On November 21st 1916 HMHS Britannic struck a mine laid by U-73. For almost 60 years after her sinking Britannic lay undisturbed on the bottom of the Aegean sea, until 3rd December 1975, when she was discovered by deep sea explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau on board his research vessel Calypso.
Britannic was not his original mission. Cousteau had been hired out by the Greek Ministry of tourism to locate the mythical sunken city of Atlantis. During his mission he was contacted by the Titanic Historical Society who had heard he would be in the area had Britannic sunk, and searching in the same approximate location. Jacques Cousteau was intrigued by the idea of finding the sister-ship to the legendary RMS Titanic, so, in November of 1975 he set out to the Kea Channel to search for the HMHS Britannic wreck.
He was joined by Dr Harold Endgerton of MIT, who provided Cousteau and his team with a side-scan sonar. He had developed the technology to help scan the kea channel for the lost hospital ship. The expedition initially started searching for the wreck by using the British Admiralty Coordinates that had been recorded by the crew of the Britannic on the day she sank, but those coordinates proved to be unreliable.
The search area had to be widened. In November 1975 Parvis Babai, an IT Specialist examining images produced in real time by the side-scan sonar, spotted a huge shape coming into view. This was a clear indication that the sonar onboard Calypso had picked up a large target, and the research ship had to make a sharp evasive turn to avoid the side-scan sonar coming into contact with the large object.
The object in question the side-scan sonar had picked up was measuring 200m/656ft long and approximately 40m/131ft high, with highest point of depth being 80m/263ft the location being marked approximately 6,75 nautical miles northeast of the point originally given by the British Admiralty reported back in 1916. Due to its location, at the entrance of the bay of Agios Nikolaos at Kea, the strong currents and visibility in the Kea Channel made diving on the wreck too hazardous. No dives were undertaken so the identification of the wreck was postponed for the future.
In 1976 Jacques Cousteau and his expedition team returned to begin the first dives to the wreck they had discovered the previous year. This time they were joined by William Tantum IV, who was at that time the president of the Titanic Historical Society. The team would later be joined by Britannic survivor Sheila Macbeth Mitchell, who at the time was 86 years old.
The task of identifying the huge wreck, awaiting her first human visitors since her sinking, was composed of:
– Albert Falco, team leader;
– Raymond Coll, who would capture the first video images of the wreck;
– Ivan Giacoletto was in charge of lighting up the wreck, and,
– Robert Pallio, the lead photographer who would take the first images of the wreck.
Even though the divers on the expedition were very experienced divers, this would still be a very risky dive due to the 400ft depth. During the dive they would be using compressed air. Inhaling air at 30m can lead to a state of consciousness known as Narcosis, which has a similar effect as alcohol intoxication. This effect occurs due to the narcotic effect of gases under pressure and it is reversible by ascending to shallower waters. As you descend and go deeper it can typically cause you to become mentally impared and as a consequence can become lethal,as the diver’s ability to perform even basic tasks becomes very limited.
All divers breathing in air are affected by narcosis during deep dives but in some cases this can vary widely between individual divers. Narcosis is a critical risk factor for divers below 40m/131ft, with a high risk for oxygen toxicity which is considered unacceptable at a depth below 66m/216ft.
The first dive to the wreck began in July 1976. The depth meant the instructions had to be precise. The mission was simple: descend fast and take as many images of the wreck as possible to identify Britannic quickly and then to return to the surface, making every decompression at fixed stops on their way. It was expected to be able to view the wreck at a depth of approximately 60m/197ft. Problems, however, arose when they descended. Their lighting was cut out when the bulbs exploded underwater. Unfortunately it was too late to abort the dive so the team had little choice and had to continue into the deep abyss, where the wreck lay. The visibility was becoming more limited every few feet, until, at 72m/236ft a dark silhouette came into view.
