1975-6 Cousteau expeditions in Greece
Expedition Leader (France): Jacques-Yves Cousteau
Divers: Albert Falco (Chief Diver/cameraman), Raymond Coll (cameraman), Bernard Delmotte, Patrick Delmotte, Marc Zonza, Ivan Giacoletto, Phan-Dan, Robert Pollio, Henri Garcia
Film crew: Colin Mounier (Director of Photography), Yves Zlotnicka (Sound Engineer), Raymond Amaddio (Assistant Cameraman), Henri Alliet, Jean-jerome Carcopino, Jean-Paul Cornu
Other: Dr. Pierre Cabarou (Medical Supervisor), Pierre Mahé, Yves Gourlaouen, Josue "Jo" Segui, Pierre Bourrakoff, J.M. France, Jean Alinat (Commander), Paul Zuena (Chief Officer), John Christofer Patton (Assistant Engineer), Christian Marcoux (steward), Jacques "Gaston" Roux, Bob Braunbeck (helicopter pilot), Papa Flash, Giraud, Claude Bogaert, Babette Soria, Simone Cousteau, Ferrandon Michel, Jean Hamon, Parvis Babai (IT specialist), Dr. Harold Edgerton (MIT/side-scan sonar specialist)
Greek team: Dr. Charalambos Kritzas (Supervising archeologist/Greek Ministry of Culture), Dr. Lazaros Kolonas (underwater archeologist), Dr. Bourboudakis, Dr. Christos Doumas, Dr.Nikolaos Platon (archeologist), Dr. Charalambos Pennas (Supervising archeologist/Greek Ministry of Culture), Nicholas Yallouris (archeologist/Cousteau interpreter), Peter Nikolaides (diver), Phaidon Antonopoulos (diver)
Guests: Sheila Macbeth-Mitchell (Britannic survivor), William Tantum IV (Historical advisor/President Titanic Historical Society), Mikis Theodorakis (music composer), George Theodorakis (music composer/son of Mikis Theodorakis)
Support vessel: The RV CALYPSO, Cousteau's famous reseach vessel.
In 1975 Jacques-Yves Cousteau was in Greece, invited by the Greek Ministry of Tourism, in order to search for possible underwater remains of the mythical city of Atlantis in the Aegean Sea. During the mission he came in contact with the Titanic Historical Society which suggested to him to look for the wreck of the Britannic. Cousteau liked the idea and in November 1975 his legendary ship, the Calypso, sailed into the Kea Channel in order to survey the seabed. The team was joined by Dr. Harold Endgerton of the MIT, who provided a side-scan sonar he had recently developed. The search was initially focused near the coordinates given by the British Admiralty but the results were disappointing and the search was widened. On November 13, Parvis Babai (IT specialist) was examining the images produced in real time by the side-scan sonar (deployed at 100m/328ft below the ship) when the shape of a huge target suddenly began to form. The sonar of the Calypso also picked up the object and the ship had to make a last-second sharp turn in order to avoid crashing the side-scan sonar onto it. The target was estimated to be a wreck more than 200m/656ft long and aproximately 40m/131ft high, with the highest point at a depth of 80m/262ft. The location was marked as being about aproximately 6,75 nautical miles NE off the point given by the British Admiralty and quite close to the entrance of the bay of Agios Nikolaos (St.Nicolo) at Kea. Due to the stong water currents that time of the year no dives were possible and the visual identification of the wreck was postponed for the future.
Cousteau and his team returned at the site in the summer of 1976. This time the team was joined by William Tantum IV (then President of the Titanic Historical Society) and later by Britannic survivor Sheila Macbeth-Mitchell. The task of identifying the wreck was assigned to a diving team composed of Albert Falco (team leader), Raymond Coll (camera), Ivan Giacoletto (lights) and Robert Pollio (photo). Despite the fact that all the divers were very experienced this would be a risky dive as it would be performed using only compressed air. Inhaling air at depths bellow 30m can lead to a state of altered consciousness (known as Narcosis) with symptoms similar to alcohol intoxication. This effect occurs due to the narcotic effect of gasses under pressure and it is reversible by ascending to shallower waters. As depth increases the mental impairment may have lethal consequences, as the diver's ability to perform even basic tasks becomes very limited. All divers breathing air are affected by narcosis during deep dives although susceptibility can vary widely between individuals. Narcosis is generally considered a critical risk factor for dives below 40m/131ft, with the risk for oxygen toxicity considered unacceptable below 66m/216ft. In order to avoid this effect modern divers use special gas mixtures (composed of Nitrogen, Oxygen and Helium) known as Tri-Mix, which enables them to stay at deep waters for a considerable period of time. This technology was available back in 1976 but its use was still limited.
