Rediscovering the World's First Arctic Submarine: Nautilus of 1931

By Stewart B. Nelson, Ph.D.
Co-leader and Scientific Advisor, Project Nautilus 2005

Nautilus on the Delaware River.

Nautilus on the Delaware River.

In September 2005, the two-person submersible JAGO was used to rediscover and document the largely forgotten Arctic submarine Nautilus, scuttled in the fjord at Bergen, Norway in 1931.

Many considered the Wilkins-Ellsworth Trans-Arctic Submarine Expedition of 1931 a foolhardy undertaking. Others thought it nothing more than a publicity stunt. However, for the Australian-born adventurer Sir Hubert Wilkins, it was the opportunity to be the first to use a submarine to cross the Arctic Ocean by way of the North Pole. He had already gained fame for his aerial exploits, including, in 1928, the first airplane flight across the Arctic Ocean from Point Barrow, Alaska to Spitzbergen, Norway, a feat that earned him a knighthood.

Partnering with Simon Lake, the pioneer submarine designer, and Sloan Danenhower, a former submarine officer, Sir Hubert acquired the vintage World War I submarine O-12. Completed in 1918 and decommissioned in 1924, the O-12 was awaiting scrapping in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. With the understanding that it be used only for scientific purposes, it was leased "as is" for five years at one dollar a year. Financial support came from many sources, most notably the American millionaire Lincoln Ellsworth.

Extensive modifications were made to the O-12 to prepare it for under-ice operations. These included such special features as a 12-foot-long cushioned bowsprit, a telescoping man-sized hollow drill capable of boring through 15 feet of ice, special hollow air intake and exhaust drills to enable recharging the batteries while submerged, a diver lock-out chamber, and a scientific laboratory.

Nautilus

Nautilus

At a ceremony in March 1931, the O-12 was renamed Nautilus in honor of Jules Verne's fictional submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

After further modifications and tests, the Nautilus began its Atlantic crossing on June 4, already running behind schedule for a planned July rendezvous at the North Pole with the German airship Graf Zeppelin. Midway across, both engines failed, and as Nautilus wallowed helplessly in storm-tossed seas, an SOS was broadcast. The battleship Wyoming came to the rescue and towed the disabled Nautilus to Queenstown, Ireland.

After emergency repairs, the submarine limped into Devonport, England for month-long repairs. Finally, on August 1, Nautilus reached Bergen, Norway, where the six-member scientific party had been waiting. With 20 persons now on board, the submarine headed north to Tromso for refueling before heading to Spitzbergen. The weather window for meeting with the Graf Zeppelin was gone, but Sir Hubert was determined to at least get to the North Pole, if not across the Arctic Ocean. Nautilus arrived at the pack ice on August 14, and several days were spent making scientific observations on the surface.

On August 22 it was decided to make a test dive under the ice, but problems arose. A diver was sent down at the stern and reported that the diving planes were gone! How they fell off is a matter of conjecture, but both Sir Hubert and Sloan Danenhower suspected sabotage. The scientists busied themselves with various projects, and some pseudo dives were made by powering the submarine under the ice edges.

On September 6 the battered and leaking Nautilus left the pack ice and sailed into Bergen on September 20. The lease called for the submarine to be returned to the United States, but vessel's condition made that impossible. Permission was finally given to sink the submarine. On November 30, 1931, the Nautilus was towed three miles offshore and scuttled in 1,138 feet of water.

Cushioned bowsprit of the Arctic submarine Nautilus.

Cushioned bowsprit of
the Arctic submarine Nautilus.

My interest in the Nautilus began several years ago, but it was not until late 2004 that I learned from contacts in the Bergen Maritime Museum that the submersible JAGO was going to be used for a project off Spitzbergen in summer 2005 and then off-loaded in Tromso for return to Germany. This was the chance that I had wanted. Communication was quickly established with Dr. Hans Fricke of the Max Planck Institute, and plans were made to set aside a week following the completion of the Spitzbergen expedition to bring the JAGO to Bergen from Tromso. What was now labeled "Project Nautilus 2005" began to take shape, and efforts were initiated by both Hans Fricke and myself to acquire corporate sponsors.

Special thanks must be given to Holland America Line, Thyssen Foundation, and the American Philosophical Society. Project Nautilus was also awarded a flag from the prestigious Explorers Club.

Good fortune came our way when we learned that the Royal Norwegian Navy (RNoN) was planning to conduct a mission demonstration outside Bergen using a HUGIN 1000 AUV. We asked if it were possible to extend the operation area to include supposed location of the Nautilus. This the RNoN graciously did, and impressive sonar imagery was obtained.

On the evening of Sunday, September 11, the Project Nautilus principals gathered at the Bergen wharf facility awaiting the truck bearing the submersible JAGO. Besides myself, the JAGO team from Germany consisted of Dr. Hans Fricke, project co-leader; Juergen Schauer, submersible pilot; Karen Hissmann, operations manager; and Sebastian Fricke, operations assistant. Also present was Arild Hansen of the Bergen Maritime Museum and two other Bergen residents critical to the project: Halvor Mohr, master of the support vessel Navigator and his able colleague Atle Toskedal.

The author, Dr. Stewart B. Nelson, and JAGO submersible in Bergen, Norway.

The author, Dr. Stewart B. Nelson,
and JAGO submersible in Bergen, Norway.

During the week of September 11, a total of four productive dives were made on the historic Nautilus. Approximately 1,800 digital images and 8 hours of video were acquired during these dives. All in all, the submarine is in reasonably good shape. We were anxious to examine the stern to see the area of the missing rudders. Unfortunately, the stern is buried in the seabed. Among the distinctive features visible was the bowsprit, the huge hollow drill, the air intake hollow drill, and the divers air lock.

So what now for the Nautilus? The Bergen Maritime Museum will expand its exhibit with the imagery we collected and attempt to have the submarine designated as a historic underwater site. There are no plans to raise this world's first Arctic submarine.

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