For Whom The Shipwreck Bell Tolls
Many wreck divers consider a ship’s bell to be the quintessential artifact to find and recover. Here prolific shipwreck explorer, historian, and author Gary Gentile recounts his and colleagues’ adventures recovering bells from numerous well-known shipwrecks including the Andrea Doria. He regards these efforts as rescuing our cultural heritage from the ravages of the sea.
Text and images by Gary Gentile
🎶🎶 Predive Clicklist: Hell’s Bells by AC/DC
The best way to start an article about ships’ bells is to quote the entry in my book, The Nautical Cyclopedia (1995):
“A bell has many purposes: It can call the crew to dinner, sound an alarm in the fog, signal distress and emergencies such as fire or imminent collision, and announce the time of the watch. A bell is struck when coded signals are used, such as to denote the hour and half hour, and rung rapidly when making a tocsin call.
A ship’s bell’ is generally cast from brass with a small quantity of silver added to the alloy in order to give the ring a more penetrating pitch. The clapper is generally made of iron because iron striking against brass gives a better tonal quality than brass striking against brass. The ship’s bell traditionally has the name of the vessel engraved upon it, and sometimes the date of manufacture. A bell may weigh as little as 14 kg/30 lb, or it may weigh over 450 kg/1,000 lb. A vessel may have more than one bell, which may be mounted on a davit near the bow, such as on the forecastle; on the foremast above and within reach of the crow’s-nest; on the forward bulkhead of the wheelhouse; on a davit in the stern; or some other convenient place.”
Wreck divers consider a ship’s bell to be the quintessential artifact to find and recover because the bell symbolizes both the heart and the soul of a ship and therefore of a shipwreck. Better yet, the bell of an unidentified shipwreck may establish the wreck’s identity.
The photos that follow comprise a recitation of shipwreck bells with which I have been fortunate enough to be involved.
In 1985, Bill Nagle organized a five-day expedition to recover the bell from the bow of the iconic Italian liner, the Grand Dame of the Sea, which lay at a depth of 74 m/240 ft. Volunteer helpers included Mike Boring, Kenny Gascon, Artie Kirshner, John Moyer, Tom Packer, and me. After three days of searching, we were unable to locate the bell, either on the wreck or in the sand below the davit where the bell should have been hung. So, we each went our separate ways to explore the wreck.
I had been on several cruise ships that boasted bells in the stern, so my dive buddy Tom Packer and I swam 53 m/175 ft along the upper hull to the aft steerage area. Above the emergency steering helm, we spotted an object that was so covered with sea anemones that they deformed and disguised the object’s true curved contours. I used my knife to scrape off enough anemones to read the name and date on the barnacled brass surface: “Andrea Doria,” and beneath it, “1952.”
It took the team two more days to free the bell from the steel rod that held it in place.
In 1987, I was diving on the wreck of the freighter Malchace with an express purpose in mind: to explore the forecastle in search of the ship’s bell. I describe this quest in my book, Wreck Diving Adventures (1994):
“The bow of the Malchace is separated from the main hull and lies perfectly on its starboard side, with the main winch and deck machinery still precariously in place. I approached this large intact portion with my shutter snapping, when my eye caught the glint of something protruding out of the sand. I dropped down to inspect it: A curved piece of metal perhaps 2.5 cm/1 in high and 20 cm/8 in long presented an arc which could have been the flared end of a flange.
“A quick scrape with my knife revealed a smooth brass surface under the thin layer of encrustation. I fanned the sand to reveal more of the object, then dug in earnest. Within moments, I uncovered a circular rim that grew in thickness from the top, and that narrowed its diameter under the sand. I backed away and shot a picture.
“With both hands I scooped out sand from the middle. Not until I exposed the clangor was I absolutely sure it was the ship’s bell.”
Finding and recovering are two different processes. I was unable to pull the bell out of the sand. It was too deeply embedded, and I speculated that it might still be secured to its davit. Recovering the bell was going to be a monumental task that needed the help of every diver on the boat: Jim Anderson, Dave Antolic, Jim DiPreta, Paul Gacek, Scott Jenkins, Artie Kirchner, Joe Pavia, Mel Rich, and Richard Smith.
