Fathoming the Mysteries of the Lusitania
As it probes an undersea puzzle, a small yellow submarine almost becomes the Lusitania's newest victim.
by Andrew Revkin
Twelve miles south of Ireland’s green coast and 300 feet beneath the sea, two men who had spent years studying the sinking of the luxury liner Lusitania came face to face with her remains. Crammed inside the little Delta, a Honda-size yellow submarine, they stared in wonder through its thick portholes as the rusted hulk slid by. Seventy-eight years had passed since a German torpedo sent the liner to the bottom and 1,195 people to their death.
This was the first major expedition seeking answers to the riddles surrounding the tragedy, which helped pull the United States into World War I. Inside the darkened control room of the Northern Horizon floating far above, a team of ocean explorers watched TV screens as a separate, remote-controlled submersible scanned the bow of the wreck. The camera-studded robot, called Jason, swept back and forth like a lawn mower, creating a mosaic of detailed photographs. Portholes and shredded fishing nets passed the cameras. “There's the name,” said Robert Ballard, the expedition’s leader, leaning forward in his chair. “There’s the L.”
Suddenly, a voice crackled through the darkness. “Propeller in a net.” It was the pilot of Delta. He and his two passengers—neither of whom had ever been in a submarine—were ensnared at the far end of the wreck.
Ballard stiffened. He knew what it was like to be in trouble deep beneath the sea. Just a year earlier, he and two men had been 3,000 feet down in a small sub when it began to fill with lethal carbon dioxide. Now the control room fell silent except for the pinging of sonar and the radio’s squawk. Betraying no anxiety, Ballard and the pilot debated ways of freeing the submarine. All the while, cameramen for the National Geographic Explorer documentary series scrambled to record the unfolding drama—just the latest of Ballard’s remarkable undersea adventures.
Using old photos and interviews with historians and survivors, Ballard and the filmmakers are reconstructing the sinking. They’ll blend that material with the footage of their exploration of the ghostly ship. “In this program, we'll take you on a journey that began in New York on May 1, 1915, and ended six days later right here,” he says. “We converge on a point in time.”
For more than 30 years, Ballard has been leading efforts to explore the world’s oceans. “We've mapped the far side of the moon, but we have seen less than 1/10 of 1 percent of the deep sea,” says the lanky 51-year-old scientist, who directs the Center for Marine Exploration at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. He has participated in nearly 100 expeditions. In that time, he’s discovered unique creatures that thrive around hot-water vents in the sea floor, charted submarine mountain ranges that dwarf the Alps, and found lava-filled rifts where the plates that comprise Earth’s surface are built. He’s even found time to serve as a consultant on Steven Spielberg’s NBC ocean opera seaQuest DSV. Ballard is best known, however, for his missions to famous shipwrecks, starting with the Titanic, which he discovered lying 12,500 feet down in the frigid North Atlantic in 1985.
Ballard had been intrigued by the Lusitania for years. A rarity among wreck explorers, he espouses a hands-off policy, preferring to leave the underwater memories intact rather than scavenge artifacts. “Which has more impact: a shoe from the Titanic in a museum display, or two shoes sitting on the bottom exactly where the person who wore them died?” he asks. “Which is more riveting?”
For the Lusitania project, Ballard assembled a crack team of computer experts, technicians, and researchers that included his wife, Barbara, who handled much of the advance planning. Two years of preparation preceded the two-week, $1.5-million expedition.
A multimillion-dollar array of specialized gear—including Jason, the submersible; Delta, the mini-sub; and the control room—was transported to Ireland in containers and placed aboard a chartered ship.
And now a very costly piece of that gear, its pilot, and two of Ballard’s hired experts were stuck 300 feet beneath the Celtic Sea, threatening to become the Lusitania’s newest victims. The two submarine passengers had dreamed for years of seeing the wreck up close, but this was a little too close. Ken Marschall, a 43-year old marine artist, had been painting realistic depictions of wrecks for Ballard since the Titanic expedition. Shoulder to shoulder with him was Eric Sauder, 30, a banker and a historian. He had 40 Lusitania postcards with him in the sub, which he planned to send to friends as unique souvenirs—if he made it back to the surface.
