Britannic Expedition 1998
This is an article Gregg would write for Diver Magazine after the expedition.
In Deep – Britannic 98 Expedition
reprinted from Diver magazine, September 1999
The Britannic on its way out of port. ( British National Archives. )
An archival image of the Britannic’s
starboard stern section.
by Greg Mossfeldt
The Greek sun is warm and sweat beads on my forehead as I wait on the aft deck of the Atlas, bobbing on the Mediterranean Sea. Support divers pour cool water over my head to keep my temperature down. Dressed in my dry suit, four heavy tanks clipped to my torso, and loaded with camera gear, I am fully engrossed in the adventure that lies ahead – a 119 meter dive to the sunken Britannic, sister-ship to the Titanic. I will be filming John Chatterton as he enters the ship and examines her watertight doors.
The tugboat Atlas was supplied
The town of Korissia, Greece.
The Britannic was one of the ill-fateful trio of great White Star Liners including the Titanic and Olympic that were intended to compete with Cunard’s Lusitania and Mauritania, transporting passengers from Southampton in the U.K. to New York. Two of the three ships sank to the ocean floor and deep into the imaginations of historians and divers alike. Britannic was launched as a passenger ship on February 26, 1914, but with the outbreak of World War I she was requisitioned by the admiralty and officially refitted as a hospital ship by December 12, 1915.
Loaded with 115 kilos of essential decompression gear and video equipment I follow John to the descent platform. A sharp blast of the ship’s horn cues us. We step over the gunwale and down to the water with a large splash. Our long descent begins. The water is clear blue, visibility to 60 metros.
The Britannic was lost on her sixth voyage off the island of Kea, about 25 kilometers southeast of Athens, Greece on November 21, 1916. She was en route to Mudros on the Greek island of Lemnos to pick up World War I casualties. She had 1,134 people aboard – 41 were injured and 30 died when their lifeboat sucked under the still turning propellers.
Map showing the location of the Britannic.
The Britannic ’98 team
As we drop further, I double check my Nitrox 40 which I am using for travel gas to 30 meters. All is going as planned. I look ahead as John through the water column with his rebreather and I feel a quick rush of adrenaline. I focus my thoughts on technical concerns. At 30 metros I switch to a 9/57 heliair bottom mix for extreme depths between 90 and 119 metros. High percentages of helium limit the disabling effects of nitrogen narcosis which distort a diver’s thought process in critical moments. Central nervous system oxygen toxicity is also a concern at these depths. The water pressure on our bodies equals thirteen times that of the surface, elevated oxygen partial-pressures could cause a convulsion which, more often than not, would end tragically. I limit my oxygen content to nine percent.
Deeper yet, and I observe a ghostly outline. I recall the illustrations by Ken Marschall. Lying on her side, the Britannic is one of the most awe inspiring, intact shipwrecks of her day, according to renowned wreck explorer Bob Ballard, who has seen many shipwrecks including the Titanic.
Leigh Bishop enters the Aegean
with his Aquazepp DPV.
British divers Geraint Ffoulkes and Dave Wilkins
at the top of the dive platform designed to help
divers enter and exit the water more easily with heavy gear.
( Photo by Greg Buxton. )
A recompression chamber was on board,
but not used on this expedition.
( Photo by Greg Buxton. )
The leader of the expedition, Nick Hope from Britain, did not have an easy task choosing a team for this expedition because each member would need a variety of skills as time and space were limited. The team was comprised of the following: British mixed gas divers Chris Hutchison, Leigh Bishop, Christina Campbell, Nick Hope, Dave Wilkins, Geraint Ffoulkes-Jones, Bob Hughes, Jamie Powell, Rob Royle and Innes McCartney. The UK support team consisted of Andrea Webb, Becky Williams, Kevin Emans, Greg Buxton and Derek Palmer. They formerly operated under the name Starfish Enterprise on expeditions to shipwrecks such as the Lusitania and King Edward VII. Christina Campbell would become the first woman to dive the Britannic.
American wreck divers John Yurga and John Chatterton, also part of the ’94 Lusitania expedition, had been invited to share their insight on current mixed gas and rebreather technology. Capt. Dan Crowell and Jennifer Samulski, from New Jersey, and I, the sole Canadian, were invited to join the expedition as support.
Geraint Ffolkes-Jones had accurately placed us over the Britannic using Differential Global Positioning System. The Greek Diving Center based in Piraeus worked alongside us and were an exceptional asset. They arranged a 30 metro-long, 2400 HP tugboat complete with crew from Tsavliris Maritime. The tugboat, Atlas, served as our main diving base, along with a small RIB and the Greek fishing boat Khaiki.
Following a rotational schedule, expedition members dove to the Britannic every second day. Tanks were precisely filled with helium and oxygen at the end of the day’s diving. Those assigned to the task stayed up until the wee hours preparing for the next day’s explorations.