That night I purchased three 4-inch C-clamps from a hardware store in Ocracoke, North Carolina. The next day we returned to the wreck site. I descended first, set the hook, swam to the bell, and sent up a lift bag which I tied to a nearby beam. Next in the water were Jenkins and Smith, who took down a heavy nylon line which they secured with a choker knot around the bell’s flared bottom. They also attached the C-clamps to the bell and secured a 227 kg/500 lb lift bag by weaving its lifting strap through the middle of the clamps.
Three teams of divers then dug out the bell, tightened the clamps, and partially inflated the lift bag. Finally, Kirchner chiseled apart some steel beams that the diggers had uncovered and completely filled the lift bag. We slipped free of the anchor line, pulled in the slack to the nylon line, lashed the line around the starboard bitt, reversed the engine to put tension on the nylon line, and increased RPMs until the bell was lifted out of the sand. The lift bag burst to the surface with the bell suspended below it.
The well-orchestrated plan confirmed the efficacy of teamwork.
After the brass came the irony. When I cleaned off the bell, the name that was etched in brass was not Malchace, but Manuela: a freighter that reportedly sank a mile away. After both vessels had been torpedoed by German U-boats during World War Two, the wrecks had been charted incorrectly. There was no doubt that the inshore wreck in 47 m/155 ft of water was the Manuela. I later confirmed that the offshore wreck, which lay at a depth of 63 m/205 ft, was the Malchace.
Two months after the recovery of the Manuela bell, I dived off Canso with Lynn Del Corio and Myles Wagner. We were searching for shipwrecks but not finding any when we arrived at a ledge where the depth dropped from 15 m/50 ft to 25 m/80 ft. Lying on the deeper sand was what appeared to be a naval contact mine from World War Two, complete with detonation horns.
Lynn charged downward while Myles and I descended at a more leisurely pace. The “mine” turned out to be a sunken bell buoy. The detonation horns were stubs of steel beams from the cage that protected the bell. We did not have lift bags, so I secured a sisal decompression line to the bell’s top hanger and swam it to the boat.
I then grabbed a 227 kg/500 lb lift bag and followed my deco line down to the bell. Because I was using the same set of tanks, I did not have enough air to do more than inflate the bag enough to float it upright. I returned to the boat where I rigged a regulator to a spare single tank. I convinced a deckhand (whose name I did not record) to use the tank to fully inflate the lift bag. Within a few minutes, the lift bag bobbed to the surface. I pulled it to the stern of the boat where the real work began.
Fortunately, our chartered boat was a workboat complete with a hoisting boom. It took all of us to lift the bell out of the water and swing it onto the transom. After I took some photos, we swung the bell down to the deck.
The bell buoy had drifted a long way from home. Etched above the rim were the letters USLHS—United States Light House Service. We later learned that the bell weighed more than 136 kg/300 lb.
In 1994, John Chatterton organized an overnight trip to investigate a pair of hang numbers that we hoped would be the sites of the tanker Pan-Pennsylvania and the U-boat that sank her: the U-550. The wrecks lay offshore of the Andrea Doria. On the way to the first site, we stopped over another set of hang numbers. The depthfinder revealed a huge object that stood 15 m/50 ft high in 77 m/250 ft of water.
We continued throughout the night to the next set of numbers. This was indeed the Pan-Pennsylvania. The wreck lay upside down at a depth of 77 m/250 ft but had a relief of only 6 m/20 ft: a real disappointment, because we saw nothing but the bottom of the hull. There was no wreck at the third hang spot. Everyone voted to return to the first target.
Chatterton wanted to be first to dive on the site. He secured the grapnel to the port side of the forecastle at 61 m/200 ft. I dived next. I went to the bottom to confirm the depth, then ascended along the starboard side to the upper deck of the hull. The main deck was largely intact. I cruised aft until I felt that it was time to return to the anchor line.
I worked my way forward until I spotted the forecastle bulkhead. I started to enter the crew’s quarters but stopped when I spotted a flared brass bowl with a clapper inside: the ship’s bell!
From my book, Shipwreck Sagas: “It was mounted on a gooseneck davit that had fallen backward off the forecastle deck. After a brief examination, I determined that the bell was still secured to the davit, but that the davit was free and clear.
