|Lying to starboard in the brilliant Greek sunshine, Britannics huge propellers make an awe-inspiring spectacle. No diver who has visited this wreck ever forgets it. Even at 120m, rays of light in fantastic visibility illuminate the worlds largest sunken ocean liner in all its glory. |
It had been five long years since I last set eyes on this magnificent wreck. During that time I had practised and studied the technique of photographing deep shipwrecks in anticipation of this day.
Carefully, I assembled my tripod and housed Nikon SLR across the seabed astern of the wreck. In the corner of my eye I could see that Richie Stevenson, my regular dive partner, had positioned himself beside the port propeller.
Through the viewfinder the human scale gave the frame the impact I wanted. Richie knows this game well and would freeze in time to allow the fast black & white film and natures own light to complete our work.
For giving me the chance to create that sole image, I have Staffordshire technical diver Carl Spencer to thank. Carl had also spent the past five years in preparation for this Britannic expedition, which would become the most successful to date.
Carl had dived Titanic in a submersible (Diver, November 2003) and now had his sights set firmly on its bigger sister ship Britannic. The logistical task of assembling the expedition and government permissions had been protracted.
Working with a South African, two Italian divers and a Canadian scientist, the primarily British team would be tracked by a documentary film crew working for National Geographic and Channel 5. Blue Planet cameraman Mike Pitts would capture surface action while Carl and his team of six exploration divers (Kevin Pickering, Eduardo Pavia, Chris Hutchison, Christian Malan, Zaid al-Obaidi and Richie Stevenson) would make DV cam recordings deep inside the wreck. The expedition unfolded in early September last year.
Britannic was discovered by Jacques Cousteau in the mid-1970s. Since then four expeditions had been undertaken to try to explain why Britannic sank, and why she sank so fast - three times faster than Titanic.
Even with huge US funding and a nuclear submarine on site, Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard could answer neither question after his visit to the wreck in 1995.
Under the eye of National Geographic, the pressure on us to do so in the allocated time was heavier than ever. Was Britannic sunk by a mine or a German torpedo We would have to bring back solid evidence with sonar recordings and DV cam film.
Rebreathers have come of age and were one of the key tools we needed to uncover Britannics secrets. They would allow us prolonged bottom times of up to 48 minutes at 120m, so that we could investigate deeper inside the wreck than ever before.
On day one of diving operations the six exploration divers confirmed that the shotline was firmly in position for the next phase, immediately in front of the bridge.
The only damage visible to Britannic is a large break here in front of the bow and right across the hull to the port seabed, caused when the ship struck the seabed bowtip first.
Evidence of this is both clear on the port bow hull as well as on the bow foredeck, directly below the bridge. Here you can see the colossal buckling that occurred on impact.
Divers on that first day, especially those who had not dived Britannic before, took a moment to pause close to this buckling, and take in the sight of the bridge towering above them. Its one of the most amazing sights in wreck-diving!
Of the three Olympic-class White Star liners built, Britannic is the only one that remains intact, and its bridge section is a fine example of its structural integrity.
Enlarged davits, designed to overcome lifeboat issues after the Titanic affair, are clear to see, silhouettes in the mid-day sun to starboard, while to port they lie partly crushed and out across the white sand. The clean seabed here aids visibility and light reflection across the site.
One possible cause of Britannics rapid sinking is that the watertight doors of the bulkheads running along the lower keel had been open when she struck whatever sank her.
These doorways intersected what was known as the firemans tunnel, the access route through which workmen would travel from their accommodation to the boiler-rooms to keep the furnaces burning.
Historians believe that these doors had been left open during a change of shift, but this had never been proved.
One of the easiest ways to get inside the wreck to analyse this theory was via the break in the hull. Everything was now in place for divers to enter the wreck to search for the doors without wasting valuable time.
However, what followed were four non-productive days. Not only had a storm reached the area, but the Greek authorities had closed operations. It became clear that the expedition permits were not all in place. Carl had obtained a licence from the Department of Shipping and Merchant Marine, but control of the site had since been transferred to Marine Antiquities, and Britannic had been reclassified as a preserved site of historical significance.
Both departments had understood that the expedition was to take place in September, but Marine Antiquities had failed to mention that yet another permit was now needed. A visit to Athens and some serious negotiation was required.
Eventually back on track, and substantially into week one, the divers prepared to continue filming the wreck, to the great relief of the documentary team.
Richie Stevenson, requested by diving officer Geraint Ffoulkes-Jones and expedition leader Carl Spencer to check on the watertight doors, made an historic dive, working his way deep into boiler-room number six.