As one of the giant gantry davits came into view, the lack of lighting made it impossible to take any images of the wreck. Around twelve minutes into the dive, Albert Falco gave the order to the dive team to wait at approximately 77m/252ft. He reached the wreck and made a quick pass into the First Class promenade. It was then that he knew there was no doubt they had found the wreck of Titanic’s lost sister-ship, HMHS Britannic.
One of the cameramen, Robert Pallio experienced the effects of narcosis and he quickly sensed he was in immediate danger. Pallio then signalled to Robert Coll that he was in serious danger: a divers worst nightmare especially 400ft into the abyss. Robert slowly started to ascend to the surface At 70m/229ft where he felt lucid again.
At 25m/82ft his dive colleagues soon caught up with him and he noticed the excitement in their eyes: they were the first people to lay eyes on Britannic for almost half a century since her tragic sinking.
A detailed exploration of the wreck took place between September and October 1976. Before the dives could begin Calypso had to return to the port of Piraeus to take on the necessary supplies of helium gases for the mammoth task that awaited them. A three seated diving bell was installed onboard Calypso that would assist the dive team in their long decompression process.
This device was lowered over the wreck at 45m and stabilised by a ballast placed at 60m. The divers that were starting to ascend could swim inside it through a hatch located at its bottom. Their case tanks would be left in a basket that was mounted externally. The pressure inside the diving bell was already adjusted accordingly in order to avoid decompression sickness.
Jacques Cousteau said that being inside the dive bell was the most boring part of the dive. Once inside the dive bell the hatch would be closed before it was hoisted onto the Calypso and placed into the aft hatch of the vessel.
Inside the diving bell were masks and a telephone line and surveillance cameras. Once onboard the pressure was decreased slowly and then the occupants were allowed to exit the contraption. The dive bell saved the dive team long stops on ascension to the surface and allowed them to sit comfortably inside the device as the long decompression was taking place. The gas mixture used by the deep divers of the Cousteau team was Trimix 14/54 Helium 54%, Oxygen 14% and Nitrogen 32%.
One of the most memorable dives was taken by Cousteau. At the time he was 67 years old when he descended into the Britannic and what would have been her opulent grand-staircase. It was one of the deepest dives he had even undertaken in his career as a deep sea explorer, and the team’s tension was palpable.The dive was a great success and everything went smoothly, they achieved their objective: to provide excellent footage of the grand-staircase and the remains of her dome.
Britannic Survivor Sheila Macbeth Mitchell joined the team, a great honour for them. Miss Michell was interviewed by Cousteau about her experiences onboard the Britannic and went into great detail of how the Britannic came to a violent end.
She told the story of how the matron onboard used boards to keep doctors, nurses and soldiers separated during the crossing. She tied rope in certain areas on the deck and hung these boards on the rope. Sheila would later recall seeing one of the boards floating on the surface of the sea after the Britannic had sunk.
They invited her to dive to the wreck and she agreed. At 86 years old she climbed into their 2 seat Soucoupe submersible, named Denise. Sheila Macbeth Mitchell was the oldest person to ever dive a wreck. She would later recall that the ship was a dead thing, but the tiles in the Captain’s Bathroom were so clean. It was as if they had just been polished. Her interest lay more in the sea life around the wreck.
Sheila made a request to Cousteau to find her beloved clock that she had left behind in her cabin the day the Britannc sank. Unfortunately the clock was never recovered but Sheila did receive a piece of coal that had been recovered from the wreck.
The team performed a total of 68 manned dives to the wreck. The effective diving time was 15 mins (9 mins descent/6 mins exploration). Jacques Cousteau did recover the ship’s sextant and the brass ring that was once part of the ship’s wheel; however the fate of these artefacts remains a mystery.
Jaques Cousteau passed away 25 June 1997 at age 87.
Sheila Macbeth Mitchell passed away 15 February 1994, at the age of 103.
In 1997 Kevin Gurr’s expedition to Britannic began in November, lasting for three weeks with the goal of completing a video survey of the wreck. They wanted to get a good look at the damage done to the ship’s prow when she hit the bottom.