“I glanced at my gauges. To rig the bell properly and to send it to the surface on a safety line—so as not to lose the precious artifact in case the lift bag should deflate—would require more time than I thought prudent to spend, in consideration of the amount of air that remained in my tanks. I clipped a 45 kg/100 lb lift bag to the gooseneck as a territorial marker. I put enough air in the lift bag to hold it upright. Then I skedaddled for the anchor line…
“I asked Chatterton to go with me on the next dive. I did not need help in the recovery operation, but I wanted to let him share the experience of sending the bell to the surface. We planned our steps, then executed the recovery with clockwork precision.”
On the boat, I cleaned enough of the bell to read the name of the ship: Sebastian.
At home, when I searched through my extensive shipwreck files, I learned that I had annotated the Sebastian twenty years earlier. She was a twin-screw motor vessel built in Scotland in 1914. In 1917, she was transporting 4,058 tons of petroleum when she caught fire and had to be abandoned.
I had decided not to include the Sebastian in my Popular Dive Guide Series because the wreck was too deep! Depths that were considered too deep in the 1970s had become commonplace in the 1990s.
The Bow Mariner was a chemical tanker that exploded and sank off the coast of Virginia on February 28, 2004. Recreational divers commenced visiting the wreck as soon as the Coast Guard completed its investigation of the remains. After exploring the wreck on several trips, Harold Moyers organized an expedition dedicated to recovering the ship’s bell. The volunteer team for the May 16, 2004 recovery operation included Steve Gatto, Jon Hulburt, Bart Malone, Tom Packer, Joe Zeissweiss, and me.
The depth to the seabed was 77 m/250 ft. The bell rested on the forward mast where it hung from a steel post. I don’t want to make it sound as if the recovery was easy, but it was certainly less difficult than most similar operations. The lack of encrustation on the nut and bolt, which held the bell in place, enabled the use of household tools.
Each diver had a job to perform: securing the grapnel, rigging recovery and safety lines, unbolting the bell, inflating the lift bag, and so on. My job was photographing the bell and untying the downline after completion of the job. Teamwork functioned perfectly so that the bell was recovered exactly as planned.
The wreck diving ethic in the Great Lakes, where freshwater preserves shipwrecks for longer than in seawater, is to take nothing but pictures. If it were not for this locally accepted tenet, I would not have had the opportunity to photograph relics that would already have been recovered—especially the ship’s bells in the following pictures.
The text and photos are from my book, Great Lakes Shipwrecks: a Photographic Odyssey.
The most astonishing feature of the sidewheeler Detroit is the large bronze bell and its unusual placement: inside the engine support structure, between the apex and the piston platform. The wreck lies in 55m/180 ft in Lake Huron. After photographing the bell from a variety of angles, I rapped the clangor against the inside. The resulting ring was clear but possessed a pitch that was lower than normal, as if the vibrations were somehow altered by the density of the water or muted by the rubber material pressed against my ears.
“Novelty Works” was embossed on one side of the bell. “New York 1844” was embossed on the other side. The instant I read the embossing, I thought of John Ericsson’s Monitor, the Civil War ironclad, launched in 1862. The Novelty Iron Works built the Monitor’s turret.
In 2006, I received a phone call from Sergeant Jann Gallager, a law enforcement officer of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. She informed me that the bell had gone missing. She wanted permission to use my photos of the bell for a brochure to post around the area in an attempt to locate the culprits who absconded with the precious artifact.
I granted permission and told her that it was possible that the bell had broken free of its own accord and lay somewhere below and inside the wreck. However, another diver reported that the thieves cut a 1-inch-thick steel pin, thus enabling the bell to be recovered. And there the situation still stands today.
This wooden-hulled package freighter sank after collision in 1897 and lies in 60m/195 f in lake Huron. The hull is intact except for the collision hole—which extends through two decks in the midship cargo hold—and the demolished engine room in the stern. The railing is contiguous for nearly the entire length of the upper deck. The hull is constructed of wood, but the stem is protected by a metal shield on which the load line numerals are scratched.
