The dark dorsal fin circling Bill Campbell was the least of his worries. The 35-year-old sports diver was adrift, without a boat, in a shipping lane 110 miles east of Montauk, N.Y. Thick fog limited visibility to 100 yards at best. If a ship approached, it would be as likely to run over him as to rescue him. It was a hell of a way to spend a summer afternoon.
At least the small blue shark provided a little company. The last time another human had seen Campbell, he was more than 200 feet underwater, exploring one of the most celebrated shipwrecks in modern history—the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria, which sank on July 26, 1956, 11 hours after being rammed nearly amidships by the Swedish liner Stockholm.
Ten days before the 32nd anniversary of that disaster, 16 of us aboard the 55-foot charter boat R. V. Wahoo reached the buoy that marked the wreck site. We had left from the dock at New York's Fire Island 14 hours earlier with all our gear for an overnight trip to the Andrea Doria, which lies in the open Atlantic about 50 miles south of Nantucket, Mass. All of us were experienced divers, and we were eager to photograph the submerged hulk of the vessel that was described, at the time of the disaster, as the most beautiful ship afloat. We were also hunting for the salvageable artifacts among the ship's fittings. The plan was to make four dives in three days, beginning that afternoon.
Nearly 50 people died when the Andrea Doria sank. Subsequently, at least four divers have lost their lives in and around the wreck. The most recent death occurred only two days before our trip. Campbell was in our diving party on this trip, and when Dave Zubik, Campbell's diving partner for the trip, returned to the boat without him, most of us aboard the Wahoo had to suppress the fear that the luxury liner had claimed another victim. If Campbell was lost inside the wreck or entangled in the many fishing nets that now drape the hulk's superstructure, our pleasure expedition would become a body recovery mission.
June 18, 1989
Campbell knew the wreck as well as any diver. He had been down to the Andrea Doria 15 times. He was not a man to become disoriented on the huge, almost featureless hull, despite the 10-foot visibility at the site that day. He was experienced enough not to use up his air supply, even though at that depth he would consume six times the amount of air he would use at the surface. Even if he became intoxicated from nitrogen narcosis, he would recognize it and wouldn't do anything stupid, such as trying to feed his regulator to a passing cod. Would he?
If Campbell had made a mistake on the wreck, by now it was over for him. On the other hand, if the strong, treacherous currents had carried him away from the marker buoy after he reached the surface, he might still be alive...somewhere out there in the fog. Captain Janet Bieser radioed the Coast Guard, which agreed to dispatch two search helicopters from Nantucket when the fog lifted.
Meanwhile Zubik and Gary Gilligan, another diver, hopped aboard an inflatable boat and took off to search for Campbell. They lost sight of the Wahoo within minutes and were forced to return when they realized it was foolish, and almost hopeless, to continue.
When I learned to dive eight years ago, I had all the usual fears: sharks, running out of air, becoming snagged and unable to return to the surface, getting lost. But experience had taught me that within limits, scuba diving is safe, and exploring a Caribbean coral reef is no more demanding or threatening than is taking a walk in the woods. Shallow-water wreck diving in the mid-Atlantic is more rugged, more like backpacking. But diving the Andrea Doria is comparable to climbing a difficult mountain.
Campbell had been missing for two hours when Gilligan emerged from the Wahoo's galley with a huge wad of aluminum foil wrapped around the end of a gaff pole. Armed with this homemade radar reflector and a two-way radio, he and Zubik got into the inflatable boat again and headed off, following the current, which we estimated was running at two to three knots.
Once more, those of us left on the Wahoo lost sight of the inflatable within moments. After two miles its blip disappeared from the Wahoo's radar. At least they were doing something; all we could do was wait and hope. The afternoon sun was fading, but the fog seemed to lift a little.
I was in the galley when the news came through. "They picked him up!" Bieser called down from the wheelhouse. Shortly after we heard the good news, Coast Guard choppers arrived overhead, circling the Wahoo until the inflatable boat came into view. In the meantime, we made bets on how much gear Campbell had discarded during his 2½ hours adrift. As it turned out, he had dropped almost everything: his weight belt, tanks, regulators and gauges—equipment worth more than $1,500. What he had refused to give up was the heavy and cumbersome underwater video system he had carried. He realized that in the dark its powerful lights could serve as a beacon to rescuers.
When Campbell was safely back on board, he asked, looking from face to face, "Did you guys really think you would find me out there? Or did you think I was...on the wreck?"
"We knew we'd find you. We knew it was just a matter of time," we lied.
Sports divers started visiting the Andrea Doria the day after it sank, when the late Peter Gimbel and Joseph Fox photographed the ship for Life magazine. In those days, before submersible pressure gauges and buoyancy compensators, diving the wreck—or diving anywhere—was a lot riskier than it is today. Every few years, beginning in the early 1970s, a boatload of pioneer wreck divers would make the trek from Montauk; Newport, R.I.; or Block Island, R.I., sometimes returning with prize artifacts—the wheelhouse compass, large brass promenade-deck windows, portholes. Eventually, Gimbel returned with a commercial salvage ship to retrieve one of the ship's safes. As more divers visit the wreck, venturing deeper inside its lightless passageways in search of increasingly difficult-to-find artifacts and unusual sights to photograph, the potential for tragedy grows.
"People don't think about how many adjustments you have to make before you make this dive," Campbell says. "You spend 13 hours on a boat, you don't sleep right, you're not feeling yourself—then you have to get in the water and start making critical decisions. It's similar to an Olympic athlete who, before the big race, sleeps in his car and eats four Reese's Peanut Butter Cups for breakfast."
I tried to put all this out of my mind the next day as my diving partner, Ed Soellner, and I pulled ourselves down the anchor line into the pea-green ocean to the Andrea Doria. When we reached the hull, Soellner disappeared into the hole that Gimbel had cut in the ship's side in 1981 to retrieve the safe. The hole, at about 220 feet, provides access to the first-class dining area, where divers dig for china and crystal bearing the Italian Line's crest. Just a few feet away from where Soellner was digging, another diver died, in 1985, when he was caught in heavy cables. I confined my sight-seeing to the hull and the promenade deck.
After 20 minutes I had to begin the long decompression necessary to avoid the bends. There was no sign of Soellner, and no time to look for him. I started up the anchor line, my heart pounding. I decompressed for nearly an hour, hanging on to the anchor rope with both hands in a current so strong that it threatened to rip my mask away if I turned my head to the side. Hanging is tiring, cold and, once you've seen the first four dozen jellyfish float by, boring. But if your partner is missing, there is plenty of time for anxiety to build. I was sure Soellner was all right...but what if he wasn't? Finally, as I neared the surface, I made out his silhouette 30 to 40 feet beneath my fins.
As the waves tossed the Wahoo about on the long ride home, some of us wondered aloud whether visiting the Andrea Doria was worth the hassle, the discomforts, the risk. A number of the divers concluded that it was not, that this would be their last trip. That was exactly what most of us had said the year before.
Cathie Cush is a free-lance writer in Horsham, Pa.