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Exploration

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?”

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By Andrea Murdock Alpini 
Translated by Lara Lambiase (DAN Europe, Diving Medical Officer) AKA Lady Murdock 
Header photo by Marco Mori

Puoi leggere questa storia in italiano qui
You can read this story in Italian here

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.

Saying Farewell

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. 

MV Viminale Wreck
Viminale Wreck – Murdock on the top deck. Photo by Marco Mori.

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..

Motonave Viminale, an old archive photo – the bow.

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.  

The video “Relitto Viminale – Sala macchine -107m” was filmed in June 2019 during Andrea Murodck Alpini’s second trip diving the wreck of Viminale. Footage is focused on the pilot deck, the beautiful bow with its anchors, and the stunning interior of the engine room. The film was taken in one dive with a long bottom time. Total runtime of the open circuit tech dive was four hours and 20 minutes.

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. 

Painted Words

Lara painting the Viminale’s ballast.

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.

“That’s Amore” ballast on the Viminale Wreck. Photo by Denise Brusoni.

Incredulous   

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.

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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.

MV Viminale
Viminale Wreck – The iconic electric panel (-108m)

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.

MV Viminale
Viminale Wreck – The power unit inside the engine room (-104m).

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.” 

Puoi leggere questa storia in italiano qui
You can read this story in Italian here

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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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Exploration

Finding the Wreck of the “Admiral Knight”

Professional archeologist and tech diver Ewan Anderson recounts the tale of finding the early 1900s steamship the Admiral Knight in British Columbia waters in the spring of 2020—a collaboration of the British Columbia Underwater Explorers (BCUE) and the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia (UASBC). It’s a tribute to the power of “Citizen Science,” and the joys of diving with purpose. Here’s how they found it.

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By Ewan Anderson

The Admiral Knight, formerly the SS Portland . Courtesy PSMHS Williamson Collection, Neg. no. 2877

“Well… I might have a target for you,” read the fateful email that led to our search for the wreck of the early 1900s Admiral Knight steamship.

It was 2019, and Craig Lessels of the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) had been reviewing multi-beam sonar bathymetry datasets — basically, maps of the seafloor — when he noticed a cluster of features lying on the otherwise sandy seafloor, east of Galiano Island in the Salish Sea off the west coast of Canada. 

Thinking the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia (UASBC) might be interested, he forwarded what he had found to UASBC Explorations Director Jacques Marc. 

As it turned out, the UASBC had, since 2006, been looking near this location for the Admiral Knight, a steam-powered freighter that sank after an explosion in its engine caused a catastrophic fire on board.

The Search

The UASBC search began, as usual, with some serious background research.  The research turned up a wealth of information about the vessel’s origins and destruction in 1919. Launched by the Westward Navigation Company of Seattle in 1916 as the Kuskokwim River, the 43 m/142 ft long wood hulled, diesel-engine powered vessel was built to provide freight service between Puget Sound and Alaska. It was re-powered with steam engines in 1917 and renamed the SS Portland, and then renamed the Admiral Knight in 1919 after purchase by Alaska Pacific Fisheries, who may have used it to supply their canneries in Alaska.

On July 26, 1919, a fire broke out in the Admiral Knight’s engine room while the freighter was underway from Seattle to Ketchikan. The crew of 21 barely made it off the ship before it was engulfed in flames; the last six men leaped off the foredeck onto a boat dispatched by the local steam ferry just in time to be saved. Three days later, mariners were still being warned of the burning hulk drifting between Vancouver and Vancouver Island, but there was no sign of the ship by July 30.

The Admiral Knight was forgotten until the late 1950s when a group of divers explored a site near Galiano Island where a local fisherman reported to have snagged his gear on a wreck.  In an interview in 2006, one of the divers remembered seeing an intact wooden hull and some machinery matching the Admiral Knight’s description at depths of 55-64 m/180-220 ft; although this firsthand account came with the caveat that they were “narked out of their minds.” This general location became the focus of the UASBC’s field surveys over the next few years, including searches using towed side-scan sonar in 2006 and a multi-beam sonar survey by Parks Canada’s research vessel, the MV David Thompson. Those searches did not locate anything resembling the Admiral Knight wreck, and its location remained a mystery until CHS’s review of data from deeper water in 2019, just beyond the UASBC’s previous search areas.

