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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.
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.
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 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.
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.
My Love Affair with the MV Viminale, the Italian Titanic
Young, poetic Italian explorer Andrea Murdock Alpini reveals the sensitivities of his not so discreet love affair with the wreck of Motonave Viminale, the Italian Titanic, which lays more than 100 meters beneath the sea near Palmi, Italy. As the Bee Gees sang, “Quant’è profondo il tuo amore?”
By Andrea Murdock Alpini
Translated by Lara Lambiase (DAN Europe, Diving Medical Officer) AKA Lady Murdock
Header photo by Marco Mori
Everyone would like to run towards their dreams. Touching them is a privilege some people have. Taking them up with both hands is a blessing for just a few. The life wind often blows inconsistently and in many directions. A strong analytic effort is needed in order to understand the right path to follow.
It takes courage to leave behind a wreck. Turning and making the decision that this will be the last time you see her or that you will be close and inside her, these are some hard choices. It sounds like standing at the door saying goodbye to someone dear to you who comes from far away and is going to leave again. To say goodbye means the end and, at the same time, implies a beginning: that your relationship is moving into memory.
The first time I dived down to visit MV Viminale, I knew it would never end in a farewell. Delicate metal sheets embracing me for the first time; her touch and her voice, made up of a long-distance courtship; it all fascinated me so much that I could not help thinking about her: such a charming, elegant ship.
A transatlantic is unique in shape, dimension, history.
The first encounter is never to be forgotten. In just a short while it conveys the whole timbre of what is possible. Your clean-shaved deep-sea observer’s glance cannot stop at the surface anymore. He must see more. “There’s a fracture in everything,” some crack that allows entrance to the inside, a place where delicate worlds are opening or closing.
After one visit, I can say goodbye no longer.
I remember my many, earlier dives, for a full year while I waited for the right moment to meet Viminale. I was able to feel what Penelope, Ulysses’ wife, felt while waiting for her dear husband’s return, much like the endless waits sailors endure as they pass from one harbor to another, the embers of their smokes drifting into the air of the night.
Coming across Viminale’s wreck has been one of the most powerful experiences of my entire life. With my first gaze, I witnessed the past but even so, still longed for the present.
The Future of the Classic
Looking at the Viminale requires a high level of attention. Even though you believe you’re seeing the wreck, you are also watching the ship. At first sight, observers see the wreck, but if they allow themselves to watch carefully and with new eyes, they will see the fascinating Lloyd Triestino ocean liner. Once seen, it’s impossible to be ignored..
You will want to come back, again, again, and again. Your eyes will never grow tired of her beauty and your thirst for knowledge about her will lead you to explore and extend your personal new boundaries. It’s an enchantment: at the exact moment the young girl appears, she begins her transformation into a woman.
Two aspects co-exist, inseparable, but so far apart if you are not able to see.
The first aspect is related to the wreck, which is basically what every person sees while glancing at her; the second aspect represents the future of a classic look. The woman is hidden to the eye, covered by different layers that shaped her, over time.
Looking at the young girl, then the woman appears: the Ship: “She’s a force emerging from the past; she finds her strength in the tradition of love.” Love for whom? For the Sea, who she belongs to since she first floated on the surface of the water until the moment she surrendered and sank, consumed by the ocean’s swells.
I wrote about Viminale last year; my scream of joy in front of the Ship at 107 m/350 ft of depth. The reason I fell in love with this wreck was that, until then I had only seen the young girl, but suddenly the woman appeared to me.
Old alpine climber Walter Bonatti’s hands were thick, but in spite of that, the Alps’ cold wind cut them. Wreckers’ hands test the water, touch very gently, toss roughly or smoothly. Hands, for us wreckers, are more than eyes: they feel, see, and perceive. These hands sometimes plunge as do Amore’s marble fingertips into Psyche, remembering the classic tradition of sculpture. Touch is decisive, but cognitive. Hands clutch, and fingers cling into a pianist’s dance.
When I look at the surface from the bottom of the sea, I sometimes glimpse the far glaze of the surface. Sometimes—not often—it happens that a ray of light fills the distance separating the wreck from life. At that moment my eyes suddenly shine because I am participating in an extraordinary event; the beauty appears in its natural way. Artificial lighting is useless in that moment because your eyes are acclimated to the darkness that surrounds you. In that moment you feel your soul is made whole because you are staring at incomparable natural beauty.
