MS Sea Diamond: The cruise ship claimed by poorly-mapped Greek paradise

Writer: Daniel Thomas | Revised by: Calum Brown

Just because we have modern technology doesn't mean safety is guaranteed. MS Sea Diamond is a very good case in point

During a calm afternoon on April 5, 2007, MS Sea Diamond sliced through the sparkling Aegean waters off the coast of Santorini. The springtime weather made for crystal-clear visibility. Onboard activity was layered thick with contentment as cruise passengers settled down for another day in paradise.

All was well. Perfect, even, as the Greek islands provided an Eden-like backdrop of craggy coastline and intimate beauty. Santorini’s steep-sided caldera – carved out of the rock of the Cyclades by an ancient volcanic eruption – was, on the face of it, calm and placid.

Quite the unlikely location or conditions for a shipwreck. Yet, trouble lurked beneath the waves, and MS Sea Diamond’s 1,153 passengers and 400-strong crew held no concept of what was to come. Coincidentally, neither did the inhabitants of Santorini.

MS Sea Diamond in her original livery as Birka Princess. Credit: Wikicommons

MS Sea Diamond: From soap opera to real drama

A former Baltic cruise ferry, the vessel had previously enjoyed 10 years as fictional MS Freja for Swedish soap opera Rederiet (High Seas or The Shipping Company).

Originally named Birka Princess and showcased in 318 episodes of Rederiet, the ship featured on Scandinavian television screens between August 1992 and April 2002.

The 45-minute episodes – broadcast weekly every Thursday night on channel SVT1 – regularly drew more than one million viewers and remained the top-rated show on Swedish television, in regular competition with rival TV4 production Tre Kronor.

It was the Baltic Dynasty vs Dallas of the 1990s, with media headlines forever speculating on upcoming storylines. Such was the ferocity of interest, that April Fool’s Day of 1993 found Mel Gibson getting in on the act, claiming in an interview with SVT News to have taken a lead role in the series.

Sadly, it was all a joke. Mel Gibson remained firmly in Hollywood, but the TV series had certainly been given a global boost.

Following the end of Rederiet, Birka Princess was refitted with a swimming pool and sundeck. The restructuring works cost US$26 million but now, upgraded courtesy of Louis Cruise Lines, the Baltic ferry had been transformed into a celebrated sun-seeking cruise ship.

Renamed MS Diamond Princess, the freshly-flagged cruiser was re-registered in Piraeus and, up until April 5, 2007, spent just over a year plying the Mediterranean cruise trade. Considered a new arrival to the scene, plans were hatched for inventories that stretched far into the future.

I mean, why not? Besides meeting all legally-mandated safety requirements, with class and ship security certificates affirmed, the ship was ultimately stronger than most; designed to sail in iceberg-prone waters.

The events that followed were therefore unexpected – and unpredictable.

This image taken from Alpha TV via AP Television News Friday shows the bow of the Greek cruise ship 'Sea Diamond'. Credit: AP News

Disaster strikes

At around 4pm Eastern European Standard Time, Sea Diamond struck a volcanic reef off the uninhabited island of Nea Kameni and began to take on water. Despite later reports to the contrary, the vessel’s watertight bulkheads were sealed, but this made little difference; the ship listed dramatically – 12 degrees to starboard.

The passengers – mostly Americans and Germans, with 60 Canadians, 20 Brits, and a smattering of other nationalities – were quickly evacuated. Unlike some other modern cruise accidents, the crew handled things effectively, though certainly not without incident.

Some passengers, such as a 77-strong group of schoolchildren from North Carolina, disembarked through the cruise ferry’s old car ramp on its former parking deck, while others found themselves climbing down rope ladders from the higher decks of the precariously tilting vessel.

All told, the evacuation was completed within three and a half hours, with only four injuries reported.

Yet there was tragedy that marred this successful exodus: the disappearance of two French citizens, Jean Christophe Allain and his teenaged daughter Maud, who had been staying in an outside cabin on the ship’s lowest passenger deck.

Jean’s wife testified that, on collision, their cabin had rapidly flooded, and they had become separated while fleeing. Though investigators would later search extensively for them, no traces of the missing Allain duo were ever recovered.

Nearby vessels helped to tow Sea Diamond off the rocks, but the damage was done; her lower decks were flooded, and the following morning, at 7am, the cruise ship sank only a few hundred metres from the Santorini shoreline.

Video footage shows the ship completely capsizing, before settling astern at a steep angle on the slope of the staggeringly deep underwater caldera.

The ship certainly offered plenty of style. This picture taken in 1986 when still known as Birka Princess. Credit: Holger.Ellgaard

What happened?

Within a couple of days, the investigations – and recriminations – began. Greek scuba divers entered the wreck, while local officials issued a formal apology to the Allain family on behalf of the Greek state.

On April 7, Greek prosecutors announced that they were charging Sea Diamond’s captain and five other officers with negligence, breaching international shipping safety regulations, and polluting the environment.

The officers were released, however, and charges were never fully pursued – for reasons that swiftly became apparent.

On April 13, using a remote-control submarine, investigators managed to recover the ship’s black box – its voyage data recorder, or VDR – which was promptly transferred to the U.S. for examination.

In the subsequent months, meanwhile, investigations carried out the indicted officers’ defence team, and by Louis Cruise Lines, included a hydrographic survey of the accident site.

Carried out by the firm Akti Engineering, the survey revealed significant discrepancies between the actual topography of the caldera, and the official nautical charts issued to Sea Diamond - and all other vessels in the Aegean at the time of the sinking.

Among other things, it showed that reef the Sea Diamond struck lay at 131 metres from the shoreline, not the 57 metres displayed on the old charts; these charts also vastly overestimated the depth of the waters around the reef.

The captain’s testimony also indicated that unpredictably strong currents had driven the ship towards the rocks, further ruling out human negligence as a cause.

These findings were passed on to the Hellenic Hydrographic Office, the Hellenic Navy, and other maritime institutions with relevant jurisdiction, with the intent of correcting the nautical charts & preventing further accidents.

While initially rejected, Akti’s findings were later incorporated into official data, and still inform the courses of cruise ships in the Santorini caldera to this day.

The crushed bridge of MS Sea Diamond, as it currently rests on the sea floor. Credit: Reddit r/ShipWrecks

Future problems

Even with a cause for the accident established, the story was not yet over. The ship had carried some 450 tonnes of fuel, which remains at risk of leaking into the Aegean waters; in 2009, a pumping operation reduced the volume but was only partially successful.

Residents of Santorini, understandably still concerned, called for the wreck to be raised before its tanks corrode and contaminate the local marine ecosystem, relied on by the fishing and tourist industries alike.

Greek maritime authorities have rebuffed these calls in the past, citing the costs, but in 2017 committed – albeit without any clear deadline – to completely removing the cruise ship.

Sea Diamond stands for now as an artificial reef, left to the marine life and monitored by the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research.

All this goes to show that, even in waters as seemingly safe and sheltered as those off Santorini, even in a perfectly seaworthy ship with a well-trained and diligent crew – navigation remains just as crucial to safe journeys by sea as it was when our earliest ancestors explored the oceans, charting their courses by the winds and stars.

Though a great deal has changed since then, and the state-of-the-art equipment sported by modern vessels makes navigation officers’ jobs a great deal easier, crew and passengers alike are still dependent on nautical charts, and on a good understanding of the physical space through which they are sailing.

The work done by surveyors and hydrographers to provide consistently up-to-date charts is wholly admirable, and – as the case of Sea Diamond aptly demonstrates – crucial to the safe operation of the cruise industry.

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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.