The CHS target sits in 57 m/187 ft of water, which puts it beyond the range of the UASBC Explorations “regulars” group, some of whom have been exploring and documenting underwater maritime heritage sites in British Columbia and Alaska since the early ‘80s. As a UASBC Explorations regular myself — albeit with only 15 years’ worth of expeditions in my dive log — and member of British Columbia’s close-knit Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) technical diving community, Jacques turned the project over to me and wished me luck. I had been bothering Jacques for several years to give up his wish list of deeper shipwreck targets, and it appeared that this was my chance to prove that GUE tech divers on Vancouver Island could make a significant contribution to the underwater cultural heritage record on B.C.’s coast.  

Multi-beam sonar image of the wreck. Credit: Canadian Hydrographic Service

The Plan

We were ready! In short order, I had a team of qualified and enthusiastic GUE divers, a dive boat, and a dive date in April 2020. And then we were interrupted by the pandemic. Organised diving took a big step back while everyone tried to figure out how to navigate a variety of restrictions and act responsibly in the face of this century’s biggest global health scare. Focus shifted to community-building through impromptu dives, and the big projects, like our plan to identify the Admiral Knight, took a back seat.  

Dive boats available for projects around south Vancouver Island changed, too. GUE instructor evaluator and Vancouver Island resident Guy Shockey bought a boat, the Thermocline, brought it up to the island from Puget Sound, then learned how to drive it (possibly in that order). While the boat was still just a twinkle in Guy’s eye, he told me he hoped to make Thermocline a platform for divers to do world-class diving, but for that to happen it was up to the local GUE community to demonstrate that we had interesting project dives to do. He and I agreed that identifying the Admiral Knight fit the long-term community goals perfectly. Soon after the Thermocline arrived at its permanent home in Vancouver Island’s Maple Bay, Guy started referring to himself as “The Boat Driver,” so I knew he was seriously committed.  

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The Dive

By early 2022, our diving activities on the west coast were back to their pre-pandemic norms, and the way seemed clear to dive the Admiral Knight. So, on a sunny weekend this past August, with water as calm as glass, I found myself dropping through the cool, emerald-green depths towards the bold future of underwater archaeology in my backyard. 

Dropping down the shot line with me was Jason Cook, an instructor and fellow rebreather diver. As we descended, I had a head full of plans and checklists, and handfuls of equipment. Try as we might to keep things simple, we were determined to complete a minimum number of tasks and needed the gear to pull them off.  In addition to our JJ-CCR rebreathers and bailout cylinders to do the dive, we had a full-frame camera and two pairs of large video lights to document the wreck (if it wasn’t just a pile of rocks we were dropping onto). Jason had a 120 m/400 ft reel in case The Boat Driver dropped the shot in the middle of nowhere and our identification dive turned into a search for, well, anything.  I had an additional large surface marker buoy (SMB) stuffed in my left thigh pocket, which we planned to launch without a line attached to signal the next dive team that we’d found something worth diving.  We each had a diver propulsion vehicle (DPV) to drag all this stuff around if the current picked up (strong currents are common in our region, but also highly localised, and nobody was sure when slack tide was at this new site).

The visibility on the descent was just over 20 m/60 ft, which is fantastic no matter where you are in the world. As we passed 40 m/130 a huge grey shape swam right in front of me — a shark! — no, just the biggest lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus) I had ever seen. As the monster fish disappeared, we hit a layer of low-visibility water hovering about 5 m/15 ft off the seafloor. It appeared we were going to be diving in the dark — and the cold, since it was also suddenly only 9° C/~48° F. Finally, the shot appeared below us, lying on a featureless, sandy plain. There wasn’t even a pile of rocks pretending to be a wreck in sight.

