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by Kees Beemster Leverenz
Header image and photos courtesy of K. Leverenz unless otherwise noted.
[Ed.note: Be sure to make the jump on Leverenz’s 3D model ]
About four minutes into the dive I realized I should have listened to Faisal. Nine divers in three teams, myself included, had made it to around 40 m/130 ft when the warm calm water of the Suez gulf turned into a torrent. The thick rope that connected the surface to the wreck went from vertical to nearly horizontal, and started shaking due to the powerful water flow. With a rebreather, two decompression cylinders, and a camera, I could only make headway if I turned my scooter to its maximum speed and kicked as hard as I could. Even then, progress was slow. The wreck was 37 m/120 ft away, resting in just over 75 m/250 ft of clear blue water. We had a long way to go.
Faisal Khalaf—the proprietor of Red Sea Explorers and our deep diving guide for this trip—had told us what to expect. Perhaps “warned” is a better word. However, besides being a talented diver, Faisal is an excellent storyteller with a flair for the dramatic. This had led me to believe he was being theatrical during the dive briefing in the morning, describing surging currents underwater despite placid surface conditions. He was not exaggerating.
The flow was strong, and our three dive teams resorted to a combination of negative buoyancy, scootering, kicking, and pulling ourselves hand-over-hand down the rope to get to the wreck. As I struggled against the current, another bit of the dive briefing drifted through my head: We were less than a kilometer from one of the largest shipping lanes in the world, and it would be quite dangerous to get swept off the line. Even if a large container ship could spot a diver (they can’t), and they wanted to turn, they’d be unable to. The turning radius of a modern container ship is measured in kilometers.
Around 60 m/200 ft, the wreck came into view for the first time: an enormous hulk, with two anchors at the bow and a large twin steam boiler at the stern. Schools of giant trevallies—each over a half meter long—darted around the wreck feeding on other marine life sheltering in the hull. On that first dive, our nine divers landed somewhat ungracefully in the protection provided by the thick steel of the wreck, which acted as a break-water to shield us from the powerful current that had challenged us on the descent. We got our bearings, breathed deep, and began our dive.
Faisal believes this wreck is the remains of the three-masted steel-hulled Brazilian steam corvette SC Almirante Barroso, sunk in 1893 when it struck the rocks of Al Zait. The SC Almirante Barroso was on a training mission for Brazilian Navy Cadets, and was attempting to circumnavigate the globe when it went down. Thankfully, the crew of the SC Almirante Barroso were rescued by the English ship Dolphin, but the wreck’s exact location remains a mystery. Although the identity of this wreck has yet to be confirmed, the location, size, and type of wreck matches closely.
Imaging A Mystery
This was my first encounter with the mystery ship, a single day expedition to an exciting new wreck in the midst of my first visit to the Red Sea. It was one of the more challenging dives I’ve ever done, somewhat surprising given the generally forgiving conditions in the Red Sea. It was a lesson in the fact that cold water and poor visibility aren’t the only thing that can make a dive difficult. Our team was one of several to visit the wreck since its discovery in early February of 2018. Previous dives had focused on taking pictures, shooting video, and searching the debris for something that would confirm its identity. However, the identity of the wreck remained an open question.
A little over eight months after my first visit, Faisal invited me to come back for the 2020 Wreck Exploration Project to try to create a 3D photogrammetry model of the wreck. The 3D model would make it easier to take measurements and to share the discovery with experts, and to perhaps allow us to unravel the mystery at the bottom of the Red Sea.
For those readers unfamiliar, the process of 3D photogrammetry relies on taking high-quality photos of every bit of a wreck, each image overlapping the last. If done correctly, sophisticated software can process the images and generate a photomosaic in three dimensions. Precise measurements can be taken from this model. However, even a small gap in the chain of images can make the whole process fail.
While we had a skilled crew and a roster of talented divers for the 2020 Wreck Exploration Project, the powerful current would make the process of taking the thousands of photos necessary exceedingly difficult, perhaps even impossible. There was only one reasonable way to conquer the currents while simultaneously taking photos, and that was to mount my camera on a scooter and take pictures on the go. This wasn’t something I’d done before.
In preparation for the challenge, I consulted two friends on their equipment preferences and bought the scooter camera mount they both recommended. I had it shipped from Italy, and it was set to arrive a week prior to my departure for Egypt. I thought a week would be more than enough time to test the scooter mount. Of course, I was wrong.
