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ISSUE 4 ARCHIVE - THE LUSITANIA CHRONICLES
Leigh BishopThere are legendary shipwrecks and then there are Iconic shipwrecks, the famous RMS Lusitania falls without doubt into both categories. Since the day Lusitania sank she has been shrouded in political controversy, her story is one of conspiracy, greed, courtroom battles, ambition and obsession. Photographer Leigh Bishop has spent more time on the wreck than any other diver. Here he explains more about an ocean liner that quite literally changed the course of history:
Lusitania is a name famous in almost all wreck diving circles, often referred to by the technical community as the 'Mount Everest' of wreck dives. For decades historians have been baffled by the endless mysteries locked deep within the Celtic sea. In recent years British technical divers have been working to unravel just some of these mysteries. The story of the legendary RMS Lusitania, perhaps the second most famous shipwreck of all time, is one of iconic household status that stands the test of time. Words can't describe the shear excitement of dropping through the Celtic Sea down 93m to the decks of one of the most famous shipwrecks in history.
Dropping deeper through a mid-water thermocline, the
unpredicted Atlantic tidal currents around the old head of
Kinsale now bless me with only 5m of visibility. As the water
darkens and visibility drops, my high intensity diffused light
fires up enough to flood the area of wreckage I arrive on.
At first everything appears confusing, but it will do as
I have arrived somewhere amidships which has collapsed
considerably. I leave a powerful strobe on the end of the
anchor line to aid my way back and drop down to where
the wreck meets seabed level on the starboard side and
begin to make progress along the wreck. I am met by a
collapsed and broken section of covered promenade
deck and a classic and well-documented window falls
within my light beam. Here I realize that I am located on
the wreck just forward of the second funnel stack. Of course
there are no funnels that remain on the wreck that would
form a typical landmark as such but this is the rough area
of today's exploration and certainly an area that hasn't
been documented for some time.
After four hours in the water I surface after yet another
fascinating dive into history, with the southern Irish coast
behind me the seawater has risen some since I have been
underwater. As I am pushed to the top of a trough in the
deep swell I can see my dive boat alongside an Irish warship!
The Navy have picked us up on their radar and have come
in to check us out; Lusitania is a protected wreck of historic
interest with an exclusion zone around her. Luckily our permits
are all in good order and we have heritage officials on board
to back them up.
This British team I am with has successfully obtained
legal permission to survey the wreck site, permission not
only authorized by the wrecks owner Mr Gregg Bemis
of Santa Fe, New Mexico but also by the Irish Heritage,
a Government department who have strict legislation
over the site. During 1996 a cultural preservation order
was placed on the site designating Lusitania an historic
shipwreck of interest. Rumours that there could well be
several old masters paintings amongst the wreckage
concealed in lead tubes by the likes of Rubens & Monet
were enough to convince the Irish of its worthy status.
If such paintings were recovered, they could well be of
national importance as well as a controversial debate
of whom they will actually belong to. As far as the Irish
are concerned, the wreck lies in their territorial waters and
is therefore under the jurisdiction of DUCHAS, the national
heritage service of Ireland.
This British survey team comprises of a combination of experienced closed and open circuit divers at the forefront of the relatively new form of deep diving known as "technical" diving. Using specially formulated mixtures of breathing gas and complex decompression schedules, tech divers have begun to reach depths historically reserved for commercial and military professionals supported by hundreds of thousands of pounds in equipment. In the case of Lusitania, the tech divers are operating at nearly 95m between 2 and 3 times the depth attainable with mainstream scuba equipment. Bemis, now well into his late 70's, has worked closely with the British divers on the wreck in preparation for possible forensic investigations of the ship's sinking. But while Bemis' future plans will use the elaborate and highly expensive saturation diving equipment usually associated with oil and gas exploration. The technical team Bemis has worked with recently is not composed of professional deep sea divers but rather firemen, small business owners and retired school teachers.
On May 7th 1915 tragedy would strike Lusitania securing the great ship a permanent place in 20th Century Maritime History, a ship wreck story that would become common household knowledge. 1915 was a period of the Great War; it was also a period of unrestricted submarine warfare in and around British waters. While on a return journey from the US she was struck by a torpedo fired from the German U-boat U-20. Lusitania sank in only 20 minutes, resulting in the loss of 1,198 lives, a loss that would reverberate around the world. Along with the staggering death toll, a national treasure was lost, with it 123 Americans which in turn would eventually draw the United States into the Great war and thus change the fate of history as we know it today.
At 93m to the seabed the wreck is deep, big and with considerable collapse throughout, complicated. As darkness now descends upon my next dive of this expedition my partner and I fire up 200 watts of light between us and within the next few minutes 'eyes adjusted' we would once again begin to explore. True is it to say that taking into consideration the shattered state of the wreck, it's probably only possible to count on one-hand individuals that positively know their way around the entire site. With an obvious amount of artifacts that can be used as navigational landmarks in the area, we considered our second drop positive for what was to become the start of a planned video survey of the wreck. If all went to plan, we would run a guide line from the bow to the very stern, then at strategic points branch lines would run off at predetermined points in order for designated teams to search and film.
The wreck lies on its starboard side at an angle of
approximately 30° with the keel taking an unusual curvature;
one that is not of obvious construction. Much of the
superstructure has gone, thus taking with it integral strength
which may give reason as to the hull's appearance.