The bell of the Florida is not adorned with the vessel’s name. However, the wreck was identified by its capstan covers, which not only display the name, but also the date of construction and the name of the shipbuilder.
This small, wooden-hulled schooner sank in 1899 and lies in 56m/185 f in lake Huron. As you can see, the surface of the iron bell is rusted, covered with silt, and sprinkled with zebra mussels. If any lettering exists under the obfuscating pall, I was unable to determine if there were any misspellings.
Note that biologists remain challenged by the coloration scheme of zebra mussels: are they white with black stripes, or black with white stripes?
aquaCORPS Pioneer Interviews: GARY GENTILE: DEEP WRECK DIVER by Michael Menduno (1991)
Books by Gary Gentile: Gary’s Book Store
Wikipedia: Gary Gentile
Enter the wild, exciting world of Gary Gentile: author, lecturer, photographer, explorer, and deep-sea wreck-diver. He has written 68 books, published more than 4,000 photographs, discovered more than 40 shipwrecks, and led a life of adventure. He was the first scuba diver to enter the First Class Dining Room of the Andrea Doria, and he discovered and recovered a number of Italian artist Romano Rui’s ceramic panels that once adorned the walls of the First Class Bar.
In the early 1990s, Gary was instrumental in merging mixed-gas diving technology with wreck-diving. His dive to the German battleship Ostfriesland, which lies at a depth of 380 feet, triggered an unprecedented expansion in the exploration of deep-water shipwrecks, and the advent of helium mixes as a breathing medium. He wrote one of the first books on technical diving.
Gary has specialized in wreck-diving and shipwreck research, concentrating his efforts on wrecks along the eastern seaboard, from Newfoundland to Key West, and in the Great Lakes. He has either discovered or been the first to dive on scores of previously unknown shipwrecks. Over the years, he has rescued from the ravages of the sea many thousands of shipwreck artifacts, making him a leading authority in recovery techniques. He has gone to great lengths to preserve and restore these relics from the deep, and to display them to thousands of divers and non-divers alike. Throughout the years, these artifacts have been displayed at various museums, symposiums, and club-oriented exhibitions.
Laying Line in Cozumel
While tech divers thrill in the joys of mixed gas, reef drift diving, Rob Neto and his team continue to plumb the Cozumel underground, emptying their reels in newly discovered La Sección Escondido, la Cueva Quebrada, Aerolito, and a newly discovered cave that they’re keeping to themselves for now. Neto says there are tens of thousands of kilometers of passageway left to go! We also include a look at the Cozumel Underground nearly 30 years ago. Dive in!
by Rob Neto. Images courtesy of Laurent Miroult unless noted. Lead image: The author posing next to a large silt covered dripstone formation just below the halocline in la Sección Escondido.
|A blast from the past! Check out the state of Cozumel caves more than 30 years ago. COZUMEL UNDERGROUND by Michael Menduno|
Swimming through a passage large enough to drive a bus through with plenty of room to spare, I’m balancing my speed against my breathing rate. I could move faster, but that would only cause me to have to turn sooner, and I definitely don’t want to do that. I also still have to survey on the way out. It’s one of my rules for exploration – never lay more line than I can survey on the exit. Of course, there are exceptions, as with every rule. But none of them apply at the moment.
I’m laying line from my second exploration reel. Yep, number two, on that dive! There’s so much virgin passage it’s almost overwhelming. Each reel carries about 335 m/1100 ft of line. And the one in my hand, the second one, is almost empty. I can see a wall at the end of the passage, but the passage looks like it turns to the right. I think I should have enough line to make it a little beyond that turn. I’ll have to return to keep pushing the passage. As I approach the wall, I see what looks like an old cave line lying on the floor. I’m still too far from it to know for certain.
This is a saltwater cave, which means there is more life here than is found in the freshwater caves. So what I was seeing could be some sort of biological material. As I get closer, I notice what resembles a Dorf marker (named after Lewis Holzendorf who came up with the idea), the old duct tape line arrows that were common back in the 80s and 90s. My shoulders drop. The exploration of this passage has come to an end.
When most divers think of Cozumel, they think coral reefs and drift diving. Little do they know Cozumel, like Riviera Maya just across the channel, is home to numerous caves and the site of active exploration.