When the scooter camera mount arrived, I was shocked to discover that it didn’t work with my camera’s underwater housing. The mount used metric M6 screws to secure a camera, not the imperial ¼-20 screws my housing used. An adapter plate was available, but even if I ordered it, it would never arrive in time. Thankfully I was able to call in a favor from my friend Koos DuPreez, and we spent a day at his workshop machining an adapter from scratch. Another friend, Fritz Star, was able to give me some syntactic foam to make the scooter mount neutrally buoyant. Thanks to their generous help, my gear was ready to go for the project with a whole 24 hours remaining before my flight took off!
Hail Hail The Gang’s All here
The next morning, I started the three hops necessary to get to Egypt. First from Seattle to Washington DC, then from Washington DC to Zurich, and finally from Zurich to Hurghada. I was met at the airport by a smiling man holding a sign with my name on it. He was one of the Red Sea Explorer’s staff, sent to help shuttle me through airport security and ferry me to the MV Nouran, which would be our base of operations for the week. Considering the wide array of electronics, photo gear, and dive equipment I was traveling with, as well as the challenges of navigating airport security in a foreign country, his help was most welcome. We made it through the airport, and after a short ride through town, I arrived at the dock—exhausted but eager to see if we could make it happen.
The team for this trip was originally eight strong, a small complement for the MV Nouran which could fit 24 if all her berths were filled. On arrival, I discovered that three of our divers had to drop out due to last minute complications. That shrunk our already small dive team even further. At the time of departure, the team consisted of only five divers able to safely dive the wreck: Faisal Khalaf, Kirill Egorov, Dorota Czerny, Marcus Newbold, and myself. Bernard Djermakian and Olga rounded out the team as the ship’s dive guides. While they weren’t trained to dive deep enough to reach the mystery wreck, they are both experienced divers who could act as in-water support if needed. A most welcome addition.
With such a small team and such a large boat to dive from, I immediately spread out my camera equipment on one of the MV Nouran’s four dining tables, to take stock of which pieces of dive gear survived three country’s worth of baggage handlers. I’d brought three video lights to use during the photogrammetry project. Even though I can only use two lights at a time, experience has taught me that having a spare is a good idea. Many of my diving instructors have taught me the same lesson. It was a good tip, as my quick check revealed quickly one of my three lights had broken in transit. A small but essential O-ring was protruding in a way that wouldn’t be repairable until I returned to the United States. I sent the manufacturer a message, and they confirmed what I already believed to be true: the light shouldn’t be taken in the water. I was down to the bare minimum: two lights.
The next morning, the Nouran departed with the team in high spirits and with high hopes. We wanted to waste as little time as possible, so we planned our first and second diving days to be on the mystery steamship. If all went to plan, we’d have the opportunity to dive the wreck four, maybe five times.
In addition to the mystery steamship, Faisal had secured two more leads for the Wreck Exploration Project. First, he wanted to explore a newly discovered wreck laying in 30 m/100 ft of water near an oil field. It had been scanned by a well-equipped survey ship in the area, and the wreck was definitely interesting but had never been explored. Second, he wanted to explore a pit at 95 m/310 ft near the wreck of the SS Rosalie Moller. The pit was said to contain the bow of an unknown wreck, but the only divers that had been there weren’t able to confirm anything. Of course, the team was excited by the prospects, so these two targets were added to the itinerary.
Managing Mister Murphy
On the morning of February 27, 2020, Marcus and I jumped in the water with our rebreathers, deco bottles, scooters, and my camera for our first dive of the project. Conditions were good, and currents were calm at the surface. However, we both knew the docile surface conditions betrayed nothing about the powerful flow below us. Several enormous cargo ships coasted by, carrying goods to and from Europe and Asia via the Suez Canal.
We made the short surface swim to the downline, and I decided to do a quick check of my gear before we descended, knowing that we’d incur a decompression obligation in the fight to get to the wreck itself. I examined my camera first: it was fine. My right-hand side video light also worked, and after flipping it on, it was bright even in the bright light of the midday sun. I moved to examine my left-hand side video light, and was immediately disappointed. I turned it on and I was met with several quick flashes—the death throes of the LED contained in the light—then nothing. I looked at the front of the device and discovered that its dome port was half full of salt water. It had flooded in the time it took to swim to the downline.
I shouted to Marcus about the problem and we immediately turned tail to get back to the Nouran to try to salvage our first dive of the trip. We were able to jury-rig a working light out of the corpse of the light that broke in the water and the remains of the one that broke in transit. We were back in business, in the water shortly, and on the wreck in record time.
Once we reached the bottom, I breathed a sigh of relief. After the logistical challenges and the three back-to-back flights, after all the planning and the broken lights, after the custom machining and the calling in of favors, we were here and ready to go. Blue light filtered through the deep water. Visibility was excellent. Hundreds of yellow fish were schooling around the wreck. It was time to get to work.
