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by Alex Lemaire
Shipwrecks are windows into the past. They help us learn more about history. And with an estimated three million shipwrecks around the world, most of them yet to be discovered, there awaits an amazing adventure for the intrepid explorer yearning to know more. Some of these shipwrecks are special because of their historical significance or because of the valuable cargo they carried. Here are brief sketches of five of the most precious shipwrecks discovered in American waters.
SS Central America Shipwreck
One such shipwreck happened during the California gold rush. The sidewheel steamer, SS Central America, loaded with 30,000 pounds/13.6 metric tons of gold, was sunk by a hurricane in September 1857 off the coast of South Carolina. The sails were shredded by the winds, and the boiler failed. The crew and passengers formed a bucket brigade and valiantly tried to keep the ship afloat, but their efforts were in vain. The Central America sank, killing 425 or the 578 passengers aboard.
After 130 years, the famous treasure hunter, Tommy Thompson, discovered the wreck at 2200 m/7200 ft of water. In an operation that lasted four years, Thompson, using a remotely-operated vehicle, recovered the gold—gold bars, freshly minted coins, gold dust, along with other valuable items totaling $2,000,000 then, and $54,000,000 today.
H. L. Hunley
The H. L. Hunley, historically the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship, was launched in July 1863 during the Civil War. The Hunley measured around 37 feet long and was designed for a crew of nine, eight of which turned a hand-cranked propeller while the ninth man steered. Built in Alabama then shipped by train to Charleston, South Carolina, she was used by the Confederates in their attack of Union ships attempting to break through the naval blockade.
Hunley sank on February 17, 1864, after torpedoing and sinking the warship USS Housatonic. She disappeared for over a century until Edward Lee Spence, an underwater archeologist and the founder of the commercial diving school, the International Diving Institute, discovered and salvaged the wreck in 2000. She was found just four miles from Charleston Harbor and relocated by Spence to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center. The value of the discovery is estimated to be more than $40,000,000 dollars.
SS Republic Shipwreck
On October 25, 1865, The SS Republic wrecked 100 miles off the coast of Georgia at 520 m/1700 ft in the Atlantic seabed. The Republic is a sidewheel steamship that sank due to the devastating force of a violent hurricane, saving most of the passengers and crew, but losing its precious cargo of over $4,000,000 in silver and gold coins—much needed to rebuild New Orleans’s post-Civil War economy, and a fortune even in today’s money.
Nearly 140 years later, Odyssey Marine Exploration, a company specializing in locating and exploring shipwrecks, discovered the Republic using cutting-edge technologies, such as powerful sonars, magnetometers, and advanced robotics. A soft silicone limpet was used, having been specially designed to pick up one coin at a time without damaging its surface. The entire expedition was documented by National Geographic.
Whydah Gally is the only fully authenticated pirate shipwreck ever discovered in US waters, having been found by the underwater archaeologist Barry Clifford in 1984. The ship’s identity was verified a year later after the discovery of its bell, which was inscribed with the vessel’s name “THE WHYDAH GALLY 1716”.
The 100-ft-long ship was commissioned in 1715 and launched in 1716 in London. With a top speed of 13 knots, the Whydah was originally built to transport passengers, cargo, and slaves. But, in 1717, on the return leg of its maiden voyage of the triangle trade, it was captured by Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, who was one of the wealthiest pirates in history.
The pirate had modified and equipped Whydah Gally with ten additional cannons and sailed north. He used his newly acquired ship to loot and capture other vessels on the way. Months later, the ship was hit by a storm and sank off the coast of Massachusetts. Only two of the Whydah’s crew survived, along with seven others who were on a sloop captured by Bellamy earlier that day. Six of the nine survivors were hanged, two who had been forced into piracy were freed, and one Indian crewman was sold into slavery.
The Whydah eluded discovery for over 260 years, when it was found buried under 3 m/10 ft to 15 m/50 ft of sand in depths ranging from 5 m/16 ft to 9 m/30 ft, spread over four miles parallel to Cape Cod’s easternmost coast. The site has been extensively studied for many years. More than 200,000 individual pieces have been recovered. Some of them are displayed at Whydah Sea-Lab & Learning Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Nuestra Senora de Atocha Shipwreck (Our Lady of Atocha)
The Spanish galleon, Nuestra Señora de Atocha, named after the parish of Atocha in Madrid, was the most widely known vessel of a fleet of ships. In 1622, she sank to the bottom of the Atlantic in a hurricane off the Florida Keys. At the time of her sinking, she was heavily laden with copper, silver, gold, tobacco, gems, and indigo bound for Spain. Emeralds from the Muzo Mine in Columbia, renowned as the world’s finest emeralds, were among the treasures.
After an expensive and arduous search that began in 1969 with Mel Fisher, an American treasure hunter, finding silver bars in 1973, a bronze cannon in 1975—proving to be that of the Atocha. Fisher lost his son, his daughter-in-law, and another diver while pursuing the treasure, but he persevered, finally finding the wreck and its treasure in 1985.
