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20 Years: The Secrets of the Britannic

To celebrate the end of GUE’s 20th anniversary, and its membership magazine Quest’s 20th anniversary, we are re-publishing Jablonski’s article about the Britannic project that ran in dirQUEST Vol 1 #2 Winter/Spring 2000. In addition we offer a seven-minute trailer about the expedition.

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Intro by Michael Menduno

Header photo from the GUE archives. Divers on the Britannic during the 1999 project.

In 1999, as the fledgling Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) was still finalizing its non-profit status, founder Jarrod Jablonski and team set off on their first big documentation project to document the shipwreck of the HMHS Britannic, the world’s largest passenger liner. It was the third “technical diving” expedition on the Britannic following Kevin Gurr’s 1997 expedition which included Aussie explorers Kevin Mirja Denlay, Nick Hope’s 1998 expedition with British explorer Leigh Bishop (not counting Jacques Cousteau’s 1976 expedition). 

Now to celebrate the end of GUE’s 20th anniversary, and its membership magazine Quest’s 20th anniversary, we are re-publishing Jablonski’s article about the project that ran in dirQUEST Vol 1 #2 Winter/Spring 2000 (The name was changed to Quest in 2004). In addition, we offer a seven-minute trailer about the expedition. 

GUE was created to meet the needs of divers who wanted to explore and conserve the underwater world. The Britannic project in 1999 put the team of divers led by Jarrod Jablonski, Todd Kincaid, and Richard Lundgren and GUE standards, procedures and skills to the test.

Now 20 years later, GUE has grown to over 90 countries with thousands of divers who are helping to enact the vision of the organization. Meanwhile, Quest has released 20 quarterly volumes of the membership magazine highlighting diving research, conservation efforts, and exploration projects.

The text below originally ran in GUE’s Quest Maganize in the spring of 2000.

Diving the Britannic- A Personal Account

By Jarrod Jablonski

Generating a level of fascination that borders on obsession, the sinking of the Titanic has captured the imagination and sentiment of millions of people around the world. The feverish interest in the Titanic, stands in stark contrast to the nearly unknown fate of her sister ship, HMS Britannic. One of three ships designed for the White Star Line to be the most opulent liners ever built the Britannic was instead fated to become the worlds largest passenger shipwreck. The two ships join a list of tragedies that seem to assert the relative frailty of human endeavors.

The mystery that surrounds the Britannic’s sinking is filled with even greater ambiguity than that of the Titanic. The Titanic‘s sinking was initiated by a collision with an iceberg. We can only speculate as to the Britannic’s assailant. After having gone down in just over two hours, the Titanic‘s revolutionary design was judged inadequate while the Britannic was still in dry-dock. The ship’s owners ordered an expensive array of improvements fitted to Britannic structure in order to avoid another Titanic catastrophe. In spite of the modifications, the Britannic sank in a mere 55 minutes on the morning of November 21, 1916. The elusiveness of Britannic’s sinking and her beautiful resting spot are certainly enough to entice any curious soul, but her record size and challenging location were all but irresistible for our group of inquisitive explorers. The allure of adventure was all that was needed to initiate the nearly year-long planning that would become GUE’s Britannic 99 Project.

Logistically speaking, the Britannic provides several interesting obstacles to staging an exploration project. The wreck rests at the bottom of the Kea Channel, a busy shipping lane just south of Athens, Greece. The southern Attica peninsula and northern Cycladic Islands lack any substantial support for diving operations. Certainly, 400-foot depths, unpredictably raging currents, capricious storms, powerful winds, and the 2,000+ mile journey did nothing to simplify the diving logistics. Because almost all of our equipment had to be shipped to Greece, preparations began several weeks before the start of the first dive when roughly 4,000 pounds of gear began its long journey to the lonely island of Kea.

Due to the great abundance of Greek antiquities (and the potential for looting), the government has historically limited access to diving to a few restricted zones in touristed areas. To stage a multi-week tri mix exploration, GUE had to build an on-site facility capable of supporting up to a dozen gas divers a day.

Richard Lundgren and Johan Berggren prepping for a dive on the Britannic. Photo from the GUE archives.