This time, the heavy 45 kg ballast to be thrown on the wreck took place into my cabin van because I felt that it didn’t deserve the cold cargo bed.
Watching it, I felt sure that this was not simply naked iron thrown in the water, but I wanted to paint a love story on its sides, one to accompany it to the sea bed. I traced smooth lines with white enamel on one side, and Lara painted Latin words in capital letters on the opposite side. This was the beginning of something that could not be otherwise; the event that opened a crack in the boundary between what was and what would be.
The very first impact had changed the flow of life into an unexpected and surprising way. I took a brush and began painting on your side THAT’S AMORE, because this is how I go deep into the wreck. Each man and each ship goes through huge storms, the ship’s plank wheel and helmsman make the course, indissolubly together in spite of being visually separated. “Stay with me and the storm will cease”
Like you, none. Never.
Attraction is a magnet that can lure you to insanity.
A year ago, I, along with two dive buddies, entered the engine room of Motonave Viminale. A year later, I along with my personal friend as well as professional photographer, Marco Mori, returned. We had prepared two dive plans. One for 25 minutes of bottom time at a depth 105 m/345 ft in the event of bad visibility and strong flow, and the second for 35 minutes of bottom time at the same depth in the event of good conditions, i.e. clear vis and little flow. We were lucky enough to encounter the second; we had a great dive on the wreck Viminale.
I remember that we had been astonished by the silence that accompanied our dive into the engine rooms of the Italian wreck, the Titanic, as we were surrounded by electric panels, pressure gauges, fire tanks, and ancient lamps that had ceased shining. I will always remember the inner silence broken by thrilling sights, our eyes filled with wonder and happiness as we finned slowly and played out the spool of line to exit with to the main deck. Those memories were the allure that had brought us to the belly of the Viminale. We were careful to move cautiously and to pay attention not to disturb our surroundings.
As my head emerged from the hatch, I could not believe what my eyes saw in front of me. Thanks to the darkness we were coming from and the blackness of the engine room into which we emerged, Palmi seemed more as a deep blue shade reminiscent of the calm sea overhead. The pilot house and the branch lifeboats appeared as sculptures rather than parts of a wreckage.
As we left the engine room at 108 m/352 ft, we moved forward to 90 m/294 ft depth, and I began to brush off the wooden deck with my hand and marvelled at the feeling I received from touching the beauty of the ancient wooden planking. I love iron ships, but the soft touch of wood conjures up for me the feel and scent of a long-ago era. I recollected making the same gesture with my right hand two years previously on the HMS Britannic’s promenade. It is an unforgettable sensation I will carry with me always.
Knowing it was time to ascend, our dive computers were saying that our decompression would require 210 minutes before we could surface, I gazed lovingly one last time from the right side of the pilot house looking toward the bow. I kept all my deco cylinders away from the line and passed an oxygen cylinder to Marco as he was calling “Goodbye,” to Viminale.
Three and a half hours later, we resurfaced, both of us believing this was one of our best dives ever. We were fortunate to be able to see amazing sights, thanks to a fine mix of clear visibility, calm seas, good adrenaline and friendship. A chapter, nay a paragraph in the life of this shipwreck comes to an end yet we both feel that our job is not done. We will be back, again and again. I switched off my dive lamps. We were ready to begin our lift to the surface with the natural light remaining.
Encounters with a woman, a friend or a shipwreck can sometimes shake you up and change your perspective forever. To Viminale I think, “I will meet you again, under the guise that I simply want to talk with you.” Perhaps these thoughts are why I am awake at night, longing to see you again tomorrow. You have become a part of my life. I do not care who had you before me; I am yearning for you. That’s amore. In the end all I want is to dream about you “as I have never dreamed before.”
- Alpini A.M. VIMINALE: TRA BIELLE E PISTONI. SUB UNDERWATER MAGAZINE, # 400, March 2020 (Also see December 2019)
- The Italian Liners Historical Society: Lloyd Triestino
- Viminale Ocean Liner (1937-1943)
- You may also enjoy another of Alpini’s exploration stories: Isverna Cave, Diving An Underground Dacia, InDepth, V 2.5 June 2020
Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and CMAS technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming and writings. He holds a Master’s 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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