25 years. 

Co-author Carl Douglas surfacing from a dive.

It is nice to experience something as extravagant and archaic as a large, thick, and heavy tome in this day and age when we mostly consume content on screens, and printed books and magazines sometimes appear to be a thing of the past. However, this is the only format that would do justice to these amazing and unique images.

Douglas’s texts are brief, to the point, and geared toward a general audience without specialized knowledge about wrecks or diving. His passion for wreck exploration and history is evident, and he is a storyteller at heart. By nature of its sheer size and weight, this is not a book you read cover to cover—it would be a challenge to read in bed, for instance. The narratives are companions to the images and serve as commentary, not as running prose. This works quite well. Readers do not have to read in sequence; they can jump freely around as specific images catch their attention and pique their curiosity.

Some of the chapters outline the Baltic history, while others dive deeper into specific wrecks and the stories of how they sank. But my favorite chapters explore a cross-section of subjects such as cargo, navigational equipment, ornaments, and figureheads.

While the explanatory text is focused and concise, the real stars are the images. No one browsing this book will be left untouched by seeing these wrecks and the abundance of photographic details. Intact wheelhouses with compasses, machine telegraphs and steering pinnacles, spiral staircases, cabins with bunks, signage, galleys with cutlery and tableware, captain’s staterooms, card rooms, and even musical instruments and human remains all tell profound human stories. The “Ghost Ship” expression in the title has never been less of a cliché.  

The images that most significantly resonate with me are exterior shots showing larger parts of the wreck, often employing techniques that display the wrecks in a way that can’t be captured with the naked eye. 

Co-author Jonas Dahm.

The book is co-authored by the retired firefighter and wreck photographer extraordinaire Jonas Dahm. He has developed unique methods to capture the essence of the Baltic wrecks. Often, they rest in almost complete darkness even if the water is clear. The low solar angle at northern latitudes and the layers of algae in shallow water dims most of the light at greater depths. Even the shallower wrecks rest in an eternal twilight, so special techniques were employed to capture the wrecks in all their splendour.  

Cunning combinations of slave strobes, off-board video lights, high iso-values, and slow shutter speeds allowed Dahm to reveal the wrecks with depth and details never seen before. This would have been impossible with traditional onboard flash photography that mainly illuminates the foreground and often renders the background more or less completely dark. 

These imaging techniques require significant preparation, teamwork, and patience, but the results speak for themselves. The images are simply stunning; however, they are actually deceiving in a way—you may be disappointed after diving these wrecks in person, as the images capture a magic that isn’t as tangible in reality. But, then again, all photography is manipulating reality. And these images almost have a textural property—they seem to leap off the pages, and the printing quality is sublime.

Black is Back?

The widescreen format of the book really gives justice to the images, but I do not agree with the choice to cover the portion of the pages beyond the boundary of the photos in black. I appreciate the intention to provide the images with maximum attention and to remove all interference; there are no captions, no names or explanations, not even a page number on the image spreads. 

The interior of the Aachen. Photo by Jonas Dahm

This is a bold choice in the presentation of the material, and it carries a certain punch. But a massive amount of real estate is taken up by black, which feels a bit wasteful. I would probably have made a different layout choice and used some of all that black space for captions. (Ed. note—the author is a veteran magazine editor and graphic designer.) I would have loved a section explaining the imaging techniques used. A few behind-the-scenes shots showing the setup and the support divers handling video lights and tripods would have satisfied the curiosity of nerdier readers.           

The author’s intentions are clearly to give the images as much space and emphasis as possible and remove all unnecessary clutter to highlight the pictures as much as possible. If that is the goal, they have clearly succeeded. I respect that choice, even if it is carried out almost to the extreme.

If it is not already on your bucket list to explore the Baltic Sea, I’m sure this book will compel you to move a trip there to the top of your list. Meanwhile, you can enjoy exploring Ghost Ships of the Baltic Sea in the comfort of your armchair.

Dive Deeper:

You can purchase Ghost Ships here! You can also find it on!

Originally a professional musician, Jesper fell in love with diving almost 30 years ago. He made a career change and became instructor in 1994 and PADI Course Director in 1999 when he was offered the editor chair of the Scandinavian Diving Magazine DYK. Jesper became a GUE instructor in 2011, and in 2015 he moved to Dubai to apply his skills in underwater storytelling and imagery as Marketing Manager of Deep Dive Dubai. From Dubai he travels the world to teach and report for international dive magazines and to participate in dive projects like the yearly Mars field studies in the Baltic Sea or deep wreck explorations in Egypt. In 2021 he began as Editor-in-Chief of Quest, the GUE Member Journal.


The Aftermath Of Love: Don Shirley and Dave Shaw

Our young Italian poet-explorer Andrea Murdoch Alpini makes a pilgrimage to visit cave explorer Don Shirley at the legendary Bushmansgat cave in South Africa. In addition to guiding the author through the cave, Shirley and Alpini dive into history and the memories of the tragic loss in 2005 of Shirley’s dive buddy David Shaw, who died while trying to recover the body of a lost diver at 270 m/882 ft. The story features Alpini’s short documentary, “Komati Springs: The Aftermath of Love.”




