Acclaimed technical diver and photographer Vic Verlinden has finally finished his epic five-year odyssey to publish Lusitania: The Underwater Collection, and here he gives a snapshot of what this adventure has been like.
Even during the COVID pandemic, the ‘Lusitania – Project 17' continued to document this historically important wreck off the Irish coast. New spectacular photos and a book were compiled that give a new and never-seen picture of the wreck.
When I had contacted Peter McCamley in 2017 to dive on the wreck of the Lusitania, I never imagined that this would become my most-important project ever.
In 2017, the project was launched to extensively document the wreck of this legendary ship with photo and film footage. I made my first dives on the wreck in 2018 and have since taken more than 2,000 photos on the wreck. During the five different expeditions (2018-2022) I participated in, I was able to make 25 dives on the wreck located at a depth of 92m. Diving on the Lusitania is a task not to be underestimated because the wreck is in tidal water and visibility is usually only six metres. The sea can be very turbulent at that location and often dive operations have had to be interrupted due to bad weather. The wreck is barely 12 miles from shore, but it can be a very difficult trip if there is a lot of wind.
New discoveries on the wreck
The first two expeditions were not easy because orientation on the wreck was very difficult due to poor visibility and many fishing nets on the wreck. I had taken reasonable shots during these expeditions, but it was in 2020 when I got to know the wreck better that I was able to get really good shots.
We also managed to take pictures in the engine room which became more accessible due to the disintegration of the hull. The wreck is now rapidly changing and collapsing further due to corrosion and the action of the current. The advantage, of course, is that one gets a different view of the various parts. One such part that we were able to bring into view was the centrifugal pump, of which we also had a historical image.
With modern cameras it is now also possible to make images that could not be made in the past due to the limitation of the devices. During the dives I always tried to dive as close to the wreck as possible to find new details on the wreck. Among other things, we discovered the marble parts of the fireplace that was located in the beautiful lounge. The marble pieces of the Corinthian column were well hidden among the other debris of the wreck. When using an underwater scooter, we would never have discovered them. It is only when looking at everything in detail that one can discover these parts.
Another important discovery were the parts of the central elevator cage. Even though this cage was almost completely destroyed, the parts were still easily recognizable. In all these discoveries, the help of our expert Stuart Williamson was indispensable. He has been studying the wreck for over 30 years and therefore has incredible knowledge in this area.
The most-important discovery during my dives over the years was in 2022. My dive buddy was Pieter Decoene and he discovered an intact shoe among the wreckage. It looked like the shoe was put there and was frozen in time. For me, it is still the most-important photo I took on the wreck in five years.
One of the main assignments was to take images of the boilers inside the wreck. After the ship was torpedoed and sank, one theory was that the boilers had exploded. Therefore, the ship would have sunk quickly. However, it was not easy to find an entrance, yet one team had succeeded. The images they had made were not of the best quality and I definitely wanted to make better ones during a future expedition. The problem was to find the access point back on a wreck more than 250 metres long.
My dive buddy was Colin Luke Brennan and he took on the task of laying out a line on the wreck. That way we could easily find our way back to the ascent line. When we got to the wreck after the descent there was reasonable visibility and we were able to swim directly to where we thought the access was. We were really lucky that dive because almost immediately, I saw a large hole in the hull. Inside the hole there were protruding parts left and right, and we had to be careful while swimming in.
After a descent of about 10m we had to adjust to the environment for a while, but then I immediately saw one of the boilers. Right next to it there was a second one, and both were undamaged. One of the boilers had rolled off its frame, but this probably happened during the sinking. It was nice that even the pressure gauge on the boiler was still there and that the valve was still open to scoop in the coal.
After I had taken a number of shots, the visibility in the boiler room deteriorated. It was now time to swim out quickly. Outside on the wreck, I waited until my buddy swam back out safely and reeled in his line as we returned to the ascent line.
Search for the name
During the last expedition in 2022, we had planned to photograph the ship's name on the bow. However, we did not know if the bronze letters were still present on the bow. We managed to place our line near the bow on the wreck. That way we were already close by the time we got to the wreck. Visibility was reasonable and we could get our bearings. We swam toward the bow and immediately came to a place where there were large holes in the hull. My buddy did a sign with his lamp and as I got closer I saw thousands of bullets scattered here and there. It was part of the four million Remington bullets listed on the payload list. You could also still see in some places parts of the wooden boxes in which they had been packed.
It was extraordinary to note that in the five years that I had been diving on it, the wreck had still changed. Certainly in this place, the hull had fallen apart. Many other parts were photographed for the first time, such as the winches on the bow. I have included the 160 best underwater pictures in the book. The photos have also been made available to the relevant ministry in Ireland, who co-manage the wreck. This way, new information can be gathered from the pictures to better protect the wreck. The new owners of the wreck (Old Head Museum) also have a copy of the photographs so that they can be used in the future in the new museum that is planned. In the next few years, the wreck will certainly yield more secrets and perhaps some items can be recovered to show to the general public. The Lusitania continues to fascinate me!
Lusitania: The Underwater Collection
The 200-page A4 hard-back book Lusitania: The Underwater Collection will soon be available, containing 160 underwater photographs and 240 historical photographs and illustrations. It is priced at €40.
Photo credit: Vic Verlinden