Exploring the Andrea Doria
By Joel Silverstein
North Atlantic divers are best known for their rugged activities of diving in cold water and their incredible desire to bring home an artifact - some remembrance of where they were or what they saw. For some a bottle, or a piece of brass fills the need. For others its china and crystal from the Mount Everest of dives the Andrea Doria. Though some wrecks are deeper, the Grand Dame is still forty-four years after her sinking giving up her treasures and taking more lives.
As early as 1964 commercial diving companies were exploring the possibilities of salvaging the sunken liner.
During the 70's and 80's both Saturation Systems and International Underwater Contractors had done significant diving operations on the wreck. While Peter Gimble became obsessed with the wreck and the commercial companies went looking for the pursers safe sport divers began their annual treks to the mecca of wreck diving.
Just ten years after Peter Gimble first laid eyes on the Andrea Doria a group of Jersey wreck divers led by Michael de Camp chartered a fishing boat out of Montauk to begin the first of the Andrea Doria Expeditions. The following year, George Hoffman, John Dudas, Evelyn Bartram, Frank Scalli and Winston Chee, took another bumpy ride from Montauk to see the liner John Dudas recovered the compass and its brass binnacle cover. Since then well over 600 divers have explored the wreck. Each time going deeper and deeper into her carcass. But it was not until the 1980s and 90s that sport divers began regular journeys to the "Mt Everest" of dives.
These pioneers with limited equipment brought back the early photographs and motion pictures of the sunken liner that were the catalysts to the Dorias future fame.
It wasnt until 1981, 25 years after the Doria sank that she began taking the lives of divers. Again in 1985 and then again in 1988. As more charters began making their way through the Nantucket fogs, the divers would begin to die in search of their trinkets. But all is not that grim, along with the tragedies a new type of diving was being developed - technical diving. The use of multiple mixed gases necessary to shorten and refine the decompression needed so that divers could spend 20 to 40 precious minutes on the wreck using scuba.
By the early 1990s divers were gaining access to more areas that were producing artifacts. Peter Gimble's safe location fiasco warranted IUC to cut a large hole in the hull to ease access for the commercial divers. What became known as "Gimble's Hole" was now the gateway to china, crystal, gift shop trinkets, and even some lost personal items. Champagne bottles, numbered silver bottle markers, small ceramic frescoes that lined the bars and hallways were all coming up in the hundreds. One trip I was on netted a booty that numbered over two thousand pieces. Divers would book multiple trips, the waiting lists were long and when a diver canceled for some unknown reason the spot would sometimes go to the highest bidder.
The early 90s drew new faces to the Doria. The expedition experience went to seasoned Captains' Bielenda and Bieser of the R/V Wahoo and to rival Captain Bill Nagle of the Seeker both had been running charters since the 80s. Now the boats filled not only with people like Billy Deans (the granddaddy of technical diving) and artifact collectors Billy Campbell, Gary Gilligan, Gary Gentile, Hank Garvin, Sally Wharman, John Hulbert, John Moyer, Tom Packer and Steve Gatto, but there was the new wave of Doria divers. Divers with much less wreck and deep diving experience, but nonetheless divers who could both do the dive and find the artifacts. Their Doria dives would begin like the others had, slow exterior exploration and then, with confidence interior searches. But unlike the predecessors the "new wave" had the opportunity to dive the wreck using trimix from their first dives on. Many would head to Key West to train with Captain Billy Deans, to do seven day boot-camp style training on the Wilkes Barre using the latest technology and the most progressive decompression tables from Hamilton Research.
mind-numbing effects of nitrogen narcosis and do the dive, was now being replaced with clear headed albeit inexperienced divers. Needless to say once these new gas divers saw the veterans still doing these dives on air, they would use air also. It was not uncommon for a newbie to overhear conversations of the veterans and try to follow their path to the booty. On some occasions the newbies just got out alive.
The deep diving activities of the early 1990s were not limited to the Andrea Doria; in fact there were many other dives as deep if not deeper that were being explored. Wrecks like the USS Monitor (235 fsw) SS Republic (275 fsw), Ostfriesland (360 fsw), and the Lusitania (320 fsw), were but a handful of the more celebrated dives. And although some wrecks are deeper and can be more challenging than the Andrea Doria, the Grand Dame, forty-four years after her sinking she still gives up her treasures of crystal, china, and artwork to those daring few who brave the seas and the collapsing wreck each season. But the fascination goes deeper than just a trinket , so much so that divers will risk their lives for a brief remembrance of this pinnacle dive.
Diving the Andrea Doria is more challenging than most shipwrecks. She rests 65 miles off shore from Nantucket. This is quite different than the afternoon "technical" dive trips off the coast of Florida where the deep wrecks can be found just 20-30 minutes from shore.
The 1980's claimed four lives. The most gruesome was in 1985 when a Florida diver, John Ormsby got clipped into a dangling cable and could not get free. At 210 fsw the narcosis coupled with panic sent him into a frenzy. His panic, coupled with a restrictive gear configuration resulted in his mangling and twisting himself around more cables and wires to the point where recovery divers needed to use bolt cutters to extricate his body.