Team members arrived on Kea on August 18, while two transport trucks, with over three tons of gear, compressors and gas cylinders, followed close behind. Given the strict time limitations of the diving project, the equipment had to be assembled and rested in a timely fashion. The GUE team worked diligently to make the extensive preparations required to safely access the Britannic.

Preparing to Dive the Britannic

In 1975, underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau located the Britannic in 400 feet of water. Global Underwater Explorers is one of only three organizations to visit the Britannic since its discovery by Cousteau. Because it is considered a war grave by the British government, diving is strictly regulated, with access to the wreck granted no more than once a year. Although accurate GPS readings on the wreck are scarce, the Britannic’s 900-foot structure is readily identifiable with a depth sounder and locating the structure is relatively simple — especially with the capable assistance of the local Greek community.

 GUE Divers ascending through decompression after a dive on Britannic. Photo from the GUE archives.



After locating the Britannic, the advance team of Andrew Georgirsis, Steve Berman and Richard Lundgren attached a thin lead for the upline on their first shot at the wreck. As soon as the team’s lift bag broke the surface, the second team of Jarrod Jablonski, Todd Kincaid and Ted Cole departed to secure a one-inch upline and lift bag to the surface. The line was secured about a hundred feet up from the wreck’s stern.

Surface currents are typically fierce in this region and the depth of their influence can vary. Therefore, an upline was established from the bottom in stages, i.e. from 400 to 150 feet, from 150 to 70 feet and from 70 feet to the surface. This system allowed divers to cut individual sections and drift when absolutely necessary without compromising the stability of deeper upline stages. In addition, several chase boats worked in concert with the main support vessel to coordinate emergency drifting decompression or to wave off cargo ships approaching decompressing divers. Todd Kincaid coordinated efforts with Richard Lundgren, Johan Berggren, Bob Sherwood, and Joakim Johansson; the group worked tirelessly to ensure this system was as safe and flexible as necessary.

Diving the Britannic

Descending into the eerie blue water of the Aegean Sea toward the Britannic is like drifting through time. On clear days the outline of the Brirannic’s structure can be seen from as shallow as 200 feet. My first impression was one of awe — below me lay the largest passenger shipwreck in the world, rich with a unique and enigmatic history. The hazy form seems to beckon one into the depths, calling from the long, lost past.

We reached the deck, which is resting in approximately 330 feet of water and only 200 feet from the stern’s immense props. After securing the upline we continued a slow run toward the bow some 700 feet away. The Britannic lies on her starboard side leaving her port side facing up toward the distant surface about 300 feet away. The port side of this immense structure is covered in a fine, colorful growth of marine life, forming a unique blend of history and regeneration.

Traveling along the deck of the Britannic reminded me of strolling through the ancient ruins so common in Greece. The wreck is amazingly well preserved with moderate degradation and dozens of prominent features standing above her structure. Davits stand proudly above the wreck where they have rested since deploying the lifeboats that saved nearly all of her 1,000 passengers. Unfortunately, the davits and boat stands also bring to mind the 30 people who were launched from these boat stands, into the immense blades of the props.

Scootering past one of the Britannic propellers. Photo from the GUE archives.

Scootering around the wreck is a true privilege with unique bits of history adorning nearly every corner: a plaque left to commemorate Jacque Cousteau’s first dive on the Britannic, the rear telegraph for controlling the immense ship, the huge smoke funnels that once provided for her fateful journey, the huge props that propelled her along. Then there are the lamps, the coal, the cargo holds, the hallways and the ancient staircase. China cups and tiled bathrooms, spiral staircases and old light switches are but some of the many unique features to embellish our journey.

Despite all the history and beauty, the feature that most captured my imagination was the huge breach in the bow section. The damage from the rumored explosions was unusually large seemingly outstripping the possibility of a simple explosion. But were the jagged metal and puncture wound from some unidentified explosion or from her impact with the bottom some 400 feet below? Picking through the wreckage and imagining the mysterious sinking was an odd, almost mystical experience. On occasion, I actually found myself squinting at the wreckage like someone trying to make out a mysterious object just out of his or her field of view.

Jarrod, Ted, and Todd with Britannic survivor. Photo from the GUE archives.