The State of Florida claimed title to the wreck but, after eight years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Fisher’s company, which granted him rights to all found treasure in 1982. Fisher died in 1998. The ship’s cargo is estimated to be worth $400,000,000. In 2014, the Senora de Atocha was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most valuable shipwreck ever discovered. Some of the items are displayed at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida.
This Spanish treasure galleon, and most widely known vessel of a fleet of ships, sank to the bottom of the Atlantic due to a hurricane in 1622. In 1985, it was discovered—loaded with 40 tons/36.2 m tons of gold and silver, plus 70 pounds/31.6 kg of emeralds—off the Florida Keys in 1985 by Mel Fisher, an American treasure hunter who died in 1998.
Finding this precious shipwreck wasn’t an easy task. Mel Fisher started looking for it in 1969. He spent a lot of money and effort to locate it. He lost his son, his daughter-in-law, and a diver during this expedition.
He didn’t give up, and he kept working. He found three silver bars in 1973 and five cannons in 1975. This convinced him that he was getting closer to the main hull. In July 1985, he made the great discovery. The ship’s cargo is estimated to be worth $400,000,000.
But this didn’t mean that the fight was over. He had to win a lengthy court battle against the State of Florida over the ownership of the gold. Some of the items are displayed at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West. Three years later, Congress passed the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act. In 2014, the Senora de Atocha was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most valuable shipwreck ever discovered.
Alex Lemaire is passionate about treasure hunting whether inland or underwater. He published many articles about this subject on his blog. He thinks that this hobby is an amazing way to learn more about the history of humanity.
My Love Affair with the MV Viminale, the Italian Titanic
Young, poetic Italian explorer Andrea Murdock Alpini reveals the sensitivities of his not so discreet love affair with the wreck of Motonave Viminale, the Italian Titanic, which lays more than 100 meters beneath the sea near Palmi, Italy. As the Bee Gees sang, “Quant’è profondo il tuo amore?”
By Andrea Murdock Alpini
Translated by Lara Lambiase (DAN Europe, Diving Medical Officer) AKA Lady Murdock
Header photo by Marco Mori
Everyone would like to run towards their dreams. Touching them is a privilege some people have. Taking them up with both hands is a blessing for just a few. The life wind often blows inconsistently and in many directions. A strong analytic effort is needed in order to understand the right path to follow.
It takes courage to leave behind a wreck. Turning and making the decision that this will be the last time you see her or that you will be close and inside her, these are some hard choices. It sounds like standing at the door saying goodbye to someone dear to you who comes from far away and is going to leave again. To say goodbye means the end and, at the same time, implies a beginning: that your relationship is moving into memory.
The first time I dived down to visit MV Viminale, I knew it would never end in a farewell. Delicate metal sheets embracing me for the first time; her touch and her voice, made up of a long-distance courtship; it all fascinated me so much that I could not help thinking about her: such a charming, elegant ship.
A transatlantic is unique in shape, dimension, history.
The first encounter is never to be forgotten. In just a short while it conveys the whole timbre of what is possible. Your clean-shaved deep-sea observer’s glance cannot stop at the surface anymore. He must see more. “There’s a fracture in everything,” some crack that allows entrance to the inside, a place where delicate worlds are opening or closing.
After one visit, I can say goodbye no longer.
I remember my many, earlier dives, for a full year while I waited for the right moment to meet Viminale. I was able to feel what Penelope, Ulysses’ wife, felt while waiting for her dear husband’s return, much like the endless waits sailors endure as they pass from one harbor to another, the embers of their smokes drifting into the air of the night.
Coming across Viminale’s wreck has been one of the most powerful experiences of my entire life. With my first gaze, I witnessed the past but even so, still longed for the present.
The Future of the Classic
Looking at the Viminale requires a high level of attention. Even though you believe you’re seeing the wreck, you are also watching the ship. At first sight, observers see the wreck, but if they allow themselves to watch carefully and with new eyes, they will see the fascinating Lloyd Triestino ocean liner. Once seen, it’s impossible to be ignored..
You will want to come back, again, again, and again. Your eyes will never grow tired of her beauty and your thirst for knowledge about her will lead you to explore and extend your personal new boundaries. It’s an enchantment: at the exact moment the young girl appears, she begins her transformation into a woman.
Two aspects co-exist, inseparable, but so far apart if you are not able to see.
The first aspect is related to the wreck, which is basically what every person sees while glancing at her; the second aspect represents the future of a classic look. The woman is hidden to the eye, covered by different layers that shaped her, over time.
Looking at the young girl, then the woman appears: the Ship: “She’s a force emerging from the past; she finds her strength in the tradition of love.” Love for whom? For the Sea, who she belongs to since she first floated on the surface of the water until the moment she surrendered and sank, consumed by the ocean’s swells.
I wrote about Viminale last year; my scream of joy in front of the Ship at 107 m/350 ft of depth. The reason I fell in love with this wreck was that, until then I had only seen the young girl, but suddenly the woman appeared to me.
