Home Tropical Whale of a Tale Series: Destination Doria: Part One: Getting There

Whale of a Tale Series: Destination Doria: Part One: Getting There

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As diving history progresses, legend begets fact. Some stories are too good to dissolve in the brine of the sea and continue to endure. This is one such tale.

The challenge of diving the Andrea Doria was an intangible concept since my first meeting in the early seventies with Gary Gentile, an experienced and talented North Atlantic diver. Today, Gary is considered a wreck diving legend. A remarkable outdoorsman, his extended resume includes wilderness canoeist, explorer, climber, published photographer and author of over four dozen adventure and wreck diving guide books. It is ironic considering, Gary survived a fusillade of lethal wounds in the fields of Vietnam. His scars include a small entry wound above his left nipple, and a huge crater over his left back shoulder, marks where the Viet Cong’s bullet escaped. A few millimeters lower would have pierced his aortic valve.

By Gene Peterson

After falling to the ground, more bullets ripped through the grasses cutting his Achilles tendon and tore off half of his left buttocks. Many divers that have dived with him, remain unaware of his near fatal injuries. Gary does not hide the scars. That is virtually impossible, since one usually must change from street clothes to thermal protection prior to donning a dry suit. He doesn’t flaunt his scars as a rite of passage. They seem to blend into his physique and aura. When Gary is queried about his horrific injuries, he offers neither glory nor heroics in his story. He does offer bitterness as he was forced to fight as a youth without question. Nevertheless, he did fulfill his duty with honor, but at great personal cost. Although he endures constant pain, I have yet to witness him complain. It is remarkable that the foremost wreck diver in the world, has accomplished so much with half a lung and a mangled leg.

In the seventies, I worked at a well-known dive shop in South Jersey to help pay for my college tuition. During the morning, I would attend classes, in the afternoon, I would help sell, teach and maintain scuba equipment. On one afternoon, I was given the task of breaking down six sets of double tanks with tags marked Gentile on them. I assumed that Gentile was a dive club not an individual. Later that week, I was introduced to Gary through Norman Lichtman, the owner of “The Dive Shop of New Jersey”. Gary was going to be a divemaster for the shop and I was to make sure the air banks were full when he would call bi-weekly. I found out through the diving grapevine and was warned that Gary was intrepid, and I should stay away from him if I wanted to live a long life. He was organizing a diving trip to the Andrea Doria.

In the mid-seventies, this was considered bold, perilous diving. Divers going beyond 130 feet or doing decompression dives defied the integrities of training agencies. At that time there was only one level of certification; that was scuba diver. The term “technical diving” had not been coined or condoned by certification agencies. Deep diving was done under the auspices of assumed risk and frowned upon. Deep wreck training information was obtained through word of mouth or through an underground network of self-investigative instructors and divers. These cowboy, deep wreck divers thought little of sanctions. The attraction was thrill, discovery, and comradery. Many veterans considered deep diving a form of alternative exhilaration. Only this arrangement of excitement was by choice, and on their own terms.

Gary’s enthusiasm drew me in, and I was motivated and determined by his confidence. I knew my bounds and did not assume any level of parity. He was precociously pushing the envelope of diving, opening new thresholds of wreck exploration. I remain in awe to this day of his accomplished diving exploits. His determination would prompt me to dive numerous challenging North-East wrecks, to travel with him to desolate isles of Nova Scotia, to the Andrea Doria, and the Monitor. More notably, it kindled a long-lasting friendship spanning more than four decades.

Today, the Andrea Doria is dissolving into the sandy bottom. The once humongous 700-foot structure towered over the surrounding sea floor. In its shadow, night time prevailed like the dark side of a huge mountain. The corrosive effects and unremitting motion of the sea continue to dilapidate the wreck. Once reaching a pinnacle height off the bottom of 165 feet at the lifeboat davits, today she has crumbled nearly 40 feet deeper. Divers now start their touchdown in access of 200 feet. Acres of twisted I-beams and wrenched hull plates cover the desolate sea floor. Still the hunger gnaws at venturesome divers yearning recognition and desiring challenge. Additionally, the once majestic flagship has surrendered exciting new treasures for those deep explorers wandering the freshly flushed out layers of busted hull.

In the early eighties, Gary organized additional trips to the Andrea Doria. An invitation to dive the Doria was earned to participate in this era of Doria diving. All divers would be expected to fulfill the alternating duties of a mate including, steering, deck watches, tying in, and pulling the hook. Diving was a benefit, not a guarantee on these early ventures.