He and his brother Bill, who was waiting on the Northern Horizon, are the leading authorities on the liner and its sad story. The Sauders had flown in from Los Angeles to help identify items scattered on the sea bottom and to pinpoint clues that might shed light on the mysterious disaster. The only undisputed fact was the ship’s location. Otherwise, the sinking remained clouded by charges and counter-charges.
There were persistent rumors that Britain had wanted the liner sunk, knowing that the deaths of American passengers might finally force the neutral United States to go to war. Was it true that the Royal Navy had returned to the wreck several times in an effort to destroy any evidence that might confirm German allegations that the Lusitania had been carrying munitions? Only a detailed explanation could help resolve the long debate.
One of the biggest questions was, how could a 790-foot-long ship, divided into watertight compartments, sink in just 18 minutes? Even the Titanic, whose plates were unzipped by an iceberg, took hours to slide beneath the waves. Many of the survivors of the Lusitania recalled the impact of the torpedo and a small first explosion, followed by a powerful concussion that shot a geyser of steam, water, and coal dust up through the ship's bridge. Another of the enduring controversies concerned that second, fatal blast. Was it the ship’s own boilers, which, with their extraordinarily high steam pressure, could burst like bombs? Was the explosion caused by inflammable coal dust in the vast storage bunkers? Or, as the German government charged, were munitions for war secreted in the forward magazine of the ship? If true, this would bolster the Kaiser’s claim that the Lusitania had been a legitimate target.
Some of those riddles could be answered by this expedition. Meanwhile, Bill Sauder sat in the control room next to Ballard, alternating between exultation and panic as he watched the wreck of his dreams drift by on the monitors and listened to the terse radio reports concerning his brother in the trapped Delta. Ballard reassured him that the sub was in no danger. “They're going to have tales to tell their grandchildren.” Sauder chuckled but swallowed hard.
Hovering near Ballard and Sauder, a young man with a camera on his shoulder quietly recorded the scene. Peter Schnall had been shooting documentary films for National Geographic for six years, on subjects ranging from the variegated lifestyles along Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard to the floating city aboard a huge riverboat in Zaire. Schnall squatted and brought his camera lens to within inches of the radio as the sub pilot reported, “Clear the area. We're going to drop the tail.” Translation: The pilot was going to unbolt the snared propeller from inside the sub and head back to the surface without power. “We're coming upl”
Schnall, Ballard, Sauder, and several others rushed out of the darkened control room and into the bright sunshine. An inflatable speedboat roared away from the ship to stand by near the spot where the Delta would rise. A hundred yards astern of the Northern Horizon, the glinting waves parted and the conning tower of the tiny submarine bobbed to the surface. Just three minutes later, Marschall and Eric Sauder were hopping onto the deck of the ship, laughing with relief. While cameras rolled, Ballard confronted Marschall with mock outrage: “You ruined my submarine!” Marschall, ever the artist, was already absorbed in trying to recall what he had just seen. “The ambient light is amazing. It’s a deep Christmas green. I’ve always used blues before. But it’s not blue and pretty. It’s green and creepy!” Within hours, he would be back at his drawing table, churning out new sketches. Eric Sauder would be hunkered down with his brother, poring over plans of the wreck—and eagerly writing his postcards.
Ballard ducked back inside the control room to continue directing the robot’s scan. He breathed a sigh a relief and smiled. “Never a dull moment in deep submergence,” he said.
Copyright 1994 by News American Publications, Inc.
Note: This article originally appeared in the 9 April 1994 issue of TV Guide, the largest circulation weekly magazine in the U.S.
© 2005 Eric Sauder
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