How I discovered the wreck of the Transylvania, by Guido Gay
“Dr. Gay, we have the need to locate a wreck, could you help us?”
This is the unexpected phone call which I received in April 2011 from Marshal Lenzini of the Diver’s group of the Carabinieri of Genoa. We, my company Gaymarine and myself have provided the robot PLUTO to them and have always worked very well together with sensational recoveries like the car recovered from the depths of a lake with the help of a "sensitive".
In this case there is no sensitive to help, the location of the wreck of the Transylvania is well known, but thus far no one has been able to find it. Marshal Lenzini tells me that the area in which to search is limited and at no excessive depth, though probably beyond the limits of their PLUTO which is of 300 meters.
During the summer I am always sailing with my catamaran Daedalus to experiment the various innovations and equipment we develop at always greater depths, so I tell him:
"Marshal, In May I will sail immediately to the Transylvania location.”
It seemed like a very simple and easy task, of the type: I sail there, I find it and I come back.
My DAEDALUS is a very special vessel, which I have designed and developed over twenty years ago. I have circumnavigated the globe with her for a period of five years, following which I have spent two more years sailing across the Pacific Ocean visiting peaceful tropical islands and carefree populations, passing through some of the most pleasant places on earth.
Leaving behind the oceans, in the Mediterranean Sea, DAEDALUS pulls out her determination of high-tech researcher. Equipped as a miniature oceanographic ship, with an automatic dynamic positioning system composed of a computer controlled auxiliary propeller which allows to autonomously hold position without the need to anchor before deployment of the PLUTO ROV. Do keep in mind that anchoring is not possible at great depths, which is the typical location where the PLUTO is deployed.
But the robot, when lowered to great depths, with the aid of its lights can only see a few metres away. Even when using its navigation sonar it cannot look around beyond one hundred meters, making it not suitable for wide-range research.
With an ROV System, before you begin searching, you need to locate an interesting spot in which to search. Then how would I find the correct point? In our case how would it be possible to locate the exact coordinates of the Transylvania so as to launch the Pluto and inspect it?
And here is where another of my “Inventions” comes in handy. A special long range Side Scan Sonar!
What is a Sonar? Ultrasounds, very high frequency vibration not hearable by the human ear, which are shot through the water concentrated in a very narrow fan shaped beam. All objects invested by the beam produce an echo which is recorded. Moving the fan beam, a map of the bottom is produced.
Great! The DAEDALUS sonar can map the sea floor at a rate of 10 square kilometers per hour; I therefore imagine an easy task.
I reach Bergeggi, the weather is good and the Carabinieri diving team comes on board and they start showing me the available documentation. Reading through the story of the parish Priest of Bergeggi, I try to guess the distance: “… Cant you see that it is flying the British flag?....” he says.
How far can you distinguish a flag? I do not think more than 2 km, and that would make it too close to the shore. But then if certain claims are patently absurd, how can one believe all the others? Then I was shown the map drawn by the commander of the German submarine: also this one shows the point of impact of the second torpedo too close to the coast. With this in mind I decide to start a first systematic sonar scan of the seabed starting from the most reasonable area. And off we went.
To make it short, what looked like a simple task, previously tried without success by one of my fellow-renowned French competitor, turned into 5 days of sailing back and forth, up and down, mapping a vast seabed area with the result that none of the many dark spots detected by sonar could reasonably represent the wreck of a 160m long ship.
We discovered a large trench in front of Spotorno; the trench was full of rocks and with depths in excess of 700m: Could it be that in between the many rocks we could find what we were looking for?
It would take too long and be too straining to send the Pluto down to inspect each and every one of those rocks I thought to myself.
So an idea came to my mind: I should procure a magnetometer to detect the presence of a ferrous mass. Of course my unconventional spirit lead me to think of a tool not like any existing ones which are typically dragged behind the ship at very slow speed, but I thought of a vertical probe that dives quickly on the spot as if it was the PLUTO.
“Therefore dear Marshall, I’ll see you again once I will be ready with the magnetometer”.
