Ask many Stanford grads in their mid-70s how they spent the summer, and chances are they’ll talk about playing golf, or taking a cruise. Not Gregg Bemis. He dove to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and kissed the Lusitania.
Yes, that Lusitania.
The famous shipwreck lies 12 miles off the coast of Ireland, south of the Irish port of Kinsale. A businessman and diving expert, Bemis, 76, of Santa Fe, N.M., trained for 18 months in waters off Florida to prepare for his risky dive, carefully researching the currents, visibility and the mixture of gases he’d need to breathe.
The Lusitania—so fast, sleek and opulent that it was named “the greyhound of the seas”—sank on May 7, 1915. A torpedo fired from a German submarine hit the British luxury liner while it was steaming from New York to Liverpool. The attack killed 1,198 passengers, including 128 U.S. citizens, and set off an outcry that pressured the United States to enter World War I. The ship rests beneath 300 feet of water.
Recreational scuba divers almost never dive deeper than 100 feet. To go three times that deep, in 47-degree waters, Bemis wore a dry suit (which, unlike a wet suit, is sealed so that no water can get in) and breathed a mixture of helium, nitrogen and oxygen. Because of the inherent danger and greater atmospheric pressure in such a deep dive, Bemis could stay on the bottom for only five minutes. He knows of no other diver his age who has gone so deep.
“It was very dark. There was virtually no light. Visibility was about 25 feet,” he recalls fondly. “But the stuff down there is absolutely beautiful. I could see fixtures from the ship, and railings. Nearly everything there should be brought up and preserved. It was just beautiful, beautiful.”
A Korean War veteran who earned an economics degree from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard, Bemis has a special relationship with the Lusitania. He owns it. The entrepreneur acquired the ship from former partners in a diving business. (One partner had bought the ship for $2,400 in 1967 from Great Britain’s War Risk Insurance Office, which had paid claims on the shipwreck decades before.) Bemis is trying to raise $3 million to do forensic work on the ship, which sits tangled in old fishing nets.
From a 1982 salvage operation, Bemis gained possession of some silverware, dishes and other artifacts. But he has been unable to do significant work on the ship since 1995, when a newspaper reported that a Lusitania passenger may have been carrying lost paintings by Rubens, Titian and Monet, sealed in lead tubes. The Irish government placed an “underwater cultural heritage order” on the ship to dissuade treasure hunters, blocking Bemis and other divers from bringing artifacts to the surface.
In 2001, Bemis sued the Irish government to get permission to conduct a forensic examination of the ship. A decision from the High Court of Dublin is pending. Until then, well, he’ll always have last summer.