Marcus and I made several circuits of the wreck, doing our best to get the images we’d need for the photogrammetry model. I started the process with a circuit around the base of the wreck, making sure to capture the two anchors that lay beautifully under the bow. I then moved on to capturing the ground around the wreck, and finally I made several passes over the top of the mystery steamship, to capture the steam boilers, stove, and other debris that lay inside. The scooter-mounted camera worked beautifully, and we managed to achieve good coverage in under an hour. With our primary job complete (at least for now), we made our way back to the upline to start paying our tedious penalty for deep wreck exploration: decompression. We surfaced 202 minutes after we descended, excited to see the results of the day’s work.
In the afternoon, over lunch, I started a test run of Agisoft Metashape (the software used to create photogrammetry models). The test run was complete by dinnertime. The 3D model was more complete than I’d hoped, but less complete than I would have liked. With powerful currents running perpendicular to the wreck, staying in position was much easier on the sides of the wreck where the current was tempered by the structure of the ship itself. At the bow and stern, the weaker currents along the side of the wreck became an unobstructed flow. The sudden change in water speed makes it difficult to get the chain of images necessary for a 3D model. Despite my best efforts, the challenging conditions meant I wasn’t able to get the images I needed. The model had broken at the bow. We’d need to add more images in a subsequent dive.
The next day, the weather cooperated, and we had an opportunity to return to the wreck. Kirill and Dorota descended first, with Marcus and me following a few minutes behind. We added the pictures I believed were necessary to complete the model (and a few hundred extras, just to be sure), and then took to exploring the interior of the wreck, taking some fun pictures along the way. Sadly, we weren’t able to find anything that positively identified the wreck. We made our way back to the upline, pulled the anchor from where it’d lodged in the hull of the wreck and made the long ascent to the surface for the second time in two days.
The test processing of the model after day two showed that we’d almost certainly achieved our goal ahead of schedule. I didn’t have the computer hardware aboard necessary to complete the model, so final processing would have to wait until I returned to Seattle.
We shifted gears to explore our secondary target: the shipwreck in the oilfield. After documenting this new target, we believe it to be the wreck of an oil tender called the “Texaco Cristobal.” We also explored the pit near the SS Rosalie Moller, which was just as deep as we’d been told but far less interesting. We dubbed it the “pit of despair,” and I won’t be going back. I doubt anyone will. Although not without challenges, we’d had an extremely productive first four days of the project.
We were fortunate that the early days of the project were fruitful, as the remaining days of the project were fraught with issues. Dorota caught a bad cold, and was unable to dive for the remainder of the trip. This whittled our small dive team down to just four divers. Then (thanks to a scheduling mishap) Kirill had to depart early. He packed up and loaded his gear on a small sailboat, which took him back to port and to the Hurghada airport for his trip back home.
Our dive team was down to just three: Faisal, Marcus, and me. Fortunately, Irene Homberger was leading a trip on the Nouran’s sister-ship the Tala and was able to supplement our tiny team for a dive or two, before hopping back onto the Tala. Still, the final dives of the trip were funny: three divers diving from a ship built to comfortably accommodate 24 divers, 10 crew, and two dive guides.
We had two final dives on the mystery steamship to try to make a positive identification. Powerful winds kicked up on the second to last day, big enough to wash across the deck of the Nouran. Faisal, Marcus, and I geared up and got ready. The Nouran made several passes over the wreck, but we collectively made the decision to skip the dive. The conditions simply weren’t safe, despite the fact that the team was eager and enthusiastic to try to identify it. We dove another nearby wreck, the Ulysses, instead and were lucky enough to have a delightful encounter with an eagle ray during our dive.
Our final day of diving on the mystery steamship was safe, but uneventful. No artifacts were discovered, no markings were found, and the ship remains unidentified. The data we collected was enough to complete the 3D model. We’ve distributed the 3D model to the usual suspects: experts, researchers, and other interested individuals, but to no avail. While we still hope and believe the mystery steamship is the SC Almirante Barroso, its identity remains unknown.
We’ll just have to go back.
Here is Leverenz’s 3D model of the mystery steamship.
GUE offers a course in photogrammetry: GUE Photogrammetry.
Kees Beemster Leverenz is an enthusiastic diver and GUE instructor from Seattle, Washington, who enjoys getting in the water as often as possible. He has been deeply involved with GUE Seattle since it was founded in 2011. Currently, Kees is contributing to both local and global photogrammetry projects, as well as assisting with cave and wreck exploration projects whenever possible.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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