Umbria: from ship of destruction to heaven for life

Umbria: from ship of destruction to heaven for life
By Pierre-Yves Cousteau

May 29, 1940. The last crate was loaded on the Umbria in the port of Messina on Sicily. This 155-meter long ship was setting out on its voyage, bound for Eritrea loaded with thousands of ton of explosives, detonators, pizza ovens and wine stores. The British got word of the shipment and were looking for a way to intercept the vessel without inciting war with Italy. The captain of Umbria, Lorenzo Muiesan, must have been a little nervous at the idea of moving under nose. The Umbria sailed to Port Saïd without encountering the Royal Navy but, as she was passing through the Suez Canal, the English stepped in. They used the pretext that her cargo would endanger the Canal and held the ship up for three days. On June 6, the Umbria was finally allowed to transit the Canal and entered the Red Sea.


The respite did not last long. On June 9, off the cost of Sudan, the British naval vessel HMS Grimbsy forced the Umbria to cut her engines. A boarding party of 20 soldiers took over the helm, searched the ship and steered her toward Port Sudan. The Umbria was in British hands. During the night of June 10, Captain Muiesan escaped from his British watches and learned over the radio that Italy had entered the war against the Allies. He had to act quickly, before the vessel reached Port Sudan. It took only a few cautions gestures, a few meaningful glances, and the crew understood that they had to sabotage the ship. Whether they pretended it was a routine abandon-ship practice or they convinced the English officers there was a live detonator, the result was the same: together the English and Italians disembarked, leaving the Umbria and her cargo to a watery destiny. Neither side got the explosives and munitions. Instead, the sea got an increasingly unstable danger for navigation. If there were an explosion, the shock wave would bounce back from a concave coral reef near the site to form an immense swell that could raze more than half the city of Port Sudan, less than five miles away. So everyone carefully avoided the site for ten years – ten years during which the Umbria metamorphosed. The bombs were clad with new life; the fatal weapons became a nursery.

Life settles in.

First, came the marine bacteria that feed on carbon dioxide and mineral salts, and are very fond of untouched solid surfaces. Then come the diatoms (algae) and filter feeders that sieve bacteria, microorganisms and nutrients from the water; they arrive as spores and larvae floating in the current and settle on the surfaces. The pioneers – mollusks, crustaceans, hydrozoans and polychaete worms with their numerous bristles – wander in. Thirty meters below the surface, algae cover one of the Umbria’s propellers. On this fertile carpet, hydrozoans thrive, feeding nudi-branchs in turn. Soon the propeller disappears under the rapid progress of corals. Algae and hard corals attach themselves to the mollusks’ shells. The Umbria is alive with fresh growth. Vertebrates and invertebrates join in the feast of colonization in the new oasis. A sea turtle glides majestically past.
Layer by layer, bottles and shells are blurred and buried, whatever they may contain. Wine and war grace and buoyancy reign. Fish, drawn to this stew of life thread their way from cabin to cabin, sheltered from the swells. In pairs or by the thousand, they make the shipwreck a marriage bed and a hinting ground. In a hundred years, at this place, the Umbria will have completely disappeared and so, perhaps, the memory of the conflict that began the day she sank. That morning of June 10, 1940, the Umbria left a world at war, falling like an autumn leaf. Her cargo of bombs hit the bottom and biodiversity exploded in the silence.

Source: Calypso Log, 2005.