After many years of hard and often frustrating work, Carl Spencer's dream came true. The Britannic 2003 Expedition had finally arrived at St Nikolo on the small island of Kea in the Aegean Sea. Carl had brought together some of the worlds most experienced deep exploration divers with the object of discovering how the Britannic sank and why she sank so much faster than her sister, RMS Titanic.
During the expedition the team captured stunning stills and video footage of one of the largest shipwrecks in the world.
The popular UK based dive boat Loyal Watcher was hired for the expedition and took two weeks to sail from Plymouth to Kea. It was somewhat bizarre to be aboard the Watcher in the sweltering Mediterranean heat after spending months
diving from her in the cold and often stormy waters around the UK. The Loyal Watcher needed to be heavily modified to protect the divers and crew from the intense heat and so, true to form, Rich Stevenson, team member and owner of the Loyal Watcher, dug deep into his pockets and bought.......... a tarpaulin!!! It can just be seen in the photo and lasted about two days before it blew away!
James Barker, Deborah McTaggart and cameraman Mike Pitts joined us from Carlton TV. They were making documentaries for National Geographic and Channel 5 who were major sponsors of the expedition.
The Britannic bar was a popular place for rest and relaxation. It got hit pretty hard before non diving days. Another popular pastime was moped racing!
the expedition was to place experiments on Britannic. Canadian scientist Lauri Johnston joined us in Kea . Lauri has only ever dived on two shipwrecks: Titanic and Bismarck!!
Our first day on Kea was spent unpacking, preparing and assembling equipment. The deco station consisted of four 46m downlines and a 70m lazy. The downlines were connected by 1.7m
The team had a lot of work to do long before we arrived in Kea. For instance, Expedition Dive Officer Geraint Ffoulkes Jones put together an extensive Dive Team Operating Procedure and also produced the Buehlmann/VBM decompression tables. Team Britannic had an international flavour with the presence of Italian divers Antonello Paone and Edoardo Pavia. South Africa was represented by Christian Malan. One of the tasks of
plastic poles (this length will just fit into an estate car). About a 100 cylinders had to be filled and 16 rebreathers prepared and replenished with softnolime.
Bill Smith’s sidescan sonar team hired a small fishing boat and were at sea most days. They succeeded in capturing some fantastic images of Britannic and were instrumental in solving some of her mysteries.
HMHS Britannic. A brief history
Britannic was launched on 26 February 1914 a few months before the outbreak of WW1. Fitting out was halted as the materials were required for the war effort, so she sat idle for over a year. The war dragged on and the British government had an urgent requirement for more hospital ships due to the huge number of casualties in the Dardanelle's campaign. As a result Britannic was commissioned as Hospital Ship No. G618 on 13 Nov 1915 and her maiden voyage started 23 Dec 1915.
HMHS Britannic left Southampton on Sunday 12 November on her 6th and final voyage. Her destination was the Greek island of Lemnos to pick up war casualties but disaster struck in the Aegean Sea. She was under the command of Captain Charles A Bartlett when, just after 08:00 on 21 November, an explosion shook the ship. As Britannic started to settle by the bow, Captain Bartlett made a desperate attempt to beach the ship on the nearby island of Kea. However, it soon became clear that Britannic was sinking fast so Bartlett stopped the engines and gave the order to abandon ship.
Britannic could transport 3309 casualties plus crew but there were only 1134 medical staff and crew on board when she sank. All managed to abandon ship but, tragically, one life boat launched too early and was struck by the still rotating stbd propeller. 30 people lost there lives.
Britannic sank in 55 minutes, almost three times faster than her sister RMS Titanic. She benefited from major modifications to her bulkheads after the Titanic disaster so why did she sink so quickly? What caused the explosion, mine or torpedo? The Britannic 2003 expedition was in Greece to find the answers.
The expedition was in Greece for two weeks but, due to major permit problems, the team only managed one dive on Britannic during the first week. Teresa and I had had been in Greece a week, before we got to dive the wreck. It was well worth the wait!
Diving a 120m wreck takes a lot of preparation and planning, you only have one go to get it right, but there were other important considerations: to make a film for National Geographic and Channel 5.
Teresa: A diving day would start with a brief at breakfast time in the hotel. The dives were timed to make the best of the ambient light, so we would typically not be diving until around 11am and aiming to be out of the water by 5 pm. At the briefing the team had a discussion about the days objectives, which parts of the wreck people were going to and exactly when so that the video and camera teams didn't arrive at the same destination at the same time, unless it was part of the plan.
After these team briefings Kevin and I would study the route we were going to take on the huge drawings of the ship and choreograph the dive precisely including possible lighting techniques we would use at the location. If you look at the clip of me going into the forward hold you can see that Kev is filming from some distance. I had to wait until he reached his position and started to film before I entered the hold because we specifically wanted to film this and was part of our choreography. In fact we filmed that scene twice as I had a cell problem during the first take. We knew that the spiral staircase was in this hold but we didn't know if it would be straightforward to film. Because Kevin and I have been diving as a team and filming for many years we instinctively know what works on film without having to do much underwater communication which apart from being difficult wastes far too much time at Britannic depths.
It was sometimes very frustrating to be restricted to your given task, rather than freely exploring the wreck, but the result was hours of spectacular footage of which these heavily compressed clips do no justice.
Once on site, Loyal Watcher crewman Gordon would retrieve the shot line. This involved diving to 10m where the line, left from the previous days diving, was coiled up and attached to an air filled drum. This was necessary as shot lines left overnight had a mysterious habit of disappearing!
The divers were split into two teams and each team would dive on alternate days. Those not bottom diving would be on in water support duties or surface support.
Returning divers were met by the deep support diver at 45 - 50m which was the first gas flush and setpoint change depth. It was also the point where the deco station was attached to the shotline. His job was to provide spare gas in case of a bailout and to monitor the gas switching. When all bottom divers had returned to the deco station, deep support would release an SMB with “All Divers Back” clearly written down the side. When all divers had safely returned, the Standby Support diver could stand down and get on with other duties. If any divers had failed to return to the shot within a given time then deep support would send up an SMB with “Divers Missing” written on it. This would alert the surface support crew to look out for divers SMB’s. The Standby Support would then board one of the RIB’s with an emergency drop line of deco gas, O2 and drinking fluids and be prepared to support the divers during there decompression. I’m pleased to say that due to the highly skilled and experienced divers of Britannic 2003, the emergency procedures were never put to use.
Click here for a video tour of
Her Majesty's Hospital Ship Britannic
This web site and all photographic images © Kevin Pickering 2004