Otter Watersports has a history of supporting major diving expeditions, providing top quality drysuits for trips that challenge and inspire.
In the past we have supported trips such as:
- Lampedusa, Malta, 2001
- Rockall 2003
- HMS Victoria 2005
- Jordan 2009
- Dahab record breaker 2011
and trips to Britannic in 1997, 2003 and 2012.
We recently supported the crew of the Diving Vessel Tenacious in their Lusitania expedition. This celebrated team have an illustrious history of discovery behind them, as detailed in the book Where Divers Dare by Randall Peffer. The crew all wore Otter Brittanic Kevlar drysuits on this challenging expedition.
D/V Tenacious team member Jennifer Sellitti wrote an amazing piece on the expedition, which is available through the dropdowns below. The team also supplied a set of incredible hi-res images which you can enjoy in the gallery at the bottom of this page. Working with teams like the Tenacious crew is something we love to do at Otter, proving our suits work under the most challenging conditions.
1,201 human beings died on May 7, 1915, when U-20 torpedoed Lusitania. She sank within sight of land and in just eighteen minutes. Lusitania was not a military vessel. She was a passenger liner full of men, women, and children. Those aboard included the elderly and infants. They were Americans and Europeans. They were first-class passengers and stowaways. Some died in lifeboats and in the days following the sinking, but most met their end where Lusitania cracked and fell.
More than 100 years later, the ship rests on the bottom of the Irish Sea at a depth of 300 feet/91 meters. Lusitania is scattered across the ocean floor in waters that are cold, dark, and in constant motion from winds and the tides. In August of 2021, a team of British and American divers set out to explore the remains of this once-luxurious vessel.
Lusitania, a British passenger ship owned by the Cunard line, left New York on May 1, 1915, carrying 1,962 passengers and crew bound for Liverpool. New Yorkers gathered to bear witness as she sounded the all-aboard and set to sea. She was a spectacular sight. Cunard Line built the ship for the transatlantic passenger trade and launched the liner in 1906. She quickly became synonymous with speed and luxury. The former won her the Blue Riband for fastest transatlantic passage in 1907. Lavish interiors, hotel-style service, and electric lighting and heating won her a reputation for the latter.
WWI raged in Europe on the day Lusitania left port. America had not yet declared war, but there was growing concern about German U-boat activity in the British Isles. Notices in the newspapers warned American travelers they may be subject to U-boat attack, but few believed there was any real danger.
Lusitania never arrived in Liverpool. On May 7, 1915, U-20 sent a single torpedo into the ship’s starboard side and sank her to the depths. Of the 1,962 passengers on board, 1,201 perished. Ninety-four children and thirty-one infants died. The extraordinary death toll made it one of the worst maritime disasters in history.
German audacity made matters worse. The German Navy bragged about sending innocent civilians to their deaths and created propaganda that glorified the sinking as a military success. The United States would not enter WWI for eighteen more months, but Lusitania was a call to action for many Americans as pressure to declare war mounted. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the British Admiralty, said of the Lusitania disaster, “The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of 100,000 men.”
Unlike shipwrecks that are lost and rediscovered again many years later, Lusitania did not remain hidden for long. She was rediscovered on October 6, 1935, by the salvage steamer Orphir. The wreck lies at 300 feet/91 meters, which is two-and-a-half times the depth of today’s recreational dive limits.
Three weeks after the discovery, Orphir lowered diver Jim Jarrett to the wreck wearing a one-atmosphere J.S. Peress Tritonia suit designed by Joseph Salim Peress. The heavy metal walls allowed Jarrett’s body to withstand the pressure at depth long enough for him to positively identify the wreck. Less than a decade later, during WWII, the British Navy regularly depth-charged Lusitania. The official story was that it was to prevent German U-boats from hiding in the shadow of the wreckage, although some say it was to destroy evidence that Lusitania carried munitions.