Above all of the aspects of diving the Britannic, the best part was the great sense of connection found while diving in such a unique location. Exploring the Britannic was like walking through a tunnel into the past and being able to share the experience with a group of friends and newly acquired acquaintances. Each night upon returning from a day of diving, the local residents would gather at our hotel and review the video footage, laughing and discussing the activity with childlike glee. The sense of community that emanated from these encounters left some of us feeling oddly spiritual, particularly one night when a local Greek gentleman came by and introduced himself as someone who had witnessed the sinking when he was just a small boy. We were reviewing footage from the day’s expedition — an international group of divers and local Greek citizens. I remember watching this older gentleman relive his viewing of the Britannic sinking, it all seemed to fit together: the majesty of the Britannic, the feeling of community and the connection from past to present. As I looked at this experience being etched into his face. I saw our images reflected in the glint of his aging eyes and I wondered if maybe he felt the same way.


Jarrod is an avid explorer, researcher, author, and instructor who teaches and dives in oceans and caves around the world. Trained as a geologist, Jarrod is the founder and president of GUE and CEO of Halcyon and Extreme Exposure while remaining active in conservation, exploration, and filming projects worldwide. His explorations regularly place him in the most remote locations in the world, including numerous world record cave dives with total immersions near 30 hours. Jarrod is also an author with dozens of publications, including three books.

Cave

Isverna Cave, Diving An Underground Dacia

Italian explorer and tech instructor, Andrea Murdock Alpini, waxes poetic about his first exploration dive in Isverna Cave, located deep in the Earth beneath the wilds of Romania.

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by Andrea Murdock Alpini
Film and Photos by Andrea Murdock Alpini

Early in January 2020, feeling fortunate to dive the stunning Isverna Cave located in the Balkans, Andrea Murdock recorded his impressions in a diary as it is shown here.  

ISVERNA CAVE, The Trip

Footprints, steps and transfers 
The team assembles in snowy, rural Romania. Photo by Andrea Murdock Alpini.

A small team of divers, Stefano Beatrizzotti, Nathan Zot, and Luca Bricalli from Switzerland, and I, the fourth diver and also the writer and filmmaker, are ready. We’re going to dive into this stunning cave with three siphons: Green Syphon, a narrow passage with a strong current; a breath-taking dry passage to the Yellow Syphon; and finally the Black Syphon, which is more than 400 m/1312 ft long and 42 m/140 ft deep—the longest flooded siphon in Romania. The permissions have been granted, and we have a goal to accomplish: an amazing adventure among these ancient rocks.

Isverna Cave is located at around 600 m/1959 ft elevation, in the Oltenia region, bordered on the north by Transylvania, made famous by the legend of Count Dracula. The first recorded exploration took place at the beginning of WWI, in 1914, and it has been studied and thoroughly written about over the years by many intrepid pioneer speleologists, with each century contributing additional vital information. Even Jacques Yves Cousteau brought his contribution to the exploration of Isverna Cave in 1990. In 2005, the scuba speleologists Gabor Mogyorosy and Mihai Baciu found a way to the end of Black Siphon. Reaching the back gate of Black Siphon means we will have explored more than 1800 m/6000 ft of cave. However, never fear, there are hundreds of virgin tunnels that await intrepid adventurers.  

Isverna Cave: Day I 

Sheep and humans alike going about their daily business. Photo by Andrea Murdock Alpini.

We arrived in Isverna around noon local time. We had driven more than 1650 km/1000 mi in one day to reach our destination–the wilderness in Romania. In spite of our late arrival, a very calm guy welcomed us. He spoke only Romanian. Very few words, along with hand signals were used to show us to the rural “house” where we were to sleep and remain dry during our stay. Our humble abode had but a single light bulb to illuminate it, and the ‘heat’ was a fire that we took turns attending to before we jumped back into our sleeping bags for warmth.

Isverna Cave: Day II

Early in the morning, while the others still slept, I had walked to the river. I approached the cave by the external side, a semi-vertical wall of 3m/10 ft close to its entrance. A crystal-clear tiny river flowed below the main rock wall. Mosses and lichens covered the whole surface of the rock and made it very slippery. On top of it was a locked iron gateway that guarded the access. The local authority had given the key to our speleologist: Mihail Besesek. 