Finding Cenote Escondido
On that dive alone, I laid more than 600 meters/2000 feet of line. That’s in addition to more than 6000 meters/20,000 feet of line in that section since I first found it in 2015. The lead I found at that time brought me through a small bottle off sidemount restriction. It wasn’t a long traverse through the restriction, maybe ten feet. And once on the other side, the passage got wide and tall and went for miles/kilometers.
Along the way, about 450 m/1500 ft from the restriction, I found a cenote during a subsequent trip. Somehow, I had missed it when I first lined the passage. I guess I was so focused on pushing the passage I didn’t notice the debris, evidence of a cenote overhead, and the opening was small enough that a little rain produced sufficient tannins to darken the opening that day, so there was no daylight falling into the passage my first time through it. This time we were there during the dry season and daylight was penetrating the depths.
As I approached it, I saw the light ahead and thought to myself, who else could be down here in this cave? Then I realized it wasn’t the light from a diver, but the light from an opening that I was seeing. That’s when I noticed the leaves and tree branches strewn about on the floor of the passage. I covered my light and signaled to my buddy, Laurent Miroult (whose photos accompany this article). We stopped and I tied in a jump spool so we could surface. It was only 4.5 m/15 ft deep at this point. We surfaced in a small cenote that would fit one additional diver, as long as the three of us were very comfortable with each other.
The surface of the water was about 2 m/6 ft below the jungle’s floor. And there were no footholds to assist in getting in or out of this cenote. There was also no shelf to set our tanks on while we tried to climb out. We’d have to find this from the surface another time. We descended back into the cave and I did a quick survey, three stations each way, so I could pinpoint the location of the cenote on my map. I already had a name chosen for it – Cenote Escondido (Hidden Cenote). Laurent and I went back the next day to surface again while another team member searched the area from above. It took us about an hour to swim to the cenote from our entry point, so we coordinated the times and began our journey.
A little over an hour later we surfaced in Cenote Escondido and began yelling out for our teammate. About 15 minutes later, we heard him yelling back. It took him another 15-20 minutes to hack a path through the dense jungle to get to us. The cenote was even more hidden from above! He finally arrived, tired and sweaty, scratched up and bruised. He also had news of another cenote he had found as he was hacking his way through the jungle to the approximate waypoint derived by my survey (it’s since been named Cenote Catedral because of its cathedral-like appearance).
Now we had a waypoint, and we could form a direct path through the jungle to Cenote Escondido. This would allow us to cut an hour of swim time from our dives. We cut the path through the jungle, but we would need to hold off on beginning our dives at the new cenote until the next trip because we needed ropes and ladders to get to and from the water’s surface and to secure our cylinders at the surface.
Back to Cenote Escondido
Immediately upon returning to Cozumel a few months later we headed straight to Cenote Escondido and set up our equipment ropes and a couple of rope ladders we had brought with us to the island. Over the course of the next three days, I laid about 1700 m/5500 ft of line using that cenote as the starting point. Not only did entering through Cenote Escondido cut an hour of travel off the dive but it also put us right in the center of a cave explorer’s dream come true. Within 10 minutes of descending below the surface, we were laying line in virgin passage. This happened all three days! The last day was the day I finally looped back to the 35-year-old line with the old Dorf marker on it.
I follow the old line for about 45 m/150 ft before coming to an intersection that looks very familiar. In fact, it looks so familiar I am 99% sure where I am in the cave. I turn around and survey on the way out. That evening, back at the hacienda, I plot out my data and I end up right where I thought I was – only a 15-minute swim from another cenote we had accessed many times before. One of my previous team members had surveyed this area of the cave a couple of years prior. I had been to the intersection I recognized but didn’t go beyond it. Lesson learned – don’t just accept survey data from team members; go look at it for yourself!
So, two cave divers had both been to the end of the line, the one with the Dorf marker on it, and missed the larger-than-a-bus passage to the left of where it ended. I have to say I was very thankful for that because, had they noticed it, the passage wouldn’t have been there for me to discover and explore. Ok, so, yes, I found it from another location more than 900 m/3000 ft away as the fish swims. I aptly named the section that had been missed by at least two other divers la Sección Escondido, after the cenote.
