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Exploration

A Conservator’s Reflections on the Andrea Doria

This month marks the 65th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria, once described as the “Mt. Everest of wreck diving.” Here veteran wreck diver/collector John Moyer, who was granted an “Admiralty Arrest” over the Doria in 1993, in order to recover its famed Guido Gambone ceramic art panels, recounts the key milestones of the deteriorating wreck, and his efforts to display her historical artifacts.

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By John Moyer
Header image of the sinking of the Andrea Doria July 27, 1956
, and other photographs courtesy of John Moyer unless noted.

This year marks the 65th anniversary of the sinking of the Italian liner SS Andrea Doria. During the four years the ship sailed between Italy and New York, she was known as a “Floating Art Gallery.” The aftermath of the collision with the Swedish vessel, Stockholm, 80 km/50 miles south of Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts, was described as the greatest sea rescue in history.

The statue of Genoese Admiral Andrea Doria.

Peter Gimbel was the first diver on the wreck on July 27, 1956—the day after it sank—and he returned the following year to photograph it again for Life Magazine. Capt. Dan Turner took a team of divers to the wreck aboard his ship the Top Cat in 1964. Turner blew a hole in the Promenade Deck and recovered the life-sized bronze statue of Admiral Andrea Doria from the First Class Lounge. Unable to free the statue’s base from the deck, they cut it off at the ankles with hacksaws. Four years later, Italian film producer Bruno Vailati led an expedition to survey the wreck and determine if it could be refloated. The Fate of the Andrea Doria(English title) was comprised of footage taken throughout the expedition team’s 21 dives, and the journey inspired Stefano Carletti’s classic book, Andrea Doria-74. 

Gimbel returned to the Doria in 1975 to test his theories on exactly what caused the ship to sink; this research inspired his film, The Mystery of the Andrea Doria. He discovered that the Doria had sustained massive damage to it’s hull when the Stockholm hit. During his next expedition in 1981, Gimbel and his team salvaged the ship’s safe, which he opened later that year on live TV. Various other teams also investigated (or attempted to investigate) the wreck during this time period. Some just explored the sunken vessel, some returned home empty-handed, and some didn’t even make it to the wreck site.

I remember hearing about the Andrea Doria for the first time in 1975 at a shipwreck artifact show in Brielle, New Jersey; the Eastern Divers Association orchestrated the event. I met some divers there who told me about a wreck they described as the “Mt. Everest of Diving.” She was a massive 213 m/699 ft-long passenger liner lying on her starboard side, 74 m/241 ft in the cold, dark North Atlantic. That area of the ocean is known for frequent storms, rough seas, and strong currents. The divers said they often had to pull themselves hand-over-hand down the anchor line, fighting to reach the bottom. Visibility averages about 8 m/26 ft, so they had to be careful not to get hung up in the commercial fishing nets that had snagged the exterior of the wreck. Because she is on her side, it’s easy to become disoriented when penetrating the wreck. The interior is a confusing maze of ceilings that are now walls, walls that are now floors, and stairwells that run sideways. It is filled with silt; the water may be clear when you swim in, but picking up an artifact decimates the visibility, so divers often have to feel their way out. Steel cables and wires hang down, and divers can easily become entangled. When I left that show, I knew I wanted to see the Andrea Doria for myself.

My First Doria Dives 

Moyer’s first dive on the Doria in 1982. Photo by Chuck Zimmaro

In 1982, I dived the wreck for the first time with a small group of divers on a chartered boat. We anchored at the forward end of the Promenade Deck, and I made three dives exploring the area. My first finds were two silver jewelry boxes and a brass-framed window. The next year, we began diving into the ship’s first class dining room where we found piles of china dishes and glassware. In 1985, a dive team and I spent a week on the wreck and recovered the 68 kg/150 lb brass bell from the ship’s aft steering station.

After that 1985 trip, I began my serious research into the ship and collected everything I could find related to the Andrea Doria. I traveled to Italy to meet with the engineers at Ansaldo Shipyard—who had designed the ship—and the Italia Line officers who were onboard the night of the collision. I also corresponded with Bruno Vailati to get his insight into diving on the wreck. Between 1985 and 1991, we made many trips out to the site, exploring new areas of the wreck and recovering any artifacts we found.

