Although her sinking was nearly as shocking as that of Titanic and was the first spark that eventually helped propel the United States into World War I, Lusitania is now oddly forgotten to the world at large aside from a few dedicated historians and a brief mention in books. Nearly nine decades have passed since her loss, and unchecked, the forces of nature have robbed her of her grace and majesty.
Despite the shallow depth of the wreck, during the last ninety years very few successful expeditions have been mounted in an attempt to reveal her secrets. John Light’s dives during the 1960’s were the first serious explorations of the wreck, but because of the limited technology at the time, he was largely unsuccessful through no fault of his own or lack of ambition.
The Oceaneering expedition of 1982 was a failure for different reasons. Some of those involved had a vested interest in the outcome, and although advanced technology was available to answer many of the questions that surrounded the wreck, certain data was never revealed or was edited to fit the prevalent conspiracy theory. Oceaneering now claims that all their information from the expedition is lost.
Since the 1993 expedition, a number of scuba divers have visited Lusitania and have brought back some interesting images, which give a clearer, more-detailed look at the wreck than much of the previous footage. The currents, tides, and natural corrosion have wreaked havoc on her, and in just a few short decades, very little will be left that is recognizable.
Because hard physical evidence is quickly disappearing, it is doubtful that anyone will ever be able to conclude with absolute certainty what happened to Lusitania on that fateful day in 1915. The 1993 expedition made and documented some astonishing finds, which contradicted reports from all previous dives to the wreck, but even after the stills and video were analyzed thoroughly, nothing could be stated with any certainty.
The answer to what sent Lusitania to the bottom so quickly will probably remain somewhat of a mystery. After the tragic, deliberate destruction she suffered and the worldwide controversy surrounding her loss for nearly a century, she may yet take this one secret with her through eternity. Perhaps it is better that way.
Many people have asked me over the years, what it was like to visit the wreck in a submersible and why I wanted to take part in the Lusitania expedition. Aside from the obvious motive of seeing one of history’s most famous ships with my own eyes, the reasons were two fold. First, I wanted to find out what happened on that May day in 1915. Many of those on the expedition had a somewhat selfish motive for being there (myself included!), but unlike most other people involved, I was a totally impartial but well-informed observer. I had no point to prove, and I went to the wreck site with no preconceived notions of what we would find. All I wanted was the truth. I was able to stand back, analyze the data, and say that “this is what we found, and this is probably what happened.” Unfortunately, because of the agendas of others, the expedition fell far short of its stated goals.
My second reason for wanting to visit the wreck was for the survivors I had met over the years. Although most of them had passed away by the time the expedition took place, many had been left wondering for nearly their entire lives why the tragedy occurred and if anything could have been done to prevent it. Many wanted answers as to why their families had died and why they had to suffer as they did. Although these answers ultimately eluded us, I felt I owed it to the survivors at least to try.
Very few experiences have had a profound effect on my outlook on life, and being at the site of one of the world’s worst maritime disasters was one of them. I can describe the wreck until I have no more words, but they will not convey the emotional impact of seeing one of the history’s greatest ships, an innocent victim of war, lying on the bottom of the Atlantic. To be at the very site of the sinking and to think that less than 300 feet straight down was a ship I had spent most of my adult life researching was an experience that cannot be put into words.
All images courtesy of the Eric Sauder Collection unless otherwise noted.
© 2005 Eric Sauder
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