La Sección Escondido currently measures approximately 10,500 m/35,000 ft in length. That’s 1900 m/6000 ft longer than the known extent of la Cueva Quebrada at the time of the original exploration and map. My team and I have laid much more line than that in other sections of Quebrada. This includes the connection between la Quebrada and Dos Coronas, which is now la Sección Dos Coronas of la Cueva Quebrada. See the article describing the connection we made in 2014.
Our explorations, along with explorations made by Steve and Judy Ormeroid in the late 2000s/early 2010s has resulted in la Cueva Quebrada currently measuring approximately 26,000 m/85,000 ft of lined and surveyed passage. And I’m not done yet. We still have ongoing exploration that we are certain will push the length of the system well over 30,000 m/100,000 ft. This makes la Cueva Quebrada the longest underwater cave system on the island of Cozumel and places it in the top ten for all underwater caves in Mexico. Our future explorations will go a bit easier because we now have DPVs on the island to facilitate travel time to the areas we are currently exploring.
In addition to our exploration in la Cueva Quebrada, we have also been resurveying and exploring Aerolito de Paraiso, the only cave on Cozumel that is publicly accessible. The original map of Aerolito reported 6000 m/20,000 ft of passage. Our explorations have increased that number to more than 7900 m/26,000 ft of lined passage as of 15 AUG 2023. And we are also still actively exploring Aerolitol. In fact, we are hopeful that we will be able to connect Aerolito to another cave on the island that we have been exploring.
This other cave was completely virgin prior to us finding it. There’s more than 940 m/3100 ft of line in that cave and the ongoing passage appears to be heading straight for Aerolito. There’s still some distance to be covered between the two caves, but we have located a possible access point along the way that we may use at some point. The island caves never stop surprising us.
The last couple of days haven’t provided quite the honeypot of virgin passage that we experienced at the beginning of the week. We might finally be nearing the end of our exploration efforts.
That’s been the thought on a few of the early trips to Cozumel in the past. I stopped having those thoughts long ago. I always have a knack for finding ongoing passage on the last dive of the trip. I even ran out of line on one of the early trips! Now I have an excess of line on the island. I’ll always have enough for at least two trips of diving. And the thoughts that I’ll ever be done exploring the passages that lie under the jungle are long gone. I’m certain I’ll be retiring from exploration and passing the reins to a younger generation before it’s fully explored. I’m already mentoring someone for that responsibility and honor.
In the meantime, I schedule the next trip before I even leave to return home from the trip I’m on. And anxious to get back to continue pushing the lead I found earlier in the day. Unfortunately, COVID slowed things down for a couple of years, but with that mess mostly behind us, we are now back strong and pushing the leads regularly again. I’m looking forward to when I can make the announcement that we’ve busted the 30,000 m/100,000 ft mark.
YouTube: Aerolito de Paraiso by Rob Neto
Cozumel Caves: Cozumel’s Influence in Choosing a Sidemount Rig (2014) by Rob Neto
InDEPTH: Deep Drift Diving in Cozumel by Alberto Nava (2019)
InDEPTH: The Who’s Who of Sidemount: Rob Neto
Speaking Sidemount E062 – Rob Neto – The Almost Comprehensive Guide to Sidemount
BOOKS:Check out Neto’s debut novel: Beyond the Grate
Rob Neto is an experienced cave diver, explorer, and surveyor. He has been diving and exploring caves for 20 years and was a dive instructor for over 10 years. His current focus in diving is cave exploration and mapping, as well as traveling around the world to experience caves everywhere. When not exploring Rob focuses on documenting underwater caves with video and as a photography model. He has been cave diving in several countries and has ongoing exploration projects in the US, Mexico, and France, as well as assisting with a project in Italy. He primarily dives sidemount configuration due to the nature of his dives but also dives SCRs and CCRs when appropriate. Rob is the author of Sidemount Diving – The Almost Comprehensive Guide 2nd edition, as well as Beyond the Grate, a suspense thriller inspired by true events surrounding the disappearance of a diver last seen at a Florida panhandle spring where an underwater cave is located. He’s currently working on a sequel, Into the Darkness Beyond.