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The Siren Song of the Britannic

Written by Kim Frank
Photographs: David Concannon, Michael C. Barnette, Dmitry Tomashov
Aegean Sea, Kea, Greece

The Aegean Sea is a magical turquoise that inspires a vision of Neptune rising, but that tranquil scenery belies what is happening beneath us. Placement of our diving vessel, the U-Boat Navigator, is crucial and we cheer as the mark we are waiting for appears on the sonar. We are directly above the wreck of the HMHS Britannic, Titanic’s sister ship, sunk by a German mine a century earlier.

June 30th, 2015: time is running out. Day five of a week-long expedition and the too-swift current still carries considerable risk. The Aegean Sea is a magical turquoise that inspires a vision of Neptune rising, but that tranquil scenery belies what is happening beneath us. Placement of our diving vessel, the U-Boat Navigator, is crucial and we cheer as the mark we are waiting for appears on the sonar. We are directly above the wreck of the HMHS Britannic, Titanic’s sister ship, sunk by a German mine a century earlier.

Each diver is lost in intense concentration, carefully loading equipment onto their backs: closed-circuit rebreathers slung with extra gas tanks, buoyancy vests, dive computers, camera gear and more. Four of the world’s greatest underwater explorers, Edoardo Pavia, Michael Barnette, Evan Kovacs and Richie Kohler, each carry 250lbs on their backs, but it’s a small weight to bear against the unshakable heft of remorse, guilt, fear, and responsibility. They’re returning to this historic site six years after friend and fellow diver, Carl Spencer, tragically died while leading a National Geographic expedition to explore film rarely seen areas deep inside the wreck.

Carl was both beloved and revered in the small, close-knit community of the world’s elite technical divers. With a gregarious laugh and a humble demeanor, he had the rare ability to inspire awe among his colleagues, even as he self-effacingly described himself as ‘just a plumber from the Midlands’ – a plumber who quit his job to accept James Cameron’s once-in-a-lifetime invitation to dive to the Titanic, and who, within six short years, built his own business, drove an Aston Martin and flew his own helicopter. He was one of the first to dive to the remote wreck of the Carpathia, 120 miles west of England at a depth of 500ft, and Spencer had led three expeditions to explore the Britannic, 400ft deep off the coast of Greece. Carl died in Edoardo’s arms after completing an ill-fated dive to Britannic with Evan in May 2009. Six years later, his friends have returned to the wreck to finish his work. This is their first time here without Carl, and his spirit is felt everywhere.

A lone seagull circles above us as the divers attend to their tasks. Michael lifts a gloved finger and points him out. We all stop and look up. Despite wildly varying personalities, we agree this gull is the personification of Carl Indeed, this is not the gull’s first visit; he had appeared during a private memorial held for Carl upon our arrival on the sleepy island of Kea, hovering overhead as a floral wreath and personal letters were placed on the sea near the site of the accident.

On the not-so-distant horizon, bright white clusters of traditional houses are tucked into the hillsides. Colourful umbrellas dot the beaches, rows of cafes with rich red and yellow shutters fill with locals and just the right amount of tourists. A ferry from Athens bellows its arrival as motor scooters and small cars queue along the coastal road. Above us is a cliff with a white cross. To the average passerby, we appear to be a beautifully equipped vessel out in the harbour enjoying the scenery. But on board is tense deliberation: after a week of adverse weather and waiting, conditions are still marginal.

Sunrise-over-Kea-harbor

britannic-01

A mystery on this ship has never been solved: how was it that the Britannic, built twice as strong, sank twice as fast as her sister ship the Titanic? This mystery has been waiting for someone with the right equipment and experience to seek the answer. Dive team leader Richie Kohler, of Shadow Divers fame, is eager to go. If they don’t dive today, the team will miss their window and whatever mysteries the Britannic holds will stay secret for at least another year. Richie has the ending of a new book to write, and the pressure of a deadline. He is confident in his ability and believes the conditions to be manageable for most of his team. But like any good leader, he knows that ‘most’ is not enough.

