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Spotlight: St. Charles man diving Andrea Doria shipwreck on disaster anniversary

July 16,2016 15:13

The luxury transatlantic liner Andrea Doria keels far over to starboard before sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic off Nantucket Island, July 26, 1956. The Andrea Doria and the liner Stockholm collided in heavy fog late the night before. Associated ...

This time next week, Mark “Sharky” Alexander will once again visit the love of his underwater life:Andrea Doria.“It’s a bucket-list item for most people,” Alexander said. “And it has the three challenges that divers love — cold, dark and deep.”
On July 24, 1956, the Andrea Doria, with 1,706 aboard, was on its way to New York. About 50 or so miles off the coast of Nantucket, Mass., the Swedish liner Stockholm struck it broadside.The ship listed severely and capsized the next day; 46 people on the Andrea Doria died. The wreck lies in about 200 feet of water.“It’s still a big deal for me to go there,” said Alexander, 44, a St. Charles resident and an EMT/paramedic instructor with the St. Charles Ambulance District.This latest trip is his sixth to the shipwreck, and fourth as expedition leader. “I recall the first time, in 2010, when I made my way down and I was kneeling about right on the ‘A’ of ‘Andrea,’” he said.“I remember thinking: I made it; I’m here.”The journey to “here” began in Pleasant Plains, Ill., a small town near Springfield, with a pond for exploration and reruns of “Sea Hunt” and “Jonny Quest” for imagination.“Everyone would talk about how pretty water was,” Alexander said. “But I was always wondering what it was like underneath.“One time, I found a mask, fins and snorkel my dad had, and I went diving in a farm pond,” he said, then laughed out loud. “Couldn’t see a thing, nothing at all.”When young manhood came along, Alexander passed on the Navy and signed with the Air Force. He retired from the reserves several years ago.Early on, Alexander found his excitement — “I’m a serious adrenaline junkie” — through relatively dry diversions, like skydiving, skiing and rock climbing.But the childhood diving bug bit again about 25 years ago, when Springfield formed a rescue team and Alexander jumped at a chance to finally learn to dive.“From that point, I knew it was something I’d be doing for the rest of my life,” he said.Moving here 20 years ago to take his current job, Alexander started Sharky’s Underwater Expeditions, and leads dives for paying adventurers.
Worldwide, he has dived off Malta, Sierra Leone, Poland and Micronesia. Closer to home, he has explored a Civil War ironclad off Hatteras, N.C.; a German U-boat from World War II off New Jersey; and even an old lead mine in Bonne Terre.His adventures have been seen on the Military Channel and History Channel, and he belongs to the Explorer’s Club and the Royal Geographical Society.He got his nickname diving off Hawaii, when he swam in an underwater lava tube with a white-tip shark. Fellow divers noticed that Alexander seemed unfazed by the pairing.
“I was in this tube, so what was I going to do?” he said. “I looked over and thought, if it’s going to do something, it will; if it’s not, it won’t.”From then on, he was “Sharky.”Alexander has dived 20 times in his five previous trips to the Andrea Doria, but could not say how many he’d make this time in the July 24-26 dive span.“It’s about 42 degrees down there, there’s very little light and you’re running between 190 and 240 feet down, where the currents are brutal.“When you’re done with a dive,” he said, “you’re beat up.”That’s especially true at those depths, which are deeper than recreational dives and require special mixes of breathing gases.For all the wear and tear, diving is a family affair for Alexander, his wife, Julie, and their daughters, Alana and Malia.“My wife prefers diving reefs; I like the shipwrecks,” he said, then tried his best to explain.“It’s sounds weird or corny, but when you look inside a wreck, those corridors start to call to you,” Alexander said in church tones. “I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.”In the future, Alexander hopes to visit other wrecks, especially the Britannic, a sister ship to the Titanic that was sunk by a mine in 1916 and lies off a Greek island.“Like I said, I love the adrenaline.”

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