In 1992, based on information I had received from Italy, Billy Deans and I began searching the bow of the wreck for the ship’s main bell. We entered through a hatch, swam along a corridor, then up a hallway to the room where I was told it was stored. When I pried opened the door, I found the room was filled with about 1 m/3 ft of silt and debris. Later that year, I took a team of 15 divers and crew aboard the R/V Wahoo and spent a week cleaning out the room with an airlift. Unfortunately, we did not find the bell.           

John Moyer and Capt. Billy Deans preparing to dive the Doria

During the winter of 1992-1993, Rinaldo Negri, who had helped design the Andrea Doria, sent me a book with a photo of the ship’s Wintergarden Lounge; the photo captured the lounge’s large wall panels inlaid with ceramic sculptures created by Italian artist Guido Gambone. I was able to match that photo with the ship’s plans and determine exactly where the works of art were on the ship. Billy Deans and I dove into the Wintergarden and found that two panels had fallen from their mountings and were lying deep inside the wreck. Later that summer, I returned on the R/V Wahoo, this time with a team of 20 divers and crew, to recover the panels. Over a period of four days, working in near zero visibility at a depth of 61 m/199 ft, the team rigged each 454 kg/1,000 lb panel  with inflatable lift bags and floated them to the surface.  

Recovering the Gambone ceramic panels. Photo by Bill Campbell
Moyer with the restored Gambone panels . Photo by Steve Gatto.

Prior to the expedition, my attorney filed legal papers in the US District Court in Camden, New Jersey. Judge Joseph Rodriquez granted an Admiralty Arrest, asserting the court’s jurisdiction over the Doria, and appointed me custodian of the wreck. I was required to attach the signed arrest papers (inside a sealed container) to the wreck. Later that year, we again appeared before Judge Rodriquez. We argued that, although insured by an Italian consortium, the underwriters had made no attempt at salvage in nearly 40 years; therefore, they had abandoned the wreck. The court agreed and named me Salvor-in-Possession. This gave me exclusive salvage rights, clear title, and ownership of anything we recovered. I did not want to shut the wreck down from recreational divers and have allowed them to continue to dive it, to photograph, and to recover small artifacts. In his ruling, the Judge stated: “Moyer’s independent research and archeological documentation of salvage efforts indicate a respect for the Andrea Doria as something more than just a commercial salvage project.”  

Warrant of Arrest for the Doria.

Displaying The Doria

From the very beginning, my intention was to collect certain artifacts from the wreck and as many items related to the ship that I could find. I wanted to create an Andrea Doria exhibit to tell the story of what some call the most beautiful ship to ever sail. I have put on dozens of temporary exhibits and displays over the years and hope someday to have a large permanent exhibit. The general public has always been very interested and pleased to see what we have recovered. I am also working closely with Andrea Doria survivor Pierette Simpson. She is the author of Alive On The Andrea Doria and produced the award winning film Andrea Doria: Are the Passengers Saved?



We have held many events, participated in film screenings together, and have ridden in the New York City Columbus Day Parade (along with other survivors and Ted Hess, lead diver of Gimbel’s 1981 expedition). At the end of the parade, there was a ceremony where Pierette rang the Andrea Doria bell in memory of the souls who lost their lives in the sinking. We are currently working with The Noble Maritime Collection in Staten Island, New York on an exhibition which will open late spring 2022.

The inevitable decay of sunken ships is slow and most often unobserved.  The sinking of the Andrea Doria produced a wreck of very unusual characteristics. Due to newsreel camera planes circling overhead, it became world famous, and its final resting place is accessible to divers. When Peter Gimbel first visited the wreck in 1956, he saw no obvious damage to the ship. Since then, divers have been reporting major decay events on the wreck. The wheelhouse was still intact when the Italian dive team filmed it in 1968, but it was gone by 1973. The funnel, mast, and top three decks of the superstructure had fallen off by the time I first dove it in 1982. We used the port side bridge wing as a landmark until it fell off sometime in the early 1990s. The Wintergarden was completely intact when we recovered the Gambone sculptures in 1993, but it totally collapsed only two years later.