‘Mike, what is your limit?’ he asks Michael Barnette, safety diver and underwater photographer. Michael replies: ‘I’m OK with 2 knots at the surface but not more than 1.5 below. I’ve never done more than that and I’m not comfortable with a higher current.’ Michael, affectionately known as Barney, is clearly concerned. If he is unwilling to dive in this current, the team will be forced to abort the dive and leave without accomplishing what they came all this way to do. Yet, a decision to dive outside of his skill and comfort level puts all their lives at risk. ‘I think you can do it,’ Richie says. ‘This is the current. It never abated last time we were here. It’s typical. It won’t get any better than this.’

A meeting is held on the top deck. Eugene and Dmitry Tomashov, our hosts and operators of the U-Boat Navigator, plan their own exploration strategy with the divers. This technologically advanced dive vessel is equipped with a state-of-the-art control room, three-man Triton submersible, remotely operated vehicle (ROV), recompression chamber and a diving bell to support the divers, providing the expedition team with a sense of security that helps ease some of the fear of returning to the waters that took their friend. The vessel’s crew members are also skilled divers and play a variety of roles. Everyone is prepared.

Underwater filmmaker Evan Kovacs is not thinking about the current. On a table is spread out an array of filmmaking equipment. Evan is all concentration, examining each tiny part, screwing things together, testing the small pieces over and over. This is his rare second chance to capture the mystery-solving footage he lost because of a camera malfunction six years ago.

A mystery on this ship has never been solved: how was it that the Britannic, built twice as strong, sank twice as fast as her sister ship the Titanic? This mystery has been waiting for someone with the right equipment and experience to seek the answer.

britannic-02

Edo-on-Hull

In 2009, the Greek government, in partnership with National Geographic and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, approved a full interior exploration of the Britannic. The 21-day expedition was to explore why the supposedly ‘more unsinkable’ Britannic sank so quickly, conduct lab experiments on the ship’s rate of deterioration, and search for recoverable artifacts. On day three, Evan filmed his dive partner Carl Spencer penetrating the wreck, successfully sliding himself and his equipment through a small opening near the ship’s bridge. Carl soon emerged and signalled a problem. Over the next several hours, rescue divers ferried gas bottles to Evan and Carl and helped them to the surface. They nearly made it. Within sight of the surface, Carl mistakenly breathed out of a mismarked tank he’d placed on the descent line for the purpose of sending up a scientific experiment with a lift bag. The tank, which was marked as containing air, actually contained 50% oxygen, toxic at that depth, and immediately sent Carl into convulsions. Rather than lose their friend to drowning, the divers made the risky decision to bring Carl to the surface, where two doctors and a recompression chamber could give their nitrogen-saturated expedition leader a chance at life. Edoardo Pavia – widely respected as one of the most elite technical divers in the world, and acting as dive safety officer that day – leaped, fully clothed into the water to recover his friend, but it was too late. Carl was already dead. The moment has haunted him ever since.

Edoardo looks out into the sea and offers a prayer, a meditation, a promise before slipping into the water at the exact location, determined to face his ghosts.

Now, six years later, Edoardo looks out into the sea and offers a prayer, a meditation, a promise before slipping into the water at the exact location, determined to face his ghosts. Each diver pauses on the dive platform before stepping off into the sea. They slip into the gin-clear, cobalt Aegean water and descend until a ghostly image materialises, a ship suspended in blue. About halfway, they see the wreck with stunning visibility, but still can’t comprehend its magnitude. The Britannic rivals the Empire State Building in sheer dimensions and here they are, above it, as if dangling on a string. Richie describes a tingling sensation, particularly in the pit of the stomach, unlike anything that could ever be captured by video or a photograph. The Britannic is awe-inspiring. In 1916 it was the largest ship in the world at nearly 1,000ft long, and here it is rising ten stories from the bottom. As the dive team approaches, our vessel’s Triton submarine floats in the background, illuminating the wreck and the comparatively tiny divers swimming alongside it. There are a multitude of questions to be answered in an extremely brief window: are the watertight doors open? What kind of artifacts could be recovered? Is it possible to retrieve the lab experiments from the 2009 expedition?

The underwater equivalent of summiting K2, this particular Britannic expedition requires the divers to reach unprecedented depths while racing against the clock. The men have just 50 minutes to descend 400ft and pick their way into and out of another 300ft of disorienting obstacles to reach the boiler room doors, before enduring an eight-hour ascent to safely decompress. Each five additional minutes spent on the bottom incur an extra one-hour decompression obligation, but their life-support equipment has a capacity limit and the divers literally cannot carry enough gas to survive the additional penalty. Every minute lost could mean the difference between life and death.