A cluster of Plumrose Anemones, coupled with a large rockfish sighting, signaled that our wreck was not far away — only 10 m/30 ft, with the anemones attached to a driveshaft just forward of a small steel propeller It was a convenient place to tie off the reel, and an auspicious start to our dive. I deployed the SMB, which, unencumbered by a line attached to a spool, careened to the surface, and launched, like a small pink ballistic missile, out of the water beside the waiting Thermocline.  The second dive team — Lee Critchley, Conor Collins, and Colin Miller — were into the water in moments to start their dive.

Water tube boiler and engine parts; screen grab from video survey. Photo by Ewan Anderson/UASBC

Back at the wreck site, Jason and I started the next phase of our dive: a visual survey of the site. Firing up the DPVs, we followed the driveshafts forward from the propeller. The shafts disappear under a jumble of machinery that will need a more thorough survey to sort through. The large water-tube boilers appeared next, standing upright on their fire-boxes about 2-3 m/6-10 ft proud of the seafloor. Patches of the relatively thin steel encasing the boilers had corroded away, revealing intricate tubing that was cutting-edge boiler technology in the early 20th century. Winches and engine parts formed another pile forward of the boilers, beyond which was the relatively featureless expanse of seabed corresponding to what was once the vessel’s hold. About a minute later, we rounded the forecastle which sat upright about 3 m/10 ft high, the foredeck winch still in its original position. We completed our circuit with a straight run back to the stern, spotting the second drive shaft and propeller.

As the second team arrived on the bottom, Jason and I lit up the wreck with our video lights. I wanted to document the visual survey we’d just completed, so I coordinated with Jason to do a re-run at slow speed. He led and illuminated the wreck, while I followed with the DPV-mounted camera and lights. Keeping Jason in frame made for a good scale reference as we slipped slowly past century-old rust and watchful fish. The end of our video captured the other team swimming around the boilers. Conor was taking still photos while the others inspected the machinery and puzzled out what they were looking at.

Jason Cook lighting up the foredeck winch; screen grab from video survey by Ewan Anderson/UASBC

And just like that, it was time to go. Leaving the reel for the other team to collect, Jason and I headed back to the shot line and had the usual brief conversation confirming our decompression plan before leaving the bottom.  The ascent took us back up to the relatively crystal-clear water above 45 m/150 ft. We crossed the thermocline around 15 m/50 ft and completed our deco in 18°C/64° F water and dappled green sunlight. 

Dive teams on deco; from left to right: Jim Dixon, “The Boat Driver,” Jason Cook. Photo by Ewan Anderson/UASBC

The Rediscovery

Back onboard the Thermocline, we all agreed that the first day of diving was a great success. We had identified a wreck and concluded that it was worth diving again; but was this definitely the wreck of the Admiral Knight? We thought so: it is a steam-powered, twin-screw vessel of the correct size.  And we knew the burning hulk was seen by several witnesses drifting in the vicinity of our wreck site in late July 1919. More definitive evidence of the wreck’s identity lies in a closer inspection of the surviving equipment and the cargo. We surfaced with about 10 minutes of good-quality video and some still photos, which Jacques will want to review and comment on.  

The two-hour sail back to the dock, and lunch at the marina pub gave us plenty of time to debrief and discuss the details of our dives. We sketched out the goals for diving the next day, and I included a somewhat ambitious list of items to measure and a plan to create a 3D model of the boilers.

Jason and I were back in the water 24 hours after our first dive on the wreck. The shot line had landed right behind the boilers, so we got to work immediately. This time, we planned to document the boilers using photogrammetry. Issues with camera float arms the previous day meant we were not able to carry as many big lights, so I had the camera while Jason handled most of the lighting.  

