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Diving the wreck of Carpathia


The circumstances and details of Carpathia’s sad ending were typical of the many thousands of merchant vessels sunk by enemy action in the First Word War.

Consequently, stories of more publicised and controversial losses, such as the Lusitania in 1915, tended to dominate public attention. However, the significant role that the Carpathia played in the Titanic disaster would always ensure that this modest Cunard vessel would never be forgotten. The wreck was of obvious interest to salvors and divers, but the remote offshore location and depth meant that no serious attempts were made to locate or dive the wreck for many decades. However, the discovery of the Titanic wreck in 1985 and advances in diving equipment created renewed interest in discovering what remained of Carpathia.

In 1979 the best-selling American novelist Clive Cussler founded the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), a non-profit organisation dedicated to discovery and preservation of maritime heritage. The Carpathia was a natural target for NUMA and in 1999 a search team was put together in conjunction with a new television series, The Sea Hunters. The team included Cussler himself, archaeologist James Delgado and commercial diver Mike Fletcher. In September 1999 NUMA sponsored an initial search for Carpathia by the British explorer Graham Jessop. The expedition located a wreck that they thought to be Carpathia. However, a subsequent visit to the site utilising underwater cameras established the wreck to be the Isis of Hamburg-America Line, which foundered in a storm in 1936.

In May 2000 Mike Fletcher lead the NUMA team out to search for the wreck once more. One of the biggest challenges in locating the wreck was the lack of an accurate starting location. At the time of the sinking a number of different positions were recorded by Carpathia’s radio officer, the German submarine U-55 and HMS Snowdrop (which had picked up the surviving crew and passengers). A search area had to be defined on a chart covering all possibilities so that a systematic survey could be undertaken using side-scan sonar and a magnetometer. The part of the ocean being searched was a rich hunting ground for U-boats, so the presence of a wreck on the seabed would still require positive identification as that of Carpathia. After a month of searching the wreck was located and was conclusively identified by further ROV footage taken in September. On 22 September 2000 NUMA issued a press release stating that the wreck of the Carpathia had been found.

The wreck of Carpathia was dived for the first time by a team of British technical divers in August 2001. The group travelled the 268 miles from Plymouth aboard the Loyal Watcher, skippered by Steve Wright, with all divers taking spells at the helm. When they arrived at the wreck site the conditions were perfect, with just a gentle Atlantic swell. As the divers made their final preparations it was with a degree of apprehension as they did not know what conditions awaited them deep in the ocean and so far from shore. Four divers descended to the wreck: Rich Stevenson, Ric Waring, Zaid Al-obaidi and Bruce Dunton. Fred Buckingham and Dave Whitney took on the important role of safety divers. Ric Waring was the last to enter the water and described his dive:

‘When I got down to the wreck I was amazed to find myself in ambient light. I hadn’t turned my torch on and could see the wreck stretched out around me, two huge telegraph heads lay on top of the wreck, we were right on the bridge! Zaid was nowhere to be seen, Richie was returning back toward the shot line and Bruce had gone off the side of the wreck trying to get down to the sea bed. Two huge ling were patrolling the wreck like guard dogs obviously curious about our arrival. I managed to turn my torch on as Richie gave me a salute as he began his ascent. The wreck was full of very hard shells and coral and crawled with brittle stars. I spotted some plates and found one with the Cunard line’s crest.’

All divers breathed mixed gas (trimix 6/80) on closed-circuit rebreathers and managed to spend about twenty minutes on the wreck at an average depth of 153m (502ft). Such a deep dive imposed a heavy decompression penalty of five hours in open water. The water temperature on the seabed was 13°C (55°F), warming to 20°C (68°F) for the final decompression stops in the last 10m (33ft). The divers finally broke the surface to a beautiful sunny afternoon and the sight of dolphins playing across the bows of the Loyal Watcher. A china plate with the Cunard crest was recovered, proving conclusively the wreck’s identity as Carpathia. This dive in itself was a considerable technical achievement and at the leading edge of underwater exploration on scuba. It was also believed to set a record for the deepest ever UK wreck dive at the time.

It was not until September 2007 that divers returned to the Carpathia. The depth at which the wreck lies caused problems with the underwater cameras and lights but nonetheless one of the highlights of the expedition was the recovery of a double-headed bridge telegraph by Jeff Cornish. Various other smaller items such as china plates were recovered. In his dive report, Rich Stevenson noted that the wreck is starting to collapse in on itself.

Extracted from Shipwrecks of the Cunard Line by Sam Warwick and Mike Roussel

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