The first dive to the wreck took place on July 10, 1976. Given the depth, the instructions to the divers were to go down fast, take as many images as possible, identify the wreck quickly and return making decompression stops at fixed depths. It was expected to able to view the wreck at a depth of aproximately 60m/197ft. Problems started almost immediately when the light bulbs exploded underwater. It was too late to abort and the team continued. The visibility underwater was a dozen meters. At 60m/197ft nothing was visible and the descent continued into the abyss. Then at 72m/236ft suddenly appeared the faint shape of one gantry davit. Without lights it was impossible to take good images. Twelve minutes into the dive, Albert Falco ordered the team to wait at aproximately 77m/252ft and reached the wreck, making a quick pass into the enclosed deck promenade. There was no doubt that the wreck was the Britannic. At this time Robert Pollio experienced the effects of narcosis and sensed that he was in danger. He immediately signed to Raymond Coll that he was in trouble and started to ascend slowly. At 70m/229ft he felt lucid again. At 25m/82ft his colleagues catched up with him and he could notice the excitement in their eyes. They were the first to have seen the giant liner after her sinking.
The detailed exploration of the wreck took place between September 24 - October 10, 1976. Before the dives the Calypso had to return at Pireaus in order to get the necessary quantity of Helium gas. A 3-seat diving bell (made by italian firm Galeazzi) was also installed on the ship in order to facilitate the process of decompression of the divers. This device was lowered over the wreck at 45m and stabilized by a ballast placed at 60m. The divers returning from the wreck would swim inside it in apnea through a hatch located at its bottom, leaving their gas tanks in baskets mounted externally. The pressure inside the bell was already adjusted accordingly in order to avoid decompression sickness. Once the hatch had been sealed the diving bell was pulled up on the Calypso and placed inside her aft cargo hold. The bell was equipped with oxygen masks, surveillance camera and a telephone line. Once onboard the pressure was decreased slowly to 1atm and the occupants were allowed to exit. This spared the divers the long decompression stops underwater and allowed them to pass the hours inside a more comfortable environment. The gas mixture used by the deep divers of the Cousteau team was Trimix 14/54 (Helium 54%, Oxygen 14% and Nitrogen 32%).
One of the more memorable dives was the one performed by Cousteau himself (aged 67 at the time) inside the forward Grand Staircase area. It was one of the deepest dives of his career and the tension of the crew was palpable while the legendary explorer was preparing his diving gear. The dive proceeded smoothly providing nice footage of this area, incuding the remains of the glass dome once located over the staircase. Another important moment was the visit of Sheila-Macbeth Mitchell (aged 86) who took a dive to the wreck inside the small 2-seat Soucoupe submersible, named Denise. Greek music composer Mikis Theodorakis also took a dive with the submersible. The expedition was presented to the public through an episode of the Cousteau Odyssey series, titled Calypso's Search For The Britannic [IMDb]. The team performed a total of 68 manned dives to the wreck. The effective diving time was 15 mins (9 mins descent/6 mins exploration).
Cousteau used the Soucoupe in order to explore the debris field left by the sinking ship and locate the exact point where the explosion took place. He managed to locate only one of the funnels, remains of hospital beds, various pieces of equipment and part of the keel (including some ribs). However, he didn't find any remains of mine anchors or mine chains. On the wreck, the divers noticed that the ship's bell on the foremast was missing but the one located near the crow's nest was stiil in situ. The team also managed to retrieve a number of items, the fate of which is currently unknown. According to some reports the items were transferred at museums in Athens and Monaco but recent research proved inconclusive. The known items are the following:
1) A sextant with the ship's name engraved on it
2) The base of an engine room telegraph
3) A large piece of coal
4) The brass insert of the ship's wheel
5) A spitoon
6) A "control panel"
7) The "command of the foghorn" (the foghorn was actually a small portable manually operated device, the item in question could be the Willett-Bruce whistle control device)
8) An anchor chain