When we were all gathered, we saw a rope at the right of the entrance to the cave. I carried my heavy bag on my back with some of my diving gear. I let go of my mass on the heels of my boots, but “not enough” Luca Bricalli said.  He  is an expert alpinist, and his recommendations are very useful. I lifted up the front light worn on my helmet to light up the narrow passages of the dry part of the cave. We had to walk about 220 m/720 ft before we reached the inner lake. It was  incredible how the concept of slippery, narrow, safe, and precarious changed with each step. The more we moved forward, the more the morphology of the cave changed. Now and then we had to proceed on our hands and knees, skipping flooded spots around 1 m/3 ft deep. A rapid river flowing along our journey reminded us as to how difficult the dive would be.

The march moved on quite simply according to our enthusiasm but the more I walked, the more I slowed down. Sometimes I got lost in the beauty of the cave’s rooftop: indented and smooth simultaneously. Phreatic rocks made me feel wrapped in the Earth.

The airy and aquatic human feeling that we usually experience living on the surface of the Earth disappeared. Only hardness, and the fickle ruggedness of the underground remained. The rock with its achromatism seduces the person who looks at it with simple eyes.

Thirty minutes into our journey, we came to a section of the river that needed to be forded, causing us to lose time. Mostly, however, we struggled with the climb, as handholds and footholds were not easy to see.

Charon

When we were 200 m/656 ft from the entrance, we came to a lake that required us to use our small rubber boat to cross. I couldn’t avoid thinking about the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, who wrote of an angel helmsman to whom souls sing as they are being sailed to Purgatory. 

We moved  the bags, cylinders, twinsets, camera, lights, drysuits and much more scuba gear to the opposite side of the lake. The operation took more than twenty minutes. A smooth, slippery, sliding rock, 30 m/100 ft, was our base camp inside Isverna Cave. 

Isverna Dry Cave, Romania. Photo by Andrea Murdock Alpini.

The lake was transparent, calm, and flat, as opposed to the rowdy river. On top of the slide we saw the entrance of the beloved Green Siphon for the first time.

In the cave, our voices quieted down, and the power of silence rose up. Each of us had a light on our heads in order to see where we were putting our hands. I had brought all my video gear and deco stages to the beginning of the siphon. For me, to stand up with the steel twinset 15+15 filled to 260 bar/2800psi, was extremely difficult. In fact, I needed to roll over onto my  side and use my knees to stand up. I knew the rule: don’t bring it if it’s not necessary, and I broke it. My back didn’t appreciate my flagrant disregard for rules, but my soul did.

Base Camp

Everyone had defined his square meter as a living area. “Wearing the Inside-out” by Pink Floyd could have been a perfect song for the moment. I had prepared all my gear except for the camera and lights, which were mounted and were heavy and bulky for the large branches. I had needed more time to get ready to dive. 

Just a few square meter of equipment. Photo by Andrea Murdock Alpini.

On this day I dived the three siphons with video equipment, which was a challenge. Sometimes I was in great pain; the flow was strong, and finning, breathing, and filming were tough. The worst moments were at the end of each siphon, when gravity forced me to feel all the weight. I was able to capture stunning dry passages in between the flooded parts, amazing views, powerful colors, and exquisite concretions. 

At the end of the first day of diving in Isverna I knew I could not have given up the video equipment. I remember a moment, at the end of the first siphon, I was gripping my camera with my right hand and holding a floating rope with my left hand to help to get out of the flow. Once I was out, a narrow tunnel had to be navigated. On the left wall there was a black/brown rock with a skinny rope to hold, and on the other side, and under my feet there was a river with a strong current. I moved forward slowly with my video camera and the heavy weight of my twin set on my back muscles aching and breathing with difficulty, but blissfully happy.  

The beauty of rock

The first siphon runs for more than a hundred meters. It descends quite rapidly to 15 m/50 ft deep, where a fault cracks the bottom, a nice spot for filming. While I was finning, I used my free hand, the one not gripping the camera, to dust the floor of the cave. A layer of sand covered the spare parts of some enchanting chromatism by the rocks. This simple operation meant waiting  before the silt settled and the powerful saturated colors of the stones were bright again. 