Said and done. I get a proton magnetometer (which works on the principle of nuclear magnetic resonance), prepare a sketch of a pressure resistant suit to encase it in and allow it to dive down to 2000m deep and leave in the company the connection instructions to allow it to be hooked up to the existing PLUTO winch and cable system.
In the wait, I continue my holidays in Corsica, Sardinia and the Tuscan islands. Well, vacation so to speak, because while sailing from a sunny beach to a quiet little bay, my lowered side scan sonar signals an anomaly on the seabed and after diving the PLUTO, the anomaly is identified in piles of amphorae; remains of many ancient Roman ships sunk with their load at depths of several hundred meters. I find a total of four ships and begin the enormous paperwork necessary to report the findings to the competent Superintendents.
At the end of September I receive the long-awaited magnetometer which took the form of a giant Q-Tip of two meters long with two thickenings positioned at each end. One end contains the sensor for magnetic resonance, the other end all the electronics. It is now time to test it.
I set sail from La Spezia (stationary port of Daedalus), to Bergeggi, passing over the known wreck of a piece of the oil tanker Haven lying on the bottom at 400m. The weather is good, sea calm as oil. I switch on the boat dynamic positioning system vertical to the Haven and dive the magnetometer. The magnetometer is rapidly dived and till the depth of 200m nothing but a constant reading of the geomagnetic field. All of a sudden the value starts to increase, more and more rapidly as the sensor approaches the wreck. Clear and unambiguous indication of the presence of iron. Enough for me. I'm ready to find the Transylvania.
I sail towards Bergeggi and as I am about to call Marshal Lenzini he calls me: I do not know how, but they have already seen me: nothing escapes the Police.
On the way to Bergeggi I come across a submerged hill on top of which there is a structure of potentially similar size to what I am looking for. I immediately dive the magnetometer, but all throughout its dive there is no change in the recorded values, confirming to me that it is nothing but a rock.
The next day the Police are busy with other things and I proceed to explore other most likely spots. I make a total of 4 dives and all without success. I decide to return and anchor in Bergeggi, thinking to myself : how can such a large wreck disappear like this?
I spend the evening reviewing all the traces recorded by the sonar during the last May campaign. My eyes focus on two particularly strange echoes positioned on a rather flat area of the seabed. I don’t believe that they could be rocks, I think to myself, but I am looking for a single echo of about 160m in length, not two separate echoes. Well tomorrow I will inspect them and dive the magnetometer.
The next morning the Carabinieri have other activities and leave me alone. I sail to the area, place the DAEDALUS in auto positioning mode and dive the Q-tip. The bottom stands at approximately 600m. At 50 m intervals I record the readings which remain approximately constant, then suddenly I notice a change which accentuates quickly: the feeling is immediate, as when you know you have centered your shot with your eyes close. I have found the spot, it’s her!
This time I can’t hold it, I grab the phone immediately: "Marshal, I have found it, it is broken in two sections we will dive the PlutoPALLA to see it tomorrow.” I recover and disconnect the magnetometer and proceed with the sonar to register orthogonal detections and accurately determine the positions.
On board the DAEDALUS I have two ROVs: the first and oldest one is the PLUTO 1000 similar to that delivered to the Carabinieri, but in a special configuration that allows it to dive down to 1000 meters depth rather than limited to 300m. The other one is the revolutionary PlutoPALLA, a new prototype that uses only the head of the old PLUTO but with innovative techniques that allow diving to a maximum depth of up to 4000m.
PLUTOPALLA weighs only 60kg compared to the 150 kg of the Pluto 1000, and it is extremely maneuverable and portable, allowing me to be able to operate it even when I am alone on board.
The entire system is composed of the following: a control console positioned on board which allows the operator to command the vehicle and receive live images from the camera fitted in the vehicle. The vehicle is then connected via a 2000m Kevlar reinforced fiber optic umbilical cable which is rolled on an electronically controlled winch. Through the cable all signals from the console to the vehicle and vice versa are transmitted in real time.
In principle the Pluto underwater vehicles are small submarines miniaturized into remotely controlled submersibles. Their operation is controlled from the surface and navigation is guaranteed thanks to the incorporated electric motors which allow precise maneuverability.
