A diver deep inside the Umbria wreck
The SS Bahia Blanca rolled out of the Rieherst Schiffswerft shipyards in Hamburg, Germany on December 30th, 1911. The freighter was 505 feet (154 meters) long and 60 feet (18 meters) wide, measuring 10,000 gross tons with a draft of almost 36 feet (11 meters) when fully loaded. Its five steam boilers powered two triple expansion machines, allowing the ship to reach a cruising speed of 12 knots. After serving primarily in Argentina until 1935, it was sold to the Italian government, which armed it with a troop carrier and renamed it the SS Umbria.
Its layout allowed it to accommodate 129 officers in the central castle and more than 2,000 soldiers in the holds. For two years, she rotated between Italy and her colonies in East Africa, Eritrea and Somalia. Its last owner, the Italian shipping company Lloyd Triestino, acquired it in early 1937 and assigned it to mixed transport. At the start of World War II, in September 1939, Italy remained neutral and ships flying its flag continued to sail freely. The Umbria was then to be used to supply Italian troops in East Africa.
The dining room of the ship lit up through the porthole windows
The Last Voyage
In May 1940, the Umbria, commanded by Captain Lorenzo Muiesan, sailed from the port of Genoa, calling in Livorno and then in Naples. There, in broad daylight, and in the words of Captain Muiesan himself, “among the nurses who walked on the quays with their strollers,” he loaded in his holds 6,000 tons of bombs, 600 cases of detonators, 100 tons of weapons, 2,000 tons of construction materials and general cargo, and three Fiat 1100 sedans. The military equipment was intended for Mussolini’s troops stationed in Eritrea to ensure the defence of Italian interests in the region after Italy’s inevitable entry into the WWII; the civilian cargo was destined for Asia.
The ship made a final supply stop in Messina before crossing the Mediterranean and arrived on June 3rd, 1940 in Port Said to enter the Suez Canal, which was then under the control of the British authorities. The British then attempted to delay the departure of Umbria until Italy entered the war, which they considered imminent. Their aim was to seize its cargo without a declaration of war, so they sent on board two pilots and 23 sailors, whose mission was to slow down the ship’s journey through the canal. Despite these efforts, the Umbria arrived in Suez on June 6th and, relieved of its unwelcome passengers, resumed its journey south, followed by a Royal Navy vessel, HMS Grimsby. After three days of sailing in the Red Sea, the Umbria, and its escort, entered Sudanese waters on June 9th.
On the pretext of a suspicion of smuggling, the commanding officer of HMS Grimsby ordered Captain Muiesan to anchor his freighter on the Wingate Reef, in front of Port Sudan, in order to control its cargo. HMNZS Leander, a Royal New Zealand Navy light cruiser, was dispatched from Port Sudan for the screening. Lieutenant Stevens climbed aboard at the head of a 22-man detachment, but the meticulous overnight inspection failed to uncover any indication of smuggling activity that would have provided the Navy with legal grounds to board the vessel and seize its cargo.
Cars remain in place, providing perfect subjects for backlighting
Natural light penetrates the wreck from all angles
The next morning, June 10th, the on-board radio picked up a message from the Duce, retransmitted by the Addis Ababa transmitter. He informed the troops of the Italian Empire that war with England and France would be declared that same evening at 7pm and that hostilities would begin at midnight. Aware that time was running out and his ship and its contents would be taken by the British, Captain Muiesan immediately burned the confidential documents in the kitchen boiler and made the decision to scuttle the ship in order to prevent its stockpile of weapons from being seized and used against Mussolini’s troops. The only problem he faced was how to avoid the loss of his crew without attracting the attention of the two Navy ships that were hot on his tail.
Captain Muiesan decided to ask for permission to carry out a safety and evacuation exercise of the ship. Still unaware that Italy would go to war that very evening, the British never imagined it was a ploy and agreed. Once the sailors had evacuated the ship, two mechanics entered the engine hold in order to break the cast iron plates blocking the seawater intakes. The water did not take long to invade the holds and the boat quickly began to sink.
Supplies can be found all over the wreck, including wine bottles and stacked bombs
When asked to explain what was happening, Muiesan simply replied: “Italy is going to war. I have just sunk my ship!” Swallowing his rage at being fooled, Stevens had no choice but to order his own men aboard to join the rowboats. Stevens and Muiesan were the last two passengers to leave the boat as the SS Umbria slowly sank beneath the waves, 29 years after being launched. After being collected by the British on HMS Leander, the full crew (no loss of life was reported) disembarked at Port Sudan, where Muiesan and his men spent five years in prison for their deception. One of the most spectacular wrecks in the Red Sea, the Umbria now serves as one of Sudan’s premier dive sites.
The boat’s huge propellers sit on the seabed
Machinery inside the wreck includes bread ovens and a bathtub
Capturing the Umbria
Although some of the remains of the ship sit on the seabed below 100 feet, the wreck itself can be visited entirely without exceeding 80 feet, with most of the diving even being above the 65-feet mark. This allows divers to spend an hour exploring without difficulty—though that is not nearly enough time to examine the entire vessel and its contents: A minimum of two dives is essential to have a good overview of the site.
Your first dive will focus on the exterior of the wreck: You will explore the starboard davits, which are flush with the surface, and you will recognize the masts and the chimney (which have now fallen to the bottom), the propeller and the rudder, the aft platform, the castle, and finally the bow and the mooring chain, which offer a beautiful perspective on the wreck.
Areas of interest provide photo opportunites all over the wreck
Wine bottles destined for consumption during the war fill the hold
When photographing the wreck interior, it is preferable to be accompanied by a guide who knows the site well, as it is easy to get lost in the vastness of the wreckage and often difficult to orientate yourself in the interior space. Among the elements of interest are the machine room and the workshop, the kitchen, and the dining room, bathed in the light that penetrates through the portholes, giving this vast space a magnificent atmosphere; and finally, the port passageway, offering a view of a bathtub and bread ovens. You then enter the front holds, where you will find the stacked bombs, cars, and bottles of wine.
To get good images of the SS Umbria, you will need a wide-angle lens, ideally a fisheye zoom, and two strobes. You can start by taking pictures of the propellers and other items that obviously belong to a boat, and these can be further enhanced by including a diver in the frame to show the huge size of the vessel. Strobes may not be essential for the exterior shots, but you will definitely need them when you penetrate the wreck and enter the dark rooms full of debris and wartime relics.
The size of the propellers is evident when shot alongside a scuba diver
Hundreds of bombs remain stacked up ready for battle
You will also need to use higher ISO settings and slow shutter speeds than normal to properly expose the big rooms of the ship, balancing the natural light coming through the windows with the artificial light from your strobes. If you really want to capture the soul of the boat, and everything that Captain Muiesan intentionally sunk 80 years ago, then be sure to visit the interiors and capture images of the bombs and other items still on-board even after all this time.
In many ways, shooting the Umbria is comparable to the Thistlegorm wreck in Egypt, but the former is dived far less often and the chances of finding other divers on the wreck is very slim. Make the most of having the site to yourself and use your dive buddy as a model both inside and outside the ship. Most importantly, take a moment to look away from the shutter of your camera and appreciate the history of the wreck, and its contents, before taking some awesome images to share with others to help tell this awesome story.
The wreck sits in deep water but most of it can be seen without exceeding 80 feet
The wreck is huge and there is plenty to photograph both inside and out
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