Old alpine climber Walter Bonatti’s hands were thick, but in spite of that, the Alps’ cold wind cut them. Wreckers’ hands test the water, touch very gently, toss roughly or smoothly. Hands, for us wreckers, are more than eyes: they feel, see, and perceive. These hands sometimes plunge as do Amore’s marble fingertips into Psyche, remembering the classic tradition of sculpture. Touch is decisive, but cognitive. Hands clutch, and fingers cling into a pianist’s dance.
When I look at the surface from the bottom of the sea, I sometimes glimpse the far glaze of the surface. Sometimes—not often—it happens that a ray of light fills the distance separating the wreck from life. At that moment my eyes suddenly shine because I am participating in an extraordinary event; the beauty appears in its natural way. Artificial lighting is useless in that moment because your eyes are acclimated to the darkness that surrounds you. In that moment you feel your soul is made whole because you are staring at incomparable natural beauty.
This time, the heavy 45 kg ballast to be thrown on the wreck took place into my cabin van because I felt that it didn’t deserve the cold cargo bed.
Watching it, I felt sure that this was not simply naked iron thrown in the water, but I wanted to paint a love story on its sides, one to accompany it to the sea bed. I traced smooth lines with white enamel on one side, and Lara painted Latin words in capital letters on the opposite side. This was the beginning of something that could not be otherwise; the event that opened a crack in the boundary between what was and what would be.
The very first impact had changed the flow of life into an unexpected and surprising way. I took a brush and began painting on your side THAT’S AMORE, because this is how I go deep into the wreck. Each man and each ship goes through huge storms, the ship’s plank wheel and helmsman make the course, indissolubly together in spite of being visually separated. “Stay with me and the storm will cease”
Like you, none. Never.
Attraction is a magnet that can lure you to insanity.
A year ago, I, along with two dive buddies, entered the engine room of Motonave Viminale. A year later, I along with my personal friend as well as professional photographer, Marco Mori, returned. We had prepared two dive plans. One for 25 minutes of bottom time at a depth 105 m/345 ft in the event of bad visibility and strong flow, and the second for 35 minutes of bottom time at the same depth in the event of good conditions, i.e. clear vis and little flow. We were lucky enough to encounter the second; we had a great dive on the wreck Viminale.
I remember that we had been astonished by the silence that accompanied our dive into the engine rooms of the Italian wreck, the Titanic, as we were surrounded by electric panels, pressure gauges, fire tanks, and ancient lamps that had ceased shining. I will always remember the inner silence broken by thrilling sights, our eyes filled with wonder and happiness as we finned slowly and played out the spool of line to exit with to the main deck. Those memories were the allure that had brought us to the belly of the Viminale. We were careful to move cautiously and to pay attention not to disturb our surroundings.
As my head emerged from the hatch, I could not believe what my eyes saw in front of me. Thanks to the darkness we were coming from and the blackness of the engine room into which we emerged, Palmi seemed more as a deep blue shade reminiscent of the calm sea overhead. The pilot house and the branch lifeboats appeared as sculptures rather than parts of a wreckage.
As we left the engine room at 108 m/352 ft, we moved forward to 90 m/294 ft depth, and I began to brush off the wooden deck with my hand and marvelled at the feeling I received from touching the beauty of the ancient wooden planking. I love iron ships, but the soft touch of wood conjures up for me the feel and scent of a long-ago era. I recollected making the same gesture with my right hand two years previously on the HMS Britannic’s promenade. It is an unforgettable sensation I will carry with me always.
Knowing it was time to ascend, our dive computers were saying that our decompression would require 210 minutes before we could surface, I gazed lovingly one last time from the right side of the pilot house looking toward the bow. I kept all my deco cylinders away from the line and passed an oxygen cylinder to Marco as he was calling “Goodbye,” to Viminale.
Three and a half hours later, we resurfaced, both of us believing this was one of our best dives ever. We were fortunate to be able to see amazing sights, thanks to a fine mix of clear visibility, calm seas, good adrenaline and friendship. A chapter, nay a paragraph in the life of this shipwreck comes to an end yet we both feel that our job is not done. We will be back, again and again. I switched off my dive lamps. We were ready to begin our lift to the surface with the natural light remaining.
Encounters with a woman, a friend or a shipwreck can sometimes shake you up and change your perspective forever. To Viminale I think, “I will meet you again, under the guise that I simply want to talk with you.” Perhaps these thoughts are why I am awake at night, longing to see you again tomorrow. You have become a part of my life. I do not care who had you before me; I am yearning for you. That’s amore. In the end all I want is to dream about you “as I have never dreamed before.”
- Alpini A.M. VIMINALE: TRA BIELLE E PISTONI. SUB UNDERWATER MAGAZINE, # 400, March 2020 (Also see December 2019)
- The Italian Liners Historical Society: Lloyd Triestino
- Viminale Ocean Liner (1937-1943)
- You may also enjoy another of Alpini’s exploration stories: Isverna Cave, Diving An Underground Dacia, InDepth, V 2.5 June 2020
Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and CMAS technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming and writings. 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. Recently he published his first book entitled, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti.
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