As the 1990s began to show promise of technical wreck exploration the Andrea Doria gained more popularity, it also became what would come to be
Meanwhile the artifacts keep coming up. 1992 was a particularly good year for artifacts, well over 5,000 items were recovered. But as technical diving continued to develop and more and more people were gaining access to the deeper wrecks around the world. Too many newly certified sport divers were trying to catch part of the glory and excitement of going deep and staying long. The "new techie" mentality showed its colors once again in 1994.
Having teamed up with another new diver they had become successful at finding artifacts and wanted to go for the grand prize of artifacts - first class china from the Doria.
When the Wahoo arrived at the dock 3 hours past due, the young man was far from shaken. In fact he spent as much time as he could rubbing elbows with the divers who he had delayed, asking questions about the Doria, what our plans were and where we might be finding the goodies.
Two weeks before this incident the pair had contacted the Wahoo to "sign on" for the July trip. They were turned down by Captain Bielenda due to their limited diving experience. Needless to say that did not discourage the pair, they signed on to a charter aboard the Sea Hunter instead.
The two divers made their plans to go looking for artifacts. With deck plans and conversation with others who have been inside they decided to dispense with the external tour most take to orient themselves on the wreck, they head right in.
Recovery divers Tom Packer and Steve Gatto found Bob Santullis body no more than twenty feet from the exit point he was to dutifully guard while his partner collected artifacts. He broke the dive plan and over time the spirit of his partner.
The Andrea Doria presents some interesting challenges to the Captains who charter their boats for passage, the crews that support the operations, the divers, and the authorities. The decaying hulk of the famed ocean liner is in international waters, but still within the economic zone of the United States. Furthermore she is not subject to the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, meaning that she is open to whomever would like to lay claim. In fact, in 1993 New Jersey diver John Moyer did just that. He petitioned the US Courts to take ownership of the wreck so as to pursue his goal of finding the ships bell. (It was Johns expedition that was delayed a few hours by Santullis' omitted decompression).
The 1993 Moyer Expedition was one filled with challenges beyond that of normal Doria diving. Johns goal was to locate the bow bell (He had been part of an expedition in the late 80's that recovered the stern bell.) Moyer had become obsessed with the Doria, he had amassed one of the largest collections of Doria memorabilia in the world including a six-foot builders model of the liner. John chartered the R/V Wahoo, loaded it with equipment and divers and set out to dig through a small room where the bell was rumored to be stowed before the liner went down.
But even with arresting the wreck, and the hazards she holds, divers from all over the world continue to seek passage aboard dive boats headed to the Andrea Doria. Over the years true Doria divers have formed an unspoken bond. There are those who go only once to touch it, maybe get a trinket, but go home having dived the "Mount Everest of Dives." And then, there are those whos lives have been invaded by the Grand Dame. As we gather at conferences and events not having seen each other in months the first question always is "You doin the Doria this year?" For some its just assumed they will.
While technical diving has taken full shape in the latter part of the 1990s the Andrea Dorias visits increased in number but with fewer and fewer divers. Some who had become experts went off and chartered smaller fishing boats to take them out. One group even attempted to take a Boston Whaler out from Nantucket for a "day run" to the wreck - a less than optimal choice of dive vessels. Some divers would practice all winter at in-land quarries to prepare for the long decompressions. Yet, others would buy their passage on some boats while "under instruction" with the Doria being part of the trimix training dives.
But as the century was coming to a close the wreckage crumbles and deteriorates more each season. The deterioration coupled with fewer and fewer artifacts in the old spots has made exploration more difficult. No longer does a drop down Gimbles Hole produce a full greedy bag. Divers need to go deeper into the wreck to find new areas that are productive. But this brings us back full circle from the beginning. Unchartered territory by some inexperienced divers. But more than inexperience is immaturity. To some if they come home without an artifact they have failed. This attitude was evident during a 16 month period when 5 divers lost their lives, with little facts one can only speculate that greed was deciding factor to their deaths. June, July, and August 1998 took three divers, and during a period only separated by 6 days in July of 1999 two more died, one from what is claimed to be a heart attack while swimming on the surface, the other from buddy separation on the descent line. Although the heart attack may have happened anyplace this diver had major trepidations about this trip. He had expressed that to me when by happenstance. I met the relatively new diver on two separate occasions during 1999. Once at a conference in Columbus Ohio, and another time at a quarry, also in Ohio. The fact that all these deaths occurred from charters on the Seeker is inconsequential to the result. But we will never know the exact reasons why these men died.
For many the Andrea Doria has become the symbol of their diving manhood, for others an annual family convention with old friends, and still for others the Andrea Doria stands as their goal post. Whatever the reason the Doria holds some special meaning, and as we continue to dive it more artifacts will come up, and without hesitation she will snatch up another life when we least expect it. *