We were all intrigued by the Britannic’s demise. What caused her to sink and why did she sink so quickly? Her bow had been ripped open by an explosion and evidence suggested it was more likely caused by a mine, rather than a torpedo, laid down by a German U-boat. Given that, she should have been able to sustain the damage for a longer time before sinking. Which as why John was going to examine the water-tight doors.
Struggling to orient myself, I remember my role as videographer and watch John separate from the descent line and head for the ship’s fireman’s tunnel. He is utilizing the closed circuit rebreather because it is prohibited to penetrate the interior of the Britannic with open circuit scuba. The bubbles would damage the anaerobic condition of certain well preserved areas.
Captain Dan Crowell films the stern of the Britannic.
( Photo by Rob Royle. )
A colorful school of fish forms a silent barrier in mid-water for a few moments as I energize my video lights and light the foreground. Camera rolling, I film John going into the tunnel and watch carefully for an expression of discovery. Obstructions in this corridor prohibit John from reaching his goal, he will have to search for another point of entry.
The Britannic’s propellers.
( Photo by Nick Hope. )
Yellow sponge adhere to
the bow railings of the ship.
Derek Palmer in the Britannic’s
The ruins of an ancient library on the
path to the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
The bakery where divers and crew
filled up before a day in the water.
Panning the area I catch a glimpse of Bob Hughes. I turn the camera on him as he explores a cavernous area. Further up in the bow break, I follow Jamie Powell swimming leisurely over to the bridge to check out the telegraphs.
The bow deck railings remind me of the movie Titanic. I drop below the port side deck railing and look up towards the surface, the schools of fish combined with the silhouette of the port deck railing are truly exhilarating. The sacrifices I made to come to this point all seem small in comparison. I am deeply content.
At these depths, time is limited, thoughts of long hours of decompression urge me onward. I decide to take the long route back to the up line and swim out onto the open hull. Before departing, I want to explore the port holes that may have been left open. Maybe the nurses wanted to ventilate the ship before bringing on the wounded soldiers. This may have contributed to the quick sinking of the ship.
Yellow sponge cover the railing area as I move further out onto the hull. I see the small round openings of the portholes and zoom in with film rolling. Most of the port holes are open. Glancing at my bottom timer, I see I am nearing the twenty minute set point. I search ahead for the safety of the up line and make my way over. I am met by Geraint and Dave Wilkins skillfully dismounting their Aquazepps and readying themselves for their ascent. ( Aquazepps are super charged dive propulsion vehicles. ) Using these vehicles, divers Leigh Bishop and Chris Hutchison surveyed the Britannic from the bow to the stern on a single dive which would not have been possible without them.
I begin my long journey to the surface, at 70 meters I switch to 17/19 heliair for my first decompression stop. I glance upwards and acknowledge the deep water support diver Dan Crowell and I assure him all is well. Continuing up the line to 30m I signal to mid water support diver Greg Buxton that my decompression schedule has gone as planned and I switch to a Nitrox mixture of 40%.
At this point I observe the floating decompression station and swim from the main upline to my prearranged position. This station was designed by the British Starfish Enterprise team and is utilized for diving in the current swept waters of the UK. Once all the divers are on the station it is simply unclipped from the main upline – if the current becomes too intense – and al lowed to drift with the flow. A surface chase boat follows the station to ensure oncoming ships maintain a safe distance from the platform. This greatly reduces the stress and increases safety for the off gassing divers.
The increased percentages of oxygen in my breathing gas accelerate the decompression process as I near the surface. The 17/19 staged decompression cylinder I have secured onto my diving harness must now be removed and replaced with a 70% Nitrox which was secured on the station before the dive began at a depth of 12 metros.
My in-water time is now reaching 196 minutes as I reach a depth of three metros and make my final transition to I 00% oxygen. The time spent on pure oxygen will be interrupted by breaks of minutes breathing 40% Nitrox in order to decrease the risk of oxygen toxicity. I observe Andrea Webb and Becky Williams performing their tasks as shallow support divers gathering stage bottles from the lines and ensuring the divers are in good condition.
249 minutes after I first began my descent I am allowed to break the surface. I’m greeted by RIB operators Hagen Martin and Derek Palmer, I hand my camera to them and they assist me onto the boat. The journey was a success and I cradle my video housing which is full of treasures I have recorded while on the dive.
Travelling to such a beautiful country would not have been complete without a little sight-seeing. Observing the locals, we soon realized we would have to master our burro-riding skills or opt for a “hi-tech”, Honda 50 cc moped. The majority chose the gas-powered option and set out to take in the island of Kea. The roads were extremely windy and if you weren’t careful your tires would slide out – similar to icy Canadian roads. Innes McCartney, Kevin Emans and I now understand the saying “a part of me was left on the island” as we limped around with road rash. From the sublime underwater world to earthly reality – it was all wonderful.
During our expedition, Geraint kept the public updated daily on the progress of the expedition using the Internet. He included photographic and video images of the diving, weather reports, dive conditions, and personal daily accounts from the divers. These, and a list of sponsors, can be found on the Britannic Website: http://www.mossmanscubaventures.com