John Moyer and Gary Gentile recovered the statue base in 1996

Later in the 1990s, we noted cracks in the hull and the Boat Deck, Upper Deck, and Foyer Deck had started to slide downward to the sea floor. A recent multibeam sonar scan by the University of New Hampshire showed that the cracks have expanded and that the hull has entered its final stage of the flattening process.   

Someday the Andrea Doria will be an unrecognizable pile of debris on the bottom of the sea. Fortunately, we have been able to rescue many historically important artifacts and unique works of art before they were lost forever.

Additional resources

InDepth: Stefano Carletti: The Man Who Immortalized The Wreck of the Andrea Doria By Andrea Murdock Alpini

Alert Diver: Remembering the Andrea Doria by Michael menduno

Diver: Doria Tipped The Scales by Michael Menduno


John Moyer’s first dives were in 1970, and he began diving on shipwrecks in 1975.  He has made thousands of dives on wrecks in the US, Canada, Great Britain, Mexico, and the Caribbean. He has dived on the liner RMS Empress Of Ireland, Ironclad Monitor, Light Cruiser USS Wilkes-Barre, and was one of the first Americans to dive on the WW1 German fleet in Scapa Flow, Scotland.  

He has a degree in Biology from Stockton University, a USCG 100 Ton Master License, and worked as an Instructor at the Dive Shop of New Jersey and Key West Divers.  Moyer is a member of the Atlantic Wreck Divers Dive Club and is the recipient of the prestigious Pioneer of Northeast Diving Award. He has appeared on the History Channel, A&E Network, and Dateline NBC. He is co-author of “The Decay of the Andrea Doria,” published by the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, and he appears in the docufilm Andrea Doria: Are the Passengers Saved?

Exploration

Confronting the Unknowns of Decompression with the First Electronic Rebreather

How did Electrolung inventor Walter Starck and his cronies decompress from dives to 100m/326 ft before the advent of dive computers or even constant PO2 tables? Dr. Starck explains his procedures and rationale. Deep stops anyone?

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by Walter Starck
Photos courtesy of Walter Starck

The design and manufacture of the first commercially available, electronically regulated closed circuit mixed gas rebreather in 1968 presented a multitude of problems to be solved in the design and manufacture of the device itself.  Successful development and production of the Electrolung presented an additional problem. Decompression tables were limited, and none were available for a constant partial pressure of O2 with a varying percentage of inert gas as occurs in an electronic rebreather. The US Navy tables were the only heliox tables readily available. Those used in the offshore oil industry were all treated as commercial secrets by the offshore diving companies. Decompression computers had not yet been invented. 

To start with, I interpolated from the US Navy helium tables for an equivalent partial pressure depth for the Electrolung.  Although, by today’s standards, this may seem unacceptably risky, it was less so than may appear. If immediate recompression is available at the first symptoms of any decompression sickness, progression to more serious levels is rare. When recompression is delayed for several hours, or more, to get to a chamber there is a high probability of increasing tissue damage requiring extended treatment and lengthy recovery or permanent impairment. 

A young Walter Starck about to dive in the Coral Sea with his Electrolung in 1971.

My research vessel, El Torito, was equipped with a large (42’’ x 12’) double lock recompression chamber which could comfortably accommodate two persons, or even three if needed. The inner lock was kept pressurized to 30 m/100 ft, so getting to 18 m/60 ft of pressure could be accomplished in less than a minute by just getting in, closing the outer door, and opening a valve to let the main inner chamber equalize with the entrance chamber. An oxygen rebreather also provided for 100% O2 decompression without the fire risk of pressurising the chamber with O2. Having a chamber immediately available reduced the risk of experimenting with decompression profiles to an acceptable level. In practice, there was only one incident where the chamber was needed, and that involved pushing the limits with a repetitive dive to 60 m/200 ft with only an hour surface interval.

While getting into the matter of decompression, I came across an interesting study by the Australian physiologist Brian Hill, who found that the pearl diving industry in northern Australia had developed (by trial and error, including numerous fatalities) a mode of decompression that started deeper, ascended slower, and ended deeper but was faster overall.  Based on this, some relevant physics, and Hill’s own extensive lab work, he proposed a theory of what he called thermodynamic decompression. In this regard, he believed that the idea of avoiding bubble formation by keeping within a hypothetical limit of supersaturation is incorrect, as any degree of supersaturation results in a gas phase beginning to form as a thin film at tissue surfaces, which then begin to coalesce into sub-symptomatic bubbles.



