An Irishman’s Diary on the Nautilus – a polar submarine in Ireland

 The Nautilus in 1931. Hit by a storm in the mid-Atlantic, the submarine was towed to Cork for repairs. Photograph: Getty Images

The Nautilus in 1931. Hit by a storm in the mid-Atlantic, the submarine was towed to Cork for repairs. Photograph: Getty Images


The sight of a submarine in an Irish harbour might be unusual today. However, when one appeared at the quayside in Cork city in June 1931, it must have been a very strange sight. The vessel was the Nautilus, the world’s first Arctic submarine.

The Nautilus left New York on June 4th, 1931, with a crew of 18 on board. The 175-foot-long former US navy submarine had been rescued from a scrapyard and modified to take part in a very unusual expedition to go under the pack-ice of the North Pole.

Days into the trip, disaster struck. The starboard engine failed and this was closely followed by the port engine. The submarine was designed for coastal waters, not the open seas. When a storm hit in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, the submarine was left disabled some 1,500 miles from Ireland.

Her SOS distress call was answered by the USS Wyoming, a battleship that had been making its way to Copenhagen. The immobile Nautilus was towed to Cork for some minor repairs and, crucially, to recharge her batteries. Crowds gathered on the quayside to witness this unusual arrival, and civic leaders assembled to welcome the expedition leader and her crew.

The expedition was led by Sir Hubert Wilkins. Born in Australia in 1888, Wilkins had led a fascinating life up to that point. Trained as an engineer, he was a pioneer in the fields of cinema and photography. He photographed the Balkan War in 1912 and is believed to have been the first person to capture actual battle scenes with a movie camera. He was a war correspondent in the first World War, and in 1928, he became the first person to fly over Antarctica.

The Arctic was largely uncharted territory at the time and was an obvious target for anyone who wanted to make a name for themselves. Newspapers referred to Wilkins’s expedition under the North Pole as “The Greatest Adventure in History”. Opinion was divided, however, as to the seriousness of it.

Some commentators saw it as a reckless adventure that could cost lives, while others looked upon it merely as a publicity stunt.

The plan was to travel 2,000 miles and submerge under the frozen wastes of the Arctic. They would carry out scientific investigations and establish a research base there to measure meteorological activity.

A tug brought the Nautilus from the mouth of Cork Harbour to Albert Quay in the city, where she was tied up on June 22nd, 1931. She took on 3,750 gallons of fuel, as well as other supplies, including blankets and bedding. Her batteries were charged at no cost, with the power coming from the new hydroelectric power station on the river Shannon at Ardnacrusha.

During the couple of days spent in Cork, there was sufficient time for photographs with the man who was referred to by an Irish newspaper as “one of the most intrepid men in the world”. A reception was held in Victoria Hotel on St Patrick’s Street, which was attended by the lord mayor and the harbour commissioners.

The submarine left Ireland and was towed to a port in England for repairs to the superstructure. She was eventually declared seaworthy and arrived in Bergen in Norway on August 5th, 1931. There, she took on a scientific party with the plan to travel under the ice all the way to Alaska, but coming up to the surface every few days to conduct experiments and take in fresh air.

Fearful of the obvious dangers involved in the mission, members of the crew seem to have disabled an essential piece of equipment. The diving planes, which allow a submarine to pitch its bow and stern up and down, were missing. This meant that Wilkins could not carry out the expedition as originally planned.

It was not a complete failure, however. Despite the setbacks, the scientists did manage to collect some data and conduct some of their experiments.

Wilkins also managed to get the submarine to dive to 37 metres, thus proving that it was possible to travel under ice. Worsening weather conditions and leaks in the submarine meant that they had to leave the area.

On their way back home in September 1931, they were forced to take shelter from a storm in Bergen.

It would have been next to impossible to get the Nautilus back to America as initially arranged, so it was decided to scuttle her in a fjord just outside Bergen on November 30th, 1931.

However, the story does not end there. Divers found the wreck on two occasions in recent years and it is mostly intact. The first was in 1981 and the second was in 2005 when a crew of two travelled to view the Nautilus in its underground resting place. There are, at present, no plans to bring it to the surface.