PlutoPALLA is ready to dive with its camera filming and taking photographs in high definition.
Tuesday, October 4th we are on site in dynamic positioning system, with the Carabinieri patrol vessel watching over us.
Everything is ready, PlutoPALLA is in the water and descends weighted with a ballast stone. In fifteen minutes it reaches the bottom, releases the stone and becomes neutrally buoyant, in order for the motors to keep it at a constant altitude from the seabed. From the on board console, I command the ROV to make a full rotation on its vertical axis in order to map the area with the navigation sonar.
I immediately notice the presence of a large object at about 70m away. The vehicle drifted by the current has landed a bit farther than expected. I point towards the object and engage forward navigation at half speed. The seabed illuminated by the headlight rushes below the PLUTOPALLA as the echo identified by the sonar approaches.
When the sonar identifies me at a distance of 10m from the wreck I slow down and get closer to the bottom (I speak as if I were present there inside the vehicle at 630m below the surface). I am pretty sure that what is shown by the sonar is the Transylvania but seeing the live image of the wreck coming towards me from the darkness, only lit by the PlutpPALLA lights is an emotion that repays hours and weeks of work.
There is a constant danger of getting tangled. The camera has a short and narrow range of view, one must constantly turn the vehicle left and right to look around and also rotate the head up and down.
Me being PLUTOPALLA: I'm on the bottom, the wreck extends up to 20m above me so I decide that it is best to climb to the highest part of the wreck and from there begin to move. Recalling that the fiber optic cable floats up towards the DAEDALUS I pay extra attention no to go underneath anything.
I am now in view of a plane surface of the wreck, maybe it is the deck. I follow it slowly moving upward and pointing the camera up to see if there are ropes or structures above the vehicle.
I reach the top of the wreck to what looks to be the gunwale. Stanchions and handrails no longer exist but the edge is certainly the gunwale, the deck of the wreck points down almost vertical and nearly horizontal is the side of the ship laying under a thick layer of mud as if it had snowed. The hull is lying down on its starboard side and I can go back and forth along the gunwale without risk of knocking in higher structures.
I navigate North, looking down towards where I came from and see the anchor windlass, and I am now certain that it is the forward deck. I proceed on the side and can clearly identify the rows of portholes and windows. We need a proof of identification. I continue towards the bow and on the side an anchor appear. This is already a certain identification element, the anchor of Transylvania had a peculiar shape and structure.
The day after we sail back to the wreck and complete the survey. Along with the Marshal and his colleagues we follow the structure of the ship and recognize the precise parts of the hull as various levels of the main castle, hatches, and a spare anchor fixed to the deck. We note that the superstructures have collapsed and we reach a point where the metal plates appear to have been torn and twisted by the rupture of the two sections.
In the afternoon, we proceed with the third dive in search of the stern section.
It lies approximately 100m from the bow, slightly tilted to the right. We run along the upper section of the structure, approximately in the life boat section and we see two davits with horizontally crossed cables. A small white spot under a cable intrigues me, I approach to almost touch it and I recognize the white coral. It is the Madrepora oculata, identical to the one I had filmed six years ago in Santa Maria di Leuca for the University. At that time I was told it was a living fossil, object of in depth study and extremely rare in the Mediterranean. I believe researchers will be happy when I will report this discovery to them, because this wreck is 94 years old and they will now have a sure proof of how coral grows over time.
We run along the side of the wreck till we reach the stern, identifying lines of open port holes all with broken glasses, probably due to the explosion of the hitting torpedo. In fact this is the port side of the ship, the side which took the hit. We look for the extreme stern to identify the propeller, the sub-vertical section of the hull bends downwards and is dotted with small white coral, but the propeller is not visible, perhaps it is planted in the mud of the sea bottom.
Well, we saw a lot and there is probably much more to see. I've heard vague references to a barrel full of gold sterlings for the pay of the military. I guess if someone can believe this he would have a reason to investigate the wreck further. For now let us leave the wreck alone, not forgetting that it is the grave for many.