The beam here has collapsed from its original 27m to
approximately half of that; all of the funnels are missing,
presumed through deterioration. The bow location of the
wreck is by far the most prominent section of the wreck, in
that it remains intact and shipshape which in turn makes
navigation simple. Swimming aft of where the bridge would
have been, the wreck then becomes seriously complicated,
from here on with only 5m visibility veteran divers of the
wreck will benefit, newcomers will simply become lost.
As this was the second dive of our third expedition with no positive destination, as such, other than to lay video guidelines, we move off in a direction towards amidships and thus the stern. Our first significant location is in fact an area of covered mosaic-tile flooring 'found in the vestibule located in first class' where passengers entered from the boat deck. Further along and immediately beyond the first funnel void are three main fresh water tanks. Still housed in their original location, the working valves appear readily recognizable. My attention is now distracted by the beckoning flash of my partner's torch and on reaction I discover he has found a rare example of a tropical porthole. Unique in itself, the small vents above the window would have once allowed a constant flow of fresh air through a humid first class cabin, whilst internal clack valves would prevent entry of water during rough sea conditions. Lying free from its fixing a small amount of netting need be removed before we take time to photograph this rare artifact. This was certainly the start of things to come for wherever you turn on Lusitania you are confronted by the very affluent standards of the early twentieth century. By no uncertain terms this quiet section of the Celtic Sea has to be the ultimate wreck divers paradise.
After a period of severe weather the team return to the wreck, however for the next batch of dives they will concentrate on the stern section. This is where the visiting diver will indeed see more damage than elsewhere. During the summer of 1982, the giant salvage company Oceaneering recovered 3 of Lusitania's 4 props by blasting! Accompanied by extensive depth charging during WW2 the damage soon becomes explanatory to the visiting diver. Her once proud counter stern is no longer apparent while the entire docking bridge now rests over the starboard seabed amongst a huge debris field. Here within twisted sections of superstructure lie her docking telegraphs alongside the main docking bridge telemotor. Elsewhere as the diver makes their way through the debris field they will note numerous types of windows, many displaying ornate filigreed detail. The main bridge itself has also collapsed down to the seabed and it is here the diver will find even more turn of the century designed navigational equipment. Moving on, a first class bathtub lies aft of here still immaculately intact, complete with its original brass shower framework. Then, a few meters away, Lusitania's beautiful triple chime whistle.
There is, needless to say, much debate about when a
shipwreck becomes historic and therefore worthy of
archaeological interest. The archaeological community has
in general been fiercely opposed to the raising of artifacts
from shipwrecks by anyone except archaeologists, arguing
that only they themselves are capable of understanding
the full significance of the unique arrangement of these
artifacts on the seabed. Some archaeologists even object
to their own kind raising artifacts because quote 'that would
be destroying the unique arrangement for future generations
who may also wish to carry out their own excavations and
studies'. A factor in this difficult debate that often does not
seem to be taken into account by this community is that
the bottom of the sea is not a benign environment where
a shipwreck's remains will stay perfectly preserved forever.
This is especially the recently observed case with that of
Lusitania; the exposed position of the wreck makes her
particularly vulnerable to the often-strong Atlantic under
currents and swells. Added to this are the highly corrosive
forces of nature itself. The scouring action of currents and
sand movements and the pounding of wreckage/artifacts
against rocks/wreckage are clearly perils for wrecks in shallow
water. But even wrecks in deep water such as Lusitania are
subject to slow destruction through the activity of bacteria
eating away the ferrous metal of the hull thus creating
deposits of rusticles.
For deep shipwrecks of this vintage, rusticles remain the main enemy, removing point one of a ton of iron from the steel construction every day therefore the estimate would suggest a time matter of possibly 90 years until the wreck biologically implodes, collapses into itself and simply becomes an iron ore deposit on the floor of the ocean. The hull of the wreck is in poor condition and appears to be folded in on itself. Whether this is due to collapsed deck levels with no internal strength or simply previous salvage attempts is unclear. Just how much strength the hull plating has in order to remain in its present condition may be determined through forensic analysis. The strength of the rivets naturally will determine the life of the present hull configuration, thus an analysis of rivets of a specific collective trend could quite possibly determine a given life span. A cross sectional analysis of rivets to measure the quantity of slag (metal content) will give an indication as to whether the original construction contained optimum quantity of sufficient materials within the wrought iron. Through an analysis of this nature it may be possible to estimate the wrecks time span from its present state. The wreck lies along a bearing of almost 230° Southwest to Northeast, and in a position of fast currents that will not help to preserve her condition in any form what so ever.
On no occasion did any member of the team witness any such artifacts within the wreckage that may be recognized as those of national treasures. It is possibly quite important to encourage that fittings and fixtures of Lusitania, including navigational equipment be viewed as such treasures for future generations and most certainly should be used for some form of preserved educational purpose. As it stands, the Heritage service will not grant a licence for the recovery of artifacts unless they are done so within the parameters of an archaeological pattern. While the heritage department 'DUCHAS' do not have the means to carry out this kind of work, time and time again the subject results in the question of funding and where restored artifacts would be displayed. Indeed if this site has become an historic site of importance i.e. a national site of interest then it should undoubtedly be treated as such. As Lusitania is one of the first wrecks less than 100 years old to have such a preservation act placed upon it, then perhaps Lusitania should also become one of the first wrecks to have artifacts preserved before it is too late.
About the Author
Leigh Bishop is a world-renowned deep shipwreck photographer & technical diver, he has been on expeditions to many famous shipwrecks and has explored over 400 virgin shipwrecks in the past 20 years. He works for the Fire service and lives north of London.
© Leigh Bishop
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