The first time Patrick Scalli attempted the treacherous dive to the legendary Andrea Doria shipwreck in the 1970s, he scaled the promenade, glided through the back deck, and marveled at what was once a swimming pool.
Back then, he said, there was still much to admire about the elegant Italian ocean liner that sank in 1956.
But over the past few years, Scalli said, the wreck has rapidly deteriorated — the promenade, back deck, and pool are probably unrecognizable today, if there at all.
“The wreck is just a mess,” said the 60-year-old Scalli, who last dove through the wreck off the coast of Nantucket in the late 1990s.
This month, OceanGate, an ocean exploration company, conducted the first submersible dive to the Andrea Doria in 20 years. The Everett, Wash., company captured detailed sonar images of the 697-foot wreck, which lures divers with the promise of underwater adventure but also holds considerable peril.
The images, which were presented Monday at a press conference, revealed that the wreck has deteriorated more than researchers initially expected, said Stockton Rush, the chief executive of OceanGate. A significant portion of the ship’s hull has decayed, which suggests other parts made of the same material may be in a similar state.
“When [the Andrea Doria] first went down, it was pristine and you went straight into the hull and through the windows,” he said. “Now, it is harder to get inside and far more dangerous. Imagine it as a collapsing cave. Once the cave loses its basic structure, it deteriorates very quickly.”
The Andrea Doria is one of the best-known shipwrecks in New England. Of the 1,700 people on board, 46 died.
Sitting about 200 feet below the ocean’s surface, obscured by foggy and rough sea conditions, the wreck has attracted hundreds of divers over the past few decades. For the past 60 years, divers have used the wreck — often dubbed the “Mount Everest of diving” — to test their limits, both technically and physically. More than a dozen divers have died while attempting to navigate the dangerous wreck.
OceanGate’s expedition was cut short because of bad weather, but the company plans to return to the Andrea Doria next year and take more sonar images. The goal is to create a comprehensive, 3-D image of the entire wreck.
Joel Perry, director of media and marketing for OceanGate, said Monday that the sonar images could help divers better negotiate the wreck, which should lessen the likelihood of a tragedy.
Diving through the ship was once considered the epitome of an adventure, Scalli said — but that was when diving technology was less sophisticated and the ship was more intact.
“When you would get to the wreck, it looked like an ocean liner laying on its side. . . . It was a fascinating shipwreck, it was impressive,” said Scalli, who lives in Gloucester and has dived through the wreck three times. “Everyone was after the ‘treasure hunt,’ if you may.”
While the wreck may be rapidly deteriorating, Rush, the OceanGate chief executive, said it still holds considerable allure to divers because of its history of danger and exploration. He said the company chose to explore the Andrea Doria because of its iconic reputation.
Along with helping divers better traverse the wreck, the sonar images and research — all privately funded — could add insight into other shipwrecks and how they decay, Rush said.
“One of our missions is to increase awareness of the ocean and tools that can be used to explore the ocean,” Rush said. “And when you want to capture the imagination of the media and the public, you want to look at something that is a well-known wreck . . . it is the big draw.”
Although diving technology has advanced, Scalli said he sometimes misses the adventure and simplicity of the old days — when there weren’t expensive mixed air oxygen tanks, sophisticated diving suits, and sonar imaging.
He said he is glad he got to experience the Andrea Doria in its “glory days” when the ship was still relatively intact, but he has no plans to return to the site.
After all, he said, there are always more shipwrecks to explore.