Gary arranged charters with the Sea Hunter, captained by Sal Arena, whose home port was Freeport, Long Island. Sal catered to deep wreck divers and taking those divers to the Doria was the next progression. Sal’s policy of having you dive deep with him locally would qualify you prior to a Doria trip. Sal wanted no surprises. The dive was unforgiving. The Doria sometimes inspired maladroit divers to push their luck.  

The 45-foot boat would depart from Montauk, New York with Sal and six divers. As air-divers, four sets of tanks per diver were allowed, and Sal provided a k-bottle of O2 for emergency deco. We laid plywood panels forward, stretched foam pads and sleeping bags on top to accommodate the forty-plus sets of double tanks stored onboard. Comfort was not a consideration in this endeavor. Every inch of boat was utilized to fulfill the expedition. Each diver was responsible to pack one cooler of their own food, and water enough for three days. A newly developed and unfamiliar microwave oven was just installed, and one electric frying pan was available. We inadequately read the directions to the microwave during a surface interval. Skipping through the warnings, we neglected the section cautioning the use of aluminum foil. After a sparky baptism, and some 15-minute charred chicken, we tamed this smoky, explosive, fire-spitting, dragon oven.

With a six to 10-hour surface interval any form of entertainment was fortified. Sleeping, reading, shark fishing and target practice filled in some of the doldrums.  On one trip, Bill Nagle fished for cod. Convinced he had caught the mother of all codfish, Bill reeled for nearly two hours. The entertainment was watching Bill’s enthusiasm diminish until sheepishly he cut the line, realizing he had been fighting a net.

The main event was the plunge, although we remained at the mercy of the sea. Sixty miles from the nearest point of land, at the edge of the earth, diving is tentative. Conditions could change dramatically from serene, tropic-like to voracious, cold torrents of white capped precipitous seas. Divers could be pushed down by the current to the hull and have to battle their way back to the surface or vise-versa. When the current reversed, the only way to stay on the deco-line was to tie in and bear the cascading flow. Unsaturated divers frequently remained in limbo, waiting for the current to soften.  Jumping into a dogged current was fool hardy and divers risked over breathing blackout or being dragged like a wobbling lure in a river.

The most annoying marine life that infrequently pass over the wreck in late July are the blooms of jellyfish. When at their peak, divers faced the constant stinging of any exposed skin. Stings on the face and lips are shared grievances. To add drama to the dives, the sporadic snooping blue sharks coast past hanging divers, offering an adrenal boost to their decompression debt. Hovering above in the shallows, lone blues would often swoop over divers gulping at their exhausted air bubbles, and then slip away seeking more tangible sustenance. Unless one was looking up, this happenstance often went unseen above the divers preoccupied gauging their decompression.  The most dreaded condition is fog. The dense bank looming over the boat could block visibility to zilch. Divers ascending even a few feet from the boat after their dive could be swept away in the current spending hours drifting or lost altogether. The dangers of the Doria are not found in a guide or handbook, they evolve as the wreck has evolved.

Over the years of diving the Doria I have enjoyed the best of wreck diving and endured great loss. The zenith of wreck diving the Andrea Doria is the bond you share with your friends on successful trips. Yet, standing on the deck of a dive boat continuously monitoring the exploits of divers can only be compared to the feelings of parents watching their children climb high trees. The inner anxiety and fear continue until all are safely on board or as with the parent until their prodigies have gently touched the ground. Unfortunately branches break, children climb too high and fall. As well wreck divers go too deep, too far and sometimes beyond the point of return. We are vulnerable, but the push to explore is an insatiable human trait.

So, what is the thrill that has lured so many adventurers to the Doria? I can’t answer for the throngs of divers that have made the journey, nor for those that now seek this as their goal. For myself, it was a progression of circumstance. I was in the right place with the right group of North-east wreck divers. The journey there was a natural path. I was inspired by those that ventured before me as I prepared in those dark cold waters.

The Andrea Doria may be demoted from rank as new technology tears at the envelope of exploration, but its part in the history of that growth cannot be denied.  It will continue to attract adventure seekers because of its enduring fame.

My thoughts draw back to after that first dive on the Doria as I stood on the deck of the Sea Hunter with my dive partner John Moyer. That moment will remain one of my most outstanding memories.