The dark dorsal fin circling Bill Campbell was the least of his worries. The 35-year-old sports diver was adrift, without a boat, in a shipping lane 110 miles east of Montauk, N.Y. Thick fog limited visibility to 100 yards at best. If a ship approached, it would be as likely to run over him as to rescue him. It was a hell of a way to spend a summer afternoon.
At least the small blue shark provided a little company. The last time another human had seen Campbell, he was more than 200 feet underwater, exploring one of the most celebrated shipwrecks in modern history—the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria, which sank on July 26, 1956, 11 hours after being rammed nearly amidships by the Swedish liner Stockholm.
Ten days before the 32nd anniversary of that disaster, 16 of us aboard the 55-foot charter boat R. V. Wahoo reached the buoy that marked the wreck site. We had left from the dock at New York's Fire Island 14 hours earlier with all our gear for an overnight trip to the Andrea Doria, which lies in the open Atlantic about 50 miles south of Nantucket, Mass. All of us were experienced divers, and we were eager to photograph the submerged hulk of the vessel that was described, at the time of the disaster, as the most beautiful ship afloat. We were also hunting for the salvageable artifacts among the ship's fittings. The plan was to make four dives in three days, beginning that afternoon.
Nearly 50 people died when the Andrea Doria sank. Subsequently, at least four divers have lost their lives in and around the wreck. The most recent death occurred only two days before our trip. Campbell was in our diving party on this trip, and when Dave Zubik, Campbell's diving partner for the trip, returned to the boat without him, most of us aboard the Wahoo had to suppress the fear that the luxury liner had claimed another victim. If Campbell was lost inside the wreck or entangled in the many fishing nets that now drape the hulk's superstructure, our pleasure expedition would become a body recovery mission.
Campbell knew the wreck as well as any diver. He had been down to the Andrea Doria 15 times. He was not a man to become disoriented on the huge, almost featureless hull, despite the 10-foot visibility at the site that day. He was experienced enough not to use up his air supply, even though at that depth he would consume six times the amount of air he would use at the surface. Even if he became intoxicated from nitrogen narcosis, he would recognize it and wouldn't do anything stupid, such as trying to feed his regulator to a passing cod. Would he?
If Campbell had made a mistake on the wreck, by now it was over for him. On the other hand, if the strong, treacherous currents had carried him away from the marker buoy after he reached the surface, he might still be alive...somewhere out there in the fog. Captain Janet Bieser radioed the Coast Guard, which agreed to dispatch two search helicopters from Nantucket when the fog lifted.
Meanwhile Zubik and Gary Gilligan, another diver, hopped aboard an inflatable boat and took off to search for Campbell. They lost sight of the Wahoo within minutes and were forced to return when they realized it was foolish, and almost hopeless, to continue.
When I learned to dive eight years ago, I had all the usual fears: sharks, running out of air, becoming snagged and unable to return to the surface, getting lost. But experience had taught me that within limits, scuba diving is safe, and exploring a Caribbean coral reef is no more demanding or threatening than is taking a walk in the woods. Shallow-water wreck diving in the mid-Atlantic is more rugged, more like backpacking. But diving the Andrea Doria is comparable to climbing a difficult mountain.
Campbell had been missing for two hours when Gilligan emerged from the Wahoo's galley with a huge wad of aluminum foil wrapped around the end of a gaff pole. Armed with this homemade radar reflector and a two-way radio, he and Zubik got into the inflatable boat again and headed off, following the current, which we estimated was running at two to three knots.
Once more, those of us left on the Wahoo lost sight of the inflatable within moments. After two miles its blip disappeared from the Wahoo's radar. At least they were doing something; all we could do was wait and hope. The afternoon sun was fading, but the fog seemed to lift a little.