American Navy diver John Light rediscovered the wreck in the 1960s. He conducted more than forty dives to Lusitania using basic SCUBA equipment and breathing only compressed air. Temperatures in the Irish Sea during the summer months run approximately 50F/10C degrees at the bottom. Immersion in water accelerates the loss of body heat, which is why today’s divers wear dry suits and even heating systems to keep warm during decompression. Light dived the wreck wearing only a neoprene suit.
American businessman Gregg Bemis acquired the rights to Lusitania in 1982. Shortly thereafter, Oceaneering surveyed Lusitania and salvaged the vessel. Oceaneering teams descended upon the wreck in 1982 and 1983. Divers decompressed in a two-man dive bell with a saturation chamber attached to the support ship. Their suits were equipped with hot water circulation systems to combat the cold. The corporation cut away anchors, propellers, and other items during this massive and destructive private salvage effort. Some of these artifacts are on display in various parts of the world while others have gone missing.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, with Robert Ballard, surveyed the Lusitania in May 1993. The result was a National Geographic film and magazine spread documenting the wreck and her condition. Exploring the Lusitania: Probing the Mysteries of the Sinking that Changed History introduced a new generation of divers to the ship and her unique place in history.
It was around this time that the advent of closed-circuit rebreathers (CCR) and the widespread use of mixed gases started to allow ordinary people to reach extraordinary dive limits. Acceptance of these two technologies in the 1990s ushered in the age of modern expeditions to shipwrecks like Lusitania and Britannic. Bottom time changed from a function of how much gas a diver could carry to how much decompression they were willing to endure. Today, expeditions to Lusitania are comprised almost exclusively of CCR divers.
The August 2021 Expedition
The August 2021 Expedition Team consisted of eight CCR divers, four American and four European: Rick Ayrton, Andrew Donn, Jacob MacKenzie, Joe Mazraani, Steve Pryor, Scott Roberts, Rick Simon, Joe St. Amand. With the exception of Donn and St. Amand, the team had dived together previously as part of an expedition to Britannic in May of 2019. Roberts led the Britannic expedition, which made news around the world for the discovery of the ship’s bell. Lusitania was a natural follow up. Mazraani and Roberts, by now not only dive teammates but close friends, co-led the expedition to Ireland. Every member of the team recognized the role that the sinking of the Lusitania played in both British and American history.
The team lived and worked out of Kinsale, a small seaside town on Ireland’s southern coast. Divers traveled to Lusitania aboard Captain Gavin Tivy’s vessel, Sea Hunter. Tivy is a diver and an experienced captain. Sea Hunter has been instrumental in assisting the Irish government, under strict permits and archeological protocols, with the retrieval of artifacts from Lusitania and other historic vessels in the area.
The team made six dives to the wreck: two in the forward section, three amidship, and one in the stern. They were joined by Diver Eoin McGarry on two of their dive days. McGarry has dived Lusitania more than any other person alive and worked closely with Gregg Bemis to ensure the wreck’s memory and history are preserved. Prior to his death, Bemis appointed McGarry one of four Lusitania stewards. Today, McGarry serves an ambassador to the wreck to the diving and non-diving world alike and works alongside a team at the Old Head Signal Tower Committee, which now owns the wreck, to monitor Lusitania expeditions and to oversee efforts to preserve the ship’s legacy. The Committee’s most pressing project is to build a museum at the Old Head of Kinsale to house Lusitania artifacts and historical documents. McGarry was with the team for their first and last dives to the wreck.
Descending on Lusitania is at once thrilling and disorienting. Unlike shipwrecks that rise up in identifiable chunks from the ocean floor, Lusitania is a collection of scattered wreckage and debris. This is due not only to U-20’s torpedo, but to British Navy depth charges and the 1980s salvage. Natural conditions have further contributed to the wreck’s deterioration. Lusitania has been battered by the North Atlantic’s notorious currents, tides, and constantly shifting sands. There are larger places where divers can penetrate the wreck and explore interior compartments, but the allure of diving this wreck is hunting for signs of life in hidden amongst the debris.