Due to bottom time on the wreck being so limited they required specialist video equipment to swiftly survey and capture as much of the wreck as possible. Diver propulsion vehicles played a large role as they were equipped with digital cameras.
With the Aegean sea’s unpredictability and tendency to have strong and fast changing currents and a decompression process that could take up to four hours combined with the fact that Britannic lay on a busy shipping lane dives would be dangerous at best. To add to whatever danger lay ahead the team didn’t have the help of a dive bell for decompression. Instead a decompression platform was to be used in assisting with the long decompression process. The platform was anchored throughout the duration of the expedition with supply lines run down to the bars. Through these supply lines would allow the team on the surface to send down decompression gas tanks to the divers getting ready for the process.
With the wreck being on a shipping lane the lines would often be disrupted by the waves of large tankers passing by. The strong currents and these disruptions, despite the shipping exclusion zone, made the dive even more frought with difficulty.
They spent five days exploring the forward section of the Britannic and two days on the stern. By the time the team was finished they team accomplished over 40 dives, astoundingly accumulating more than 800 minutes at depths of more than 300ft with the assistance of Nitrox (a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen used during decompression stops).
The team’s video footage captured during this exploration allowed the team and the researchers involved to further investigate the damage done to the ship. Further exploration of the interior of the wreck was performed with gitial cameras, capturing the first clear footage of the Britannic’s interior since her sinking.
During that exploration diver’s would attempt to gain access to the boiler rooms to investigate the situation with the watertight doors however they would not succeed. The team would, however, discover that the rudder was turned to port in an attempt to compensate for the starboard drift caused by the Britannic’s list.’
Kevin Gurr’s team also did a wide scan of the area to search for the minefield reported to have been laid by U-73 and instead discovered a piece of Britannic’s hull roughly 300ft/91m off to the side of the wreck.
Expedition footage was never published but was however used in the end credits for the Britannic (2000) movie as well as the History Channel’s documentary ‘The Doomed Sisters’. Gurr’s team would also place a plaque on the Britannic in memory of Jacqueas Cousteau along with a Greek flag. This particular dive showed the possibility of further expeditions without technical resources and large financial resources as long as the dive team was exceptional.
In September of 1998 dive team leader Nick Hope along with his team would decide to use an anchored decompression station kept afloat by large buoys. The team would be fastened to the station with four anchor lines through a smaller line about 1m/3ft long. Two flips at the end of each line were designed to relieve the divers from constantly holding onto the anchor during their decompression stages, the intention being to keep them safe in the strong Agean currents.
The merchant traffic dismissed free floating compression completely as it would be too unsafe. Instead the RIB (decompression platform) was used to pick up the divers while the caique allowed the team to operate under strong winds.
In 1999 the Global Expedition to Britannic was made of experienced case and deep sea wreck divers. Collectively they’d spent an extraordinary amount of time exploring the interior of Britannic. This made them the first people to see Britannic’s forward cargo hold no.1 since the sinking. The hold was in excellent condition and the team would continue further aft, into holds no. 2 and no. 3, where the damage was.
They would move on the discover that cargo holds were not breeched and the reserve hatch of the coal bunker in hold no. 3 was in excellent condition. This was clear indication that no exploding had taken place inside. This was important as it would prove Dr. Robert Ballard’s theory of the ship’s hull being damaged from the dynamics of the sinking and not a second explosion because of assumed explosive cargo such as coal dust or munitions.
The deepest part of the wreck would be further explored through the funnel uptake, which was intact. They would go on to further explore the grand staircase and navigational bridge. Aside from this footage used in the 2002 ‘Inside the Britannic’ documentary they would also retrieve samples of coal, steel and rivets for scientific analysis and take measurements of the damage to the ship’s bow.
Titanic Connections is lucky enough to have permission from Jacob Machenzie to include this original Britannic wreck video as further content.
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