Deep-wreck discovery ship topples in dock

Petrel in Imperial Dock (Tomafc83)
Petrel in Imperial Dock (Tomafc83)

The expedition ship rv Petrel, which has injured at least 33 people in falling over in dry-dock in a major incident in Scotland today (22 March), has been described as one of the most important marine-archaeological exploration vessels in history. 

Between 2017 and 2019 Petrel was responsible for the discovery of large numbers of historic WW2 warship wrecks lying many kilometres deep in the Pacific Ocean.

The 75m Petrel became dislodged from its holding in strong winds in Imperial Dock, Leith in Edinburgh at around 8.30 this morning (22 March). The ship fell onto its starboard side at an angle of 45 degrees, injuring large numbers of people. The extent of the damage to the ship is as yet unknown.

Emergency services responded, with casualties rushed to hospital or being treated at the scene. According to reports there had been around 50 refurbishment workers on the vessel at the time, including US citizens. 

Outreach missions

The US wreck-research vessel was operated in the name of Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft who died in 2018, and his Seattle-based company Vulcan. Petrel carried 20 marine and 10 project crew on its “public outreach missions”, which had been the brainchild of Allen, who had a particular interest in aircraft-carriers.

wreck finder RV Petrel (Harris DPO)
RV Petrel (Harris DPO)

He had purchased the 2002-built ship in 2016, retrofitting it into what was described as the world’s only privately owned vessel equipped to explore to depths of 6km, using sonar scanning, AUVs and ROVs. All wreck discoveries were to be respected as war graves and their locations kept secret.

Significant WW2 aircraft-carriers located in the Pacific included USS Wasp, Hornet and Lexington and IJN Kaga and Akagi. Other WW2 warships found included USS Indianapolis, Juneau, Ward and Cooper, IJN Hiei, the first Japanese battleship sunk by American forces, and numbers of other Japanese warships. 

One of the Petrel team’s last discoveries was the deepest-lying wreck yet found – the destroyer USS Johnston at 6.46km in October 2019 (submersible pilot Victor Vescovo, who was later able to confirm the Johnston‘s identity, would go on to find the even-deeper Samuel B Roberts). The many discoveries from Petrel were reported on Divernet (see below).

Petrel was laid up in Florida before being placed into indefinite moorage in Leith in September 2020 because of the challenges of the Covid pandemic, although while static it had been used for public educational tours.


The US Navy has sent an engineering team to investigate the toppling of the Petrel, after it emerged that it had bought the research vessel last September for $12.4 million. Naval warfare experts have speculated that the vessel was in the process of being converted into an ocean surveillance ship, equipped with vehicles for inspecting undersea infrastructure.

Petrel discoveries on Divernet: IJN Hiei, USS Hornet, USS Johnston, USS Juneau, IJN Kaga & Akagi, USS Lexington, USS Wasp, USS Ward, Cooper & Other Wrecks



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