It’s all David Concannon can think about. An explorer and experienced expedition leader, Concannon, who led the last expedition to explore the Titanic using manned submersibles and later found and recovered the Apollo F-1 engines that launched men to the moon, is in here to help the team coordinate logistics with our Russian hosts and act as topside photographer. After photographing the divers disappearing into the sea, David paces, clearly worried, and jumps into every role possible to free up his friends to wholly concentrate on the task at hand. David and Carl were close friends and had corresponded about the burdens of leading expeditions right up until Carl’s departure for Greece in 2009. David is convinced that the fatally mismarked tank was the result of Carl being overwhelmed with too much to do. ‘Carl had been exhausted, up working long hours the night before. There was so much pressure with the film crew and his responsibilities,’ David tells those of us waiting on board. ‘I want to alleviate some of that burden for my friends. They are husbands, fathers, they have loved ones waiting for them to return safely.’ While the divers are underwater, David negotiates the expedition’s agreement to use the U-Boat Navigator and share intellectual property.

The minutes turn to hours, and then more hours. The crew and guests, 12 of us on board, all with a variety of tasks to attend to, do not feel we have any right to relax. And, for the majority of us, there are non-stop monitoring jobs to be done. Each time I walk out to the dive area, I see the young ship’s doctor and master diver standing completely still, carefully assessing the divers’ performance via a video feed from the ROV below, looking for signs of distress or dementia caused by breathing mixed gas at extreme pressure.

Edoardo-post-dive-tear

And then, at last, the divers are in the diving bell. We breathe a collective sigh of relief. But, as any seasoned diver or climber knows, achieving the pinnacle means you’re only halfway. Mistakes can be made in those hours after the summit has been reached, or, as Carl Spencer demonstrated, within sight of the surface. When the divers finally emerge, eight hours after they first descended, there are cheers and back-slapping, high fives, and close-up photographs. And, despite the expedition’s apparent wild success, each diver is responding differently.

Richie is euphoric. He has what he needs. He’s seen it with his own eyes. The mystery is solved. And what did he discover? Why did the Britannic sink so rapidly? ‘You’ll have to read the book,’ he says with a devilish grin. ‘The Secret of Last Olympian. It’ll all be there.’

Evan’s face has owl-sized rings where his mask has sucked into his skin. True to his calm and quiet nature, he says little, but the dark circles under his eyes reveal sleepless nights. He brings his equipment to a table to rinse it in fresh water, to check if he caught the footage. Maybe he makes a slight sound. If so, only Richie hears it, because the rest of us can hear only Richie’s ‘Whoop!’

In a quiet corner, Barney confidently takes off each layer. Today, with this envelope-pushing dive, he cements his place in the ranks of those divers he has long admired. But that’s not what he cares about. He searches for the seagull and finds it. ‘He’s here,’ he says to nobody except himself. ‘I knew he was.’

And then there is Edoardo, sitting quietly on a bench. Even after eight hours underwater, a careful look reveals a single tear streaming down his already wet face. Edoardo is overcome with grief, the anguish of losing his friend evident across his face. David, standing nearby, is also feeling the gravity of the moment. He doesn’t care why the Britannic sank in only a third the time of the Titanic, even though he has spent significant time on both wrecks. He only cares that his friends are home safely. David, respectful and gentle, full of emotion, lifts his camera almost apologetically. And Edoardo, staring directly at the lens, wholly trusting, lets his emotions flow freely.

In a quiet corner, Barney confidently takes off each layer. Today, with this envelope-pushing dive, he cements his place in the ranks of those divers he has long admired. But that’s not what he cares about. He searches for the seagull and finds it. ‘He’s here,’ he says to nobody except himself. ‘I knew he was.’

‘Why take such a risk?’ Edoardo says that night over a celebratory dinner with our hosts and crew. ‘It’s like a sticky glue that holds all of us together, that brings us back to it. In the end, with this trip, the worst parts about losing Carl turned out to be the best part.’ We raise our glasses again and again. By the end of the night the next adventure is in the works.


Siren Song is a featured Single Moment story in Sidetracked Volume Seven

Written by Kim Frank: www.kimfrankwriter.com
David Concannon: www.explorerconsulting.com
Dive team leader, Richie Kohler: The Mystery of the Last Olympian.

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