Beneath the waters surface in Isverna Cave, Romania. Photo by Andrea Murdock Alpini.

The dive profile of this segment of siphon is a yo-yo: fast descent, flat bottom, and then sudden ascent to follow the form of Isverna Cave’s tunnel. By the way, this first part of the dive had gone faster than we expected. I decided I wanted to come back the next day to pay better attention to the surrounding areas that were on the main line.  

When I was back at the surface, I was touched by the color of the rocks I saw in front of me. The dome is apparently wide. A small colony of protected bats live here. They are not the heirs of Dracula, of course, but their presence here gives a magical feeling of being there. I barely shined my lights, and the bats beat their wings and flew away,  back into the darkness. While I watched the bats, the surface flow pushed me in the wrong direction.  

I was finning strongly enough to keep my trim and keep filming. My wrists felt pain on the grip, the lights had been too large and heavy, so I had taped a lot of floating foam on the video camera equipment to lighten it and make it neutral underwater. Then and now I feel like I had a sail in front of me that slowed down my finning. It seemed that the wind slowed me down and made me lose momentum. 

Trudging through the dry tunnel. Photo by Andrea Murdock Alpini.

Walking the dry tunnel while wearing the full equipment required strong fortitude and determination. Sometimes the water rose suddenly from my ankles to my shoulders. When it covered my mouth, I breathed with my regulator and hopped on my toes. “You must be a dancer,” I repeated in my mind for those long moments, but I felt clumsy as a rookie at a dance academy school on the first day of lessons. Then, when I came out of the water, I felt like an elephant entering a fine luxury crystal store in Venice. The parasitic twin set I wore on my shoulders reminded me we were in this together, every step of the way. 

Finally, we crossed the second siphon, the Yellow one, too short to forget the complexity of the recent past. A new long, dry path awaited us.  In the end, when my eyes broke the surface, a masterpiece of nature was painted and sculptured in front of me. 

The flow pushed and increased step by step, one moment it was in front of us, the next moment it was  at our backs, sucking us down. This dry tunnel is the longest of the caves. You need to be determined if you want to dive the Black Siphon. I walked, hanging my head down, due to my shortness of breath, I have to admit it. Standing in front of the gateway to the Black Siphon was a stunning shallow lake. 

A long-flooded tunnel began here, the longest of Romania, more than 400 m/1312 ft. The cave was soft, and the color of the stone was pure black to deep brown. The rocks had the power to absorb the brightness of the diver’s lights. The shape of the tunnel, bottom, walls, and roof change often. Here, nature created a real masterpiece; no artist from the past ever duplicated it. 

There’s not a diver in the world who would not be fascinated by the beauty of this particular rock. 

Beautiful rock formations inside the Isverna Cave. Photo by Andrea Murdock Alpini.

The Black Siphon has a section and a profile that shifts quickly; in a few meters, we moved from -7m depth to -42m depth (23 ft-138 ft).Today we spent no more than 40 minutes inside the Black segment of the cave, and it is our goal to return for the next days of the expedition. Finally, it was time to put our fins in the opposite direction. We had a long, arduous journey to get back to the entrance of the cave. All the team members made an “L” sign, which meant time was up. The first day of diving inside the cave was coming to an end.

The second and third siphons had been specular, as well as the dry passages that merged with them. 

4.20pm 

We had spent more than five hours inside the cave. Not bad as a welcoming dive. When we came out  the sun was down, and a pale glaze in the background painted the boundary of the mountains. I was exhausted but pleased about the team’s progress on this first day, and while my face was not smiling, inside I was proud and pleased. 

That night while the team slept, I could not. So, I wrote about my memories and kept an eye on the fire, for the heat from the fire warmed not only our bodies but our dry suits as well. Our rural house seemed more like a campsite, and that was all we wished for. For us to be able to share the experience we had today is a gift that none of us will ever forget.


Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and CMAS technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in North Italy.  He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming and writings. He holds a Masters degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of Phy Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. Recently he published his first book entitled, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti.? 

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