Text by Andrea Murdock Alpini

Inside the Black Box of Boesmansgat’s dive archive (Dave Shaw memorabilia)

🎶 Pre-dive clicklist: Where is My Mind by Pixies🎶

South Africa, Komati Springs.

On October 28, 2004, two cave divers and long-time friends, Don Shirley and David Shaw, planned a dive at Boesmansgat (also known in English as “Bushman’s Hole”) a deep, submerged freshwater cave (or sinkhole) in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Dave dove to 280 meters, touched the bottom and started exploring. At that time, Shaw had recently broken four records at one time: depth on a rebreather, depth in a cave on a rebreather, depth at altitude on a rebreather, and depth running a line. While on the dive at Boesmansgat, he found a body that had been there for nearly ten years, 20-year-old diver Deon Dreyer. 

After obtaining permission to retrieve the body from Dreyer’s parents, the two friends returned three months later. They enrolled eight support rebreather divers (all of whom were close to Don) and Gordon Hiles, a cameraman from Cape Town, who filmed the entire process—from the preparation on the surface to the operation at the bottom of the cave. The surface marshal was Verna van Schaik, who held the women’s world record for depth at the time. Little did they know that Dave would not come back from his 333rd dive, one that he himself recorded with an underwater camera. 

Researchers have determined that while attempting the retrieval, Dave ran into physical difficulties with the lines from the body bag and the wires from the light head. The physical effort of trying to free himself led to his death for what is believed to be respiratory insufficiency (see video below). Don Shirley nearly died as well, and apparently was left with permanent damage that has impaired his balance. 

Nearly 20 years later, our own Andrea Murdock Alpini visits Don and has this to say: 

Dave and Don before a dive.

February 2023—I arrive at the mine owned by cave expert and pioneer of deep diving, Don Shirley. The place is fantastic—the wild nature, the warm water, and the dives are amazing. Every day I spend at least 230 minutes underwater, filming the mines and what is left of man’s influence in this beautiful and God-forgotten corner of Africa. Every day I have time to talk, plan dives, and prepare the blends together with Don Shirley. 

The following is a part of the story that links Don Shirley to South Africa. Stories and places intertwine between Komati Springs, Boesmansgat (or “Bushman’s Hole”) and then the fatal dive with his friend Dave Shaw. 

Monkeys arrive on time every 12 hours. They showed up last night at about 5:00. They came down from the trees in large groups. They start playing, throwing themselves from one branch to another, chasing each other. Mothers hug their little ones. Some of them play with oxygen cylinders, the smaller ones instead with methane gas tanks, the ones we use for cooking. We are surrounded by gas blenders of all kinds. 

A herdsman’s hat rests on the workbench. Two hands with delicate, thin skin take adapters, cylinders, and whips.They open and close taps. Notebooks report all the consumption for each charge, strictly written in liters with the utmost precision. Impressions: An Amaranth t-shirt, an unmistakable logo, that of the IANTD. A pair of jeans and then some boots. He has a slight physique, he is lean and athletic with a beard that is white now, and a few days’ old. 

While he works carefully, I do not disturb him, for I know well that when mixing, one is not to be interrupted, at least this is so for anyone who loves precision. Then, when he’s done, we have time to talk a little bit together.

Don Shirley with the author planning a dive at Komati Springs

We sit at his desk and then go to the board to plan the dive in the mine.

Don shows me the map of the first level. He explains some important facts to me, then his hands pull out a second sheet with the plan redesigned from memory of the second level at 24 m/70 ft deep. “This is the guitar level,” he says. 

At first I don’t understand. He chuckles. I look at the shape he drew and, yes, that floor plan is a cross between a Fender Stratocaster and a Picasso guitar. Anyway, it’s a guitar, no doubt.

We begin planning the dive together. It’s exciting to hear him talk; he speaks in a soft, elegant tone, and it moves me. I look at his index finger moving. I listen to his words, but I also look at his eyes. 

He gives me some advice but also tells me, “This mine is more similar to a cave. I have left it as it is. I want people to explore it and not follow any lines.”

Freedom of thought, plurality of choices. Acceptance of risk, inclusion of the other in what belongs to you. It’s clear that Don’s vision of diving is uncommon. Freedom is beautiful, but it is the most dangerous thing there is, if mishandled. 

An old map of Komati’s mine site

The next day, we have an appointment at 7 o’clock at the lake. Before diving this morning, we saw where the “Tunnel of Love” originates on the surface, a curious gallery which I came across underwater. There are two parts of the mine that survived the destruction of the mining facility after its closure. One of these is the tunnel where we are going, the other part is perched in the middle of the mountain.

Don explains that the tunnel is now frequented by the wild animals who go to drink there, so we follow their trail. The water has flooded everything up to just a few meters below the surface of the bush. Don cuts the underbrush that makes the path difficult. He wears his faithful herdsman’s hat and never takes it off. The ground begins to tilt slightly, a good sign that we are about to arrive. A series of stones suggest that here the path has been paved. “It was covered in wood,” Don explains.