Jason Cook preparing gear. Photo by Ewan Anderson/UASBC

The somewhat poor visibility and missing lighting (though we still had a lot of lights) meant we had to get relatively close to the wreck for well-lit photos. And since the boilers don’t cover a very large area, I decided to park the DPVs and kick. In hindsight, the DPVs might have made things easier, but I didn’t notice the current sweeping across the wreck until after the kicking started. I’m not beyond second-guessing myself underwater, but with only 30 minutes of bottom time to set-up and complete the photogrammetry, there wasn’t a lot of time to reorganise and restart the work. In the end, we managed to get about 470 reasonable photos for our modelling project.  

The second dive team, Guy and Jim Dixon, arrived on the wreck a few minutes after Jason and I started taking photos. Guy and Jim had the straightforward task of just enjoying the dive. This seemingly simple job is a common assignment on UASBC dives: divers who are unencumbered with cameras, lights, measuring tapes, and other documentation equipment are free to explore and are likely to notice important features that busy diver-photographers might miss. This team spent some time inspecting two “block” features that I had noticed the previous day; sitting forward of the engines and boilers, the blocks could have been the remnants of the vessel’s cargo, which would be an unusual find because we don’t often see intact cargo on our wrecks. We didn’t manage to solve the mystery on this expedition, and even with Guy and Jim offering detailed descriptions, we’re all still scratching our heads.

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Although there were only a handful of divers who made it down into the wreck in August, dozens of people have contributed their time and energy over the last decade and a half to making these successful dives possible. To dive into the unknown just to see what’s there is one thing, but to dive with purpose and come back with valuable information requires dedicated research and planning. Credit for our success (and the pressure to succeed!) in search for the Admiral Knight is largely due to Jacques Marc and other researchers at the UASBC who laid the groundwork for the project.

There is much more to come. We’ve proven that we can add deeper sites to the list of the UASBC’s potential expeditions. Jacques and other UASBC volunteers are turning to the archives to find more targets. By extending the range of what is possible for the local community, we also open the door to exploring deeper into history. Indigenous peoples have lived around the Salish Sea since time immemorial, as indigenous elders and cultural leaders say, and their cultural inheritance includes documented sites spanning the last 14,000 years. The connection Salish peoples have with the sea around us is undeniable, yet tangible underwater heritage sites other than shipwrecks have barely been explored.

As for the Admiral Knight, any uncertainty about the wreck’s identity may be beside the point. The wreck still makes for a great dive, and although it is relatively deep for most divers, many in our local dive community are qualified – or will be soon – to dive it. It’s worth the effort just to see the intact boilers and the entire vessel’s contents laid out on the seafloor, just as they were 103 years ago. The intact sections of wreck and potential cargo provide opportunities for further study and research as well. 

See companion stories:

Building Community Through Project Diving By Guy Shockey

Introducing GUE’s New Project Diver Program By Francesco Cameli

Dive Deeper

InDEPTH: How to Become an Explorer: Passion, Partnership, and Exploration

Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia 

Thermocline Diving 

Marc, Jacques and Warren Oliver Bush (2021) Historic Shipwrecks of the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia. Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C.


Ewan Anderson is a professional archaeologist whose work focuses on assessing and mitigating development construction impacts to cultural heritage sites in British Columbia.  A consultant for all levels of government, a variety of industries and Indigenous communities, his expertise is in cultural heritage law, cutting edge archaeological methods and Indigenous peoples’ relationships with archaeology and those who practise it.  

Ewan is passionate about diving – especially when combined with underwater cultural heritage projects.  He is a GUE certified JJ-CCR diver and IANTD certified cave diver.   His diving has taken him around the world, even though everything he needs –  from wrecks to caves – can be found within a few hours of his home in Victoria, on Vancouver Island. 

His professional work and diving almost never mix, for which he is often thankful.  Ewan pursues his interests in underwater photography, underwater photogrammetry, and advocating for conservation of marine environments and underwater heritage, free from the yoke of capitalist overlords. He is a regular volunteer on Underwater Archaeological Society of BC expeditions and has served on the Society’s board of directors since 2018. 

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