Each section of the ship has unique features. Lusitania’s forward section includes remnants of the bridge, the area from which Captain Tuner and his crew operated the liner on its final voyage. Here, large items used by the captain and his men are frozen in time. The telemotor helm, part of the hydraulic system used to the steer the ship, is visible. It was used to transmit commands to the steering engine and turn the ship’s rudder. This section of the ship is the final resting place of Lusitania’s enormous triple-chime steam whistle. It is the one that sounded when the ship left New York for the last time.
The damage to the vessel is most evident amidship, just behind the bridge, where the torpedo struck. Here, in addition to a large debris field, there are some more structurally substantial areas, places where divers can go inside the wreck and explore. The boilers are located amidship. They have been the focus of debates about whether a ruptured boiler caused a secondary explosion that hastened Lusitania’s sinking. Getting to the boiler area requires divers to penetrate an interior compartment. Lusitania had 23 double-ended and two single-ended boilers situated in four boiler-rooms. Only a small portion of those boilers are visible. The rest are buried too deep within in the ship to make it possible to know how many are still intact and if any exploded. Remnants of passengers and crew are also evident amidship. Ornate windows, portholes, and chamber pots are caught in sprawling piles of debris.
The team’s last dive was their one and only dive to the stern. It turns out that last dives are magical for this team. It was on the team’s sixth and final dive to H.M.H.S. Britannic that Joe Mazraani discovered the ship’s long-lost bell; and it was on the last dive to Lusitania that diver Rick Ayrton contributed to her history. Ayrton came across what at first appeared to be a large piece of metal or wood. He realized upon further inspection that it was a large piece of glass covered by a thin coating of sand. Beneath the sand, he saw small patches of bluish-white peeking through. He fanned the sand away to reveal larger blue sections and photographed what he could before it was time to turn the dive. Ayrton assumed someone had seen this panel before, but he was wrong. Lusitania scholars could only speculate what it might be based on photographs and ship’s plans. It took the following expedition to document the piece further and provide enough evidence to determine that what Ayrton found was a blue glass door that once graced the second-class smoking room. This is an important example of how expeditions build on one another and how each small observation contributes to the ongoing exploration of this magnificent shipwreck.
Diving Lusitania means navigating large fields of twisted metal and debris. Returning from the wreck requires hours of decompression in cold water. Choosing the right equipment is critical to success. Members of the American team routinely dive Otter drysuits, and the Lusitania expedition was no exception. American team members consulted Otter about the best suits option for conditions in the Irish Sea. One clear answered emerged: the new Otter Atlantic Kevlar Drysuit. Each suit was custom made to ensure the perfect fit.
The Otter Atlantic did not disappoint. The addition of Kevlar to the already-tough Otter Atlantic model provided maximum damage resistance while maintaining extraordinary flexibility when penetrating the wreck and working in difficult environments. Divers remained warm and dry warm and dry even on the worst weather days. “Nothing compares to Otter Atlantic’s quality and durability,” said Mazraani. “Knowing our equipment was up to the task gave us piece of mind on during each dive to Lusitania.”
The August 2021 Expedition Team has hosted a series of presentations and events to educate the public about Lusitania. In October of 2021, their film, “Lusitania’s Legacy,” debuted at the prestigious Boston Sea Rovers Film Festival. A final version of the film is being edited and will be made available to the public later this year. The team continues to work with members of the Old Head Signal Tower Committee in Kinsale and their representatives here in the United States to raise awareness about the importance of building the Lusitania Museum and preserving Lusitania artifacts before they are lost to the sea. As for the next expedition? “That you will have to wait to find out,” said Mazraani. “The only thing I can say for certain is that our Otter Drysuits will be there with us.”
Click on an image to see the high resolution version!
Find D/V Tenacious here.