His route required cave-diving skills, with line laid to signal his return to safety. And his Inspiration rebreather gave off none of the bubbles that might have hastened the collapse of ceilings, allowing him instead to maintain the 90-year-plus internal anaerobic environment.
With the wreck on its side, orientation in unfamiliar surroundings was tricky. Richie carefully negotiated fallen obstacles to reach the boiler-room, where his digital film clearly shows the gantry walkways running around the boilers, and firemens coal barrows stacked in corners.
His presence inside this unlit area of the wreck at about 115m means that he must have made his way there through open doorways located in the bulkheads. Filming as he made his exit, these can clearly be seen.
One of the main objectives of the expedition had been achieved; Britannic had sunk so much faster than her sister-ship because the bulkhead doorways had been open. The compartments would have flooded one after another - within minutes.
At the surface, meanwhile, new, sophisticated sonar equipment was being used to scan the entire seabed in the approaches to the Kea Channel in which Britannic sank. Bill Smith and his small team had shipped their equipment over to locate the remains of a possible minefield.
The Germans had always maintained that they had laid mines within the area and had not torpedoed Britannic, which in November 1916 had been making passage to Mudros as a hospital ship.
Carl had worked with Bill when he had located Donald Campbells Bluebird in Coniston Lake in 2000, and had invited him on the Britannic expedition for his search expertise.
After a detailed search, Bill located the minefield on the direct route which Britannic had followed - exactly where his German archive documents stated that they had been laid.
The mines could be clearly seen on the sonar scans, some with anchoring chains still attached. The sonar readings even revealed an exploded mine, with its cradle and chain intact.
Again a generous moment in the history of the great wreck had fallen our way. We could now state categorically that a mine had sunk this great ship. A smile had by now appeared on the face of the expedition leader, and the divers were still bringing back more and more stunning images from depth.
A scientific approach was being introduced to work on Britannic for the first time, as Canadian microbiologist Lori Johnston carried out selected experiments on varying levels of bacteria activity on the wreck.
Lori had previously carried out scientific studies on shipwrecks on documentaries with filmmaker James Cameron. Strange as it sounds, she had only ever dived two shipwrecks before - Titanic and Bismarck!
While Geraint Ffoulkes-Jones laid long-term experiments in specific areas of the wreck, Rick Warring recovered a small section of iron deposit for Lori to analyse.
By studying the bacteria, she can now determine how different colonies are taking effect on Britannic and returning it to nature. She can also study the relationship between Britannic and Titanic and determine long-term effects on the remaining life of each wreck in their different environments.
The divers were making decompression dives of between five and six hours each day, with all decompression and dive profiles carried out using VR3 dive computer technology.
Each dive day was followed by a support day, during which they had to work incredibly hard to allow their colleagues to dive and enjoy the wreck. Who better to have in support than divers who know what its like to be on the other side
The Kea Channel is an incredibly busy shipping lane, and the team needed a solid platform from which to dive. With five years experience working extreme deep wrecks, the team chose skipper Steve Wright of Deep Blue Diving. With his partner Julie and Gordon Bell, Steve navigated Loyal Watcher on a 5000 mile round trip from Plymouth and back.
With the presence of Simon Mills, Britannics owner and an authority on the wreck, the divers could study plans of the ship and establish the most useful areas for exploration. Minimal gas-mixing logistics left the evenings free for planning.
Todays technology has at last enabled us to shed light on the fate of one of our biggest shipwrecks. This expedition could pave the way for many interesting projects to come.
Our thanks to Delta P for its VR3 technology, Otter Watersports, OMS, Molecular Products and AP Valves, to Britannic 98 expedition leader Nick Hope for his valuable help during the preliminary stages, and to Governcheck Ltd.
The Inside Britannic documentary can be seen on the National Geographic Channel and Channel 5, and youll find more information and images on www.deepimage.co.uk.
|Richie looks at the port bridge wing navigational light at almost 100m |
|Covered beyond recognition with marine growth is the ships telemotor, which once powered the massive rudder |
|Deep inside the wreck,a spiral staircase leads down to the lower deck levels |
|a diver is silhouetted in the sunshine at 110m over the aft covered promenade deck |
|a bridge window has fallen from its former position |
|the main bridge helm now lies on the teak decking |
|Chris Hutchison passes his deco time on his rebreather |
|Richie Stevenson inspects the officers accommodation at 95m, one of the shallowest points |
|the Britannic 2003 dive team |