The path that started from the building where the miners lived is now demolished. Following it, we arrive at what was called “The Tunnel of Love.”

The tunnel that was the mine’s main entry point. Narrow and difficult, the tunnel led to level one—now underwater at a depth of 18 m/60 ft.

We turn on the headlamps and enter. A small colony of bats flaps its wings upon our arrival. The water touches our boots. Some roots filter from the rock and stretch to the resurgence. The scenery is evocative.

The author and Marco Setti in the end of their explorations at Komati Springs

Don kneels, peering at the water, and something. He looks at the water and something changes within him. Something has changed in our shared dialogue.

It’s as if Don takes on another language as he speaks. He always looks straight ahead. His vocabulary changes, and with it his tone of voice. We talk about politics, economics, the future of Komati Springs, the origin of the name of the place, the history of the mine, but we never mention two topics: diving and Dave Shaw.

Don’s a real caveman. I know that those who love caves are not ordinary people. We who do are a little bit mad to do what we do and love, but he’s different. He is comfortable here; he has found his dimension.

I remember asking him a question when we were inside the Tunnel of Love, breaking one of the long silences: “What thoughts are going through your mind?” He seemed to have reached a meditative state, a kind of catharsis. He replied, “I am just relaxing. This is a peaceful place. “

Around nine o’clock, we travel again to the lake, leaving the dry caves behind. 

Exploring a tunnel in the flooded mine.

The first dive lasted 135 minutes, the second 95 minutes. Once the equipment is set up, I return to the cottage to dry everything and recharge the cylinders.

Don’s hands this time are again without gloves. Before we start mixing, we walk into his office.The walls are lined with articles he has published over the years. 

He shows me the medals for valor he got when he was on duty in the British Army. When we return to a small corridor that acts as a barrier, my eyes fall on two photographs. “Is that Dave?” I ask. “That’s him. We were here in Komati,” Don tells me. “You see? This is his hat,” and he points to what is on his head.

The pond above the mine and wild nature who surrounds Komati. A real wild South Africa scenario.

The Consequences of Love

These are the consequences of love, I think. A friendship that transcends time, life, but also death.

It’s time to prepare the blends for tomorrow. As the oxygen pumps out, Don asks me, “Have you ever seen our Boesmasgat’s diving slates?” Obviously, I had never seen the decompression tables of that famous and tragic dive to 280 m/920 ft depth at 1,600 meters (nearly 5,000 feet) altitude.

“Hang on a sec.” Don picks up a small black box with a yellow label and brings it to me. He opens it. “These are the original dive charts. These are mine; these are Dave’s.” The box also contains the famous blackboard with the inscription, (“DAVE NOT COMING BACK”) from the documentary, as well as a pair of underwater gloves used in that dive, and then the heirloom of his CCR computer that broke due to excessive hydrostatic pressure.

He exits the room. He leaves me with those emotionally charged objects in my hands. I can’t see them any differently. They obviously have historical value; but, for me, the human sense prevails. I look at the decompression tables, touch the gloves, and think about the hands that wore them, that read the various whiteboards, and I imagine the scenes of that time.

Early days of explorations at Komati Springs, Don Shirley with Dave Shown and their team 
Don Shirley wearing Dave’s old hat while scouting out the Tunnel of Love

I place everything back in the box. I hand it to Don as I would hand him a precious urn. In part, it is one. I find it hard to express myself in that moment. He understands why.

At this point I ask him, “What was the true meaning of that extreme dive that Dave wanted to do? Why did he do it?”

“He just wanted to explore the bottom of that cave,” Don said. “Wherever Dave went, he wanted to get to the bottom. That’s how we’ve always done it together. So that’s what we did here at the mine.” 

Don then tells me a series of details and information about that place, about the geological stratification of the cave; he talks a little about the owner of the land where the famous sinkhole is located, and finally he talks about many other aspects of their failed dive. I promised to keep it to myself, and I will do so, forever.

Such is a connection that endures over time.


Wikipedia: Dave Shaw

YouTube: Diver Records Doom | Last Moments-Dave Shaw

Wikipedia: Dave Not Coming Back (2020) A critically acclaimed film that centers on diver Dave Shaw’s death while attempting to recover the body of Deon Dreyer from the submerged Boesmansgat cave in 2005.

Shock Ya: Don Shirley Fondly Remembers Scuba Diving with David Shaw in Dave Not Coming Back Exclusive Clip

Outside: Raising the Dead (2005) by Tim Zimmerman

Other stories by the prolific Andrea Alpini Murdock:

InDEPTH: Finessing the Grande Dame of the Abyss

InDEPTH: Hal Watts: Plan Your Dive

InDEPTH: I See A Darkness: A Descent Into Germany’s Felicitas MineInDEPTH: Stefano Carletti: The Man Who Immortalized The Wreck of the Andrea Doria

Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and PSAI technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of PHY Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. He published his first book, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti (2018) and IMMERSIONI SELVAGGE, published in the Fall of 2022.

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