In the Land of Fire, a Shipwreck Story
September 22, 2004
It all started with this photo I picked up at the antiques' fair of the Coast Train in San Isidro, a gorgeous suburb in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The majesty and strange beauty of this photo led me to the of writing this article, while I wondered about life in the depth of the Ocean. If you need a perfect place to let your imagination flow, that is San Isidro. It's quietness and beauty are the best possible partners for a daytime dream. As I walked through the fair, my mind was fixed on this image. It seemed like it had touched some deep and unknown button to me. I enjoyed the rest of the walk through the world of vintage and antique wonders and headed back to my office. I needed to know more.
How does one come across such a terrific and terrifying event. A shipwreck without casualties -of course- is one hell of a spectacle. These sorts of stories have always intrigued me.
But this time my interest was slightly different; what amazed me was the possibilities we -common men and women- had to unveil in some way the mystery of a sunken ship through scuba diving around it. Wow!
The picture -as it can be seen on the lower right side- features the sank Monte Cervantes ship. It was 1930, Monte Cervantes was a German cruise ship that sailed from Buenos Aires to the southern Ushuaia and to Punta Arenas in Chile. This was a fantastic adventure for all visitors, the beauty of the sights, the majesty of the unknown, and the glamour involved in travelling on the Cervantes was fantastic. This craft owned by the Compañia Hamburgo Sud Americana left the Ushuaia port on January 22, 1930 with over 350 crew men and 1200 passengers. According to the survivors -which were all except for the Captain who went down with his ship- at 9 PM the ship collied with some rocks under the ocean. It was the rocky area known as Pan de Indio, nearby the L'Elecleurs lighthouse, at the 1h 17'' navigation coordinates, where the Cervantes found its end.
The tragic end to the fantastic ship had a great impact in history, for over 1500 people who were travelling on the Cervantes went to Ushuaia, a very small town with no more than 800 permanent souls living there.
During the early 50s there was an attempt of rescuing the sunken ship, but it was unsuccessful. Throughout the years the ship kept on sinking under the permanent watch of the fantastic L'Elecleurs lighthouse. In the underworld of the ocean, in the sank craft, wild sea life began to flourish (sunken ships are excellent locations for this sort of flora and faunae proliferation according to experts. so it's an interesting way through which nature takes care of what we cannot recycle for obvious reasons, turning a possible harm into a fine input to ecosystem).
Recently a group of divers explored the Cervantes in the depths. The experience was outstanding and the way history and nature complement down there seems to be amazing.
I began to wonder about this particular way of bonding with an unknown and harsh environment such as deep waters. History tells me that mankind has -since the beginning of times- experienced with the deepness of the seas. In ancient Greece breath-hold divers are known to have hunted for sponges and engaged in military exploits. All and all, food and crafts have oriented men towards the deep waters with nothing but their lungs until recently -in terms of history-. What is now known as snorkeling diving, is one of the most ancient means of breathing underwater. There are obvious limitations to this method for water pressure and difficulty of breathing.
The obvious bag breathing didn't succeed for once the oxygen was inhaled all we are left with is carbon dioxide. It was in the sixteenth century when men came up with an efficient method for breathing underwater, bells. This diving bells were held stationary underwater, the open bottom to the water, the top remained filled with air compressed by the water pressure. Simple and functional; however there was a limited time determined by the number of inhale and exhalations made under the bell.
But the turning point to these inventions was to be found in the 16th century, in England and France. It was back then when full diving suits were developed; made of leather these revolutionary outfits were suitable for depths of 60 feet.
Air was pumped down from the surface with the aid of manual pumps. The first and most revolutionary alteration to these suits was to the helmets, these were made of metal to withstand even greater water pressure and divers went deeper. By the 1830s the surface-supplied air helmet was perfected and divers could head down to deeper waters.
I was amazed by this exiting information and needed to know more. My guts led me to bigger data. Early in the 19th century the helmets were perfected. It was1823 when Charles Anthony Deane, patents a "smoke helmet" for fighting fires. During the next few years it was used for diving as well. The helmet fits over a man's head and is held on with weights; air is supplied from the surface through a hose. In 1828 Charles and his brother John Deane market the helmet with a "diving suit." The suit is not attached to the helmet but only secured with straps; thus the diver cannot bend over without risking drowning. A few years latter in1837 a German-born inventor Augustus Siebe who was living in England, seals the Deane brothers' diving helmet (to a watertight, air-containing rubber suit. The closed diving suit, connected to an air pump on the surface, becomes the first effective standard diving dress, and the prototype of hard-hat rigs still in use today. In his obituary Siebe is described as the father of diving.
Scientific research was advanced by the work of Paul Bert and John Scott Haldane, from France and Scotland, respectively during the nineteenth century. The improvements resulted in deepwater diving were impressive. The twentieth century history is filled with outstanding inventions and discoveries applied to all fields of life. Submarines and hence war were revolutioned. But nothing impacted in the world as much as Jacques-Yves Cousteau (a French naval lieutenant) and Emile Gagnan (an engineer for Air Liquide, a Parisian natural gas company) who worked together to redesign a car regulator that will automatically provide compressed air to a diver on his slightest intake of breath in 1942-43. Just like the Portuguese, Spanish, and Chinese explorers of the fifteenth century who unveiled Civilization to a fantastic world; Cousteau and Gagnan granted us the opportunity for an incredible world of undersea investigation.
Of course this is not a detailed list of the development in the diving field, but just the outstanding features I thought were fantastic. Throughout all these years of discoveries mankind has won a lot, not only in terms of knowledge but also in terms of deeper bonding with Nature. This information to me was just like a fabulous discovery, not in itself but as a starting point for something bigger. it led me to an incredible man, Leon Lyons. His passion for this world of the deep, the outstanding collection of vintage helmets, and his deep knowledge of the matter are admirable. For distance in this world in no longer a problem I had the fantastic opportunity of meeting him through a telephone conversation. He's helpful and kind way of being are remarkable, for he's a well known "celebrity" in the world of collectibles and scuba diving. His book Helmets of the Deep is a treasure for us all, for the precise info and gorgeous images. Though unfortunately this limited edition hard cover Bible for all those vintage diving outfits lovers, and to all those who take great pleasure in admiring a fantastically achieved book, is a very rare find. Leon Lyons' passion for helmets of the deep led me to a question: what if all these passions for history, beauty and adventure could be achieved together through one fantastic adventure?
And the answer to this appeared crystal clear, it is to unveil nature and history's treasures as we dive through the remains of the Monte Cervantes and the underworld that has grown around it.