In his view, the conventional tables were generating sub-symptomatic bends by allowing divers to ascend too quickly and then having to spend a lot of (decompression) time to prevent them from growing into symptomatic bends. If the bubble formation is avoided to begin with by allowing the inert gas to escape through the dissolved gas saturation window provided by the ability of tissues to metabolize O2, decompression can be optimized. 

Diver with Electrolung.  Note pink Baralyme absorbent.  The acrylic bubble was being used for a shark cage.

My study of his material left me with the impression that it was well founded, so I began to titrate decompression toward that direction. This led into a series of 92 m/300 ft dives with 15 minutes descent and bottom time, a slow 10 m/30 ft-per-minute or slower ascent time, a couple of stops for about two minutes at around 46 m/150 ft and 22 m/75 ft, finishing with 15 minutes on pure O2 at 10 m/30 ft. On different occasions, but not at the same time, three other individuals accompanied me, all without DCS in some 30 such dives.

The effort, resources, liability risk, and limited economic potential involved in endeavouring to develop a full set of tables of this kind, as well as my own prime interests in marine science and exploration, ruled against further pursuit in this direction. However, a few years later when I arrived in Australia with El Torito, I got in touch with Brian Hills and had the opportunity to spend several days with him in Adelaide.  He went on to a distinguished career in decompression physiology at several institutions in the US and UK. 

See accompanying Story: Electrolung: The First Mixed Gas Rebreather Was Available to Sport Divers in 1968

Additional Resources:

For more on Hills and his thermodynamic theory, see: Brian Andrew Hills 

Wikipedia: The US Navy’s Thalmann Constant PO2 Algorithm

NEDU: DEVELOPMENT AND VALIDATION OF 1.3 ATA P02-in-He DECOMPRESSION TABLES FOR THE MK16MOD1 UBA

InDepth (Four part series): Decompression, Deep Stops and the Pursuit of Precision in a Complex World by Jarrod Jablonski

UHMS: PROCEEDINGS: DECOMPRESSION AND THE DEEP STOP (2008)

Immersed: The International Technical Diving Magazine (Winter 1998), Starck, Walter 1998. In Water Recompression: Problem or Solution? by Walter Starck. Reprinted courtesy of DIVER mag.

InDepth: A New Look at In-Water Recompression (IWR) 


Walter Starck is one of the pioneers in the scientific investigation of coral reefs. He grew up in the Florida Keys and received a PhD in marine science from the University of Miami in 1964. Since 1978, his home has been in north Queensland, Australia. Throughout his career in marine biology, participating in expeditions around the world,  Dr. Starck has been extensively involved with development of the technology required to facilitate his activities. In several instances patented inventions and commercial products have resulted. In addition to the optical dome port and the Electrolung other noteworthy achievements in this area have been: The Bang stick—a hermetically sealed underwater firearm for hunting and defense, underwater housings for numerous cameras and instruments, underwater lighting systems, a multipurpose commercial waterproof electrical connector,  design of the unique research vessel El Torito, a 9 meter high-speed diving launch, a 24 passenger eco-tourism vessel, and the Oceanic 8000 Longboat.  The longboat was a long narrow high efficiency powerboat inspired by the efficiency of the log canoes of the Solomon Islands.  He has also built and flown an amphibious aircraft of advanced canard wing design using high technology composite materials. Recently (Aug 2017) he was senior author on an extensive update on the Alligator Reef study that brought the total species list for that locality up to 618 species.

Dr. Starck has authored over 100 articles and books, which include numerous technical and peer reviewed scientific studies as well as many articles in leading popular publications. His photography has been widely published in conjunction with his writing, and he has produced nearly 20 films and videos. Throughout his extensive career, he has managed to inspire not only admiration, but also the ire of some detractors who have taken umbrage at his efforts to inject what he believes to be “a rational perspective on human ecology into the eco-mania that has become epidemic in our struggling Western economies.” His criticisms of the “poor science and blatantly false claims widely used to support various environmental agendas” have earned him some criticism.

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