1976 - Jacques Cousteau

 

 On1975, Captain Jacques Yves Cousteau and his vessel, the Calypso, were in the Aegean Sea searching for evidence of the lost continent of Atlantis. The famous oceanographer got interested to the Britannic after a contact made by the Vice President of the Titanic Historical Society (THS) William Tantum. The THS provided Cousteau with the Admiralty chart indicating the position of the wreck. After a 3-day search and with the help of a special side-scanning sonar (provided by Dr. Harold Edgerton of M.I.T), Cousteau announced the discovery of the wreck on December 1975. The wreck was located in 400ft/120m, about 7nm/8 miles off the position given by the Admiralty, near the island of Kea.

 

A: Official position given by the British Admiralty B: Actual position of the Britannic (Titanic Historical Society Archives)

 

The total cost of the operation arrived to $15.000. However, Cousteau postponed the exploration of the wreck because first he had to get permission from the Greek government (Britannic lies within Greek territorial waters and inside a very busy sea channel) and prepare the correct equipment for a dive into that depth (special tanks for the divers, containing a special mixture of helium-nitrogen-oxygen). By October 1976,everything was ready and theSoucoup, a   tiny saucer-like submersible, left the deck of the Calypso with William Tantum inside. The expedition was presented to the public through an episode of the Cousteau Odyssey TV series.

 

The  press kit of the Cousteau documentary that was released after the 1976 expedition (eBay)

 

 (Michail Michailakis collection)

 

William Tantum and Jacques Cousteau ,both seated, while preparing their dive to the Britannic (Titanic Historical Society Archives)

 

bulletDebris field:

J. Cousteau did exactly what Dr. Ballard did later in 1995. His submarine followed the debris left behind the wreck in order to find the area where the explosion took place. While Ballard found all the three missing funnels, Cousteau found only one. This means that Cousteau followed a different path but probably arrived much closer to the area of the explosion than Ballard, because he located part of the keel and some ribs. Between that point and the wreck, the seabed is full of  various remains (rusting hospital beds and various pieces of  equipment, including the brass ballast tanks of the ill-fated lifeboats). No anchor chain was found.

bulletBow damage:

The bow of the ship is deformed and twisted at an angle of 85°.

bulletThe bridge:

Here are some views from this area:

 
bulletItems retrieved:

Cousteau tried to lift an engine room telegraph to the Calypso, but only its base made it to the surface. It was taken to a museum at Monaco. Other  items include a big piece of coal, the ship's sextant and the brass insert of the wheel. The sextant was cleaned and then taken to an Athens museum. On it it's engraved the ship's name.

The following  pictures are exclusive. They were taken onboard the Calypso during the first exploration of the Britannic in 1976.The items were brought to the surface only for the official identification of the wreck. Wreck-diving is strictly forbidden in Greek territorial waters and a special permission is required. In fact, the operations were constantly monitored by a Greek archeologist. Currently, divers can only examine items found inside or near Britannic.

 

Britannic's sextant

(courtesy Peter Nicolaides)

Calypso's captain holding the sextant

(courtesy Peter Nicolaides)

The brass insert of Britannic's wheel

On the brass insert there's still the manufacturer's name:"BROWN'S PATENT TELEMOTOR ROSEBANK IRONWORKS EDINBURG". Also visible an unidentified object,most probably the brass top of the compass binnacle (courtesy Peter Nicolaides).

The base of an engine room telegraph photographed on the Calypso.

(Titanic Historical Society Archives)

A plaque from the collection of the Titanic Historical Society.

A screw from the engine room telegraph, two barnacles removed from Britannic's hull, a painting of the ship by Ed Bearman and a photo of W. Tantum, J.Cousteau and the president of the Community of Kea. (Titanic Historical Society Archives)

click on image to enlarge

Many thanks to Mark Darrah (TRMA forum) and Nigel Hampson (DF forum) for their comments regarding the items

 

bulletThe Grand Staircase:

Cousteau actually swam inside the area and reported that the wooden parts of the staircase (very spartan on the HMHS version) were rotted and the glass dome was broken (not specified which one). This doesn't match the observations of later expeditions, but maybe the glass dome not observed by Cousteau is really intact. Cousteau also said  to have seen remains of the pipe organ into that area. This is strange because it would be a great luxury for a hospital ship serving during a war. However, considering the fact that there was very little time for the unfitting of the interiors, maybe it was complex to dismantle the pipe organ and it was preferred to leave it onboard. There is no information regarding the installation or not of the instrument in order to confirm this.

bulletBells:

The ship's bell on the foremast was not found. The one of the lookout is still attached on the mast near the crow's nest.

bulletSheila McBeth Mitchell:

Cousteau invited Britannic survivor Sheila Macbeth Mitchell onboard the Calypso and even let her take a dive with the submarine. She gave him her scrapbook with her diary of the voyage and many photos (most of which can be seen in Simon Mills' book Britannic-The Last Titan or in the latest edition of Rev. Fleming's account of the disaster The last voyage of HMHS Britannic). During her interview with William Tantum, she revealed that there were rules that kept the watertight doors propped open with boardsbut this information was not confirmed by any other source. Sheila Macbeth also reported  the practice of leaving the portholes open in order to ventilate the interiors because doctors and nurses complained of being stuffy in their cabins. Indeed a very unsafe way of traveling inside a war zone like the Aegean Sea, even when protected by the red crosses.

Sheila Macbeth Mitchell returns on the Calypso after her dive to the Britannic.

(Michail Michailakis collection)

Cousteau welcomes Sheila Macbeth Mitchell just after her exit from the small submersible.

(Michail Michailakis collection)

click on image to enlarge

 

bulletAnti-magnetic mine belt:

The article also deals with the possible presence of this device on Britannic's hull. I have no information about this kind of mine protection by the Royal Navy but its use on the Britannic seems highly unprobable. The device should  look like a black "belt" deployed under the green belt painted on the hull (under funnel #1).There is a detail (quite grainy) from a  portside photo of the Britannic taken by a patient. However, in S.Mills' book Britannic-The Last Titan there is another portside view where the same "black belt" is clearly visible in the same area but it may be coal dust left during the coaling procedures or just dirt left from the numerous smaller vessels who transported the patients from Moudros to the ship.

bulletEye-witnesses and memorabilia on Kea:

William Tantum also visited Korissia and managed to find an old Greek villager who was a shepherd boy back then. He showed him a composite photo (very similar to a Ken Marschall painting illustrating the starboard side of the Britannic half submerged) and he confirmed that it looked just like the giant liner the day it sunk. Mr. Tantum also discovered that the Royal Navy had taken everything left on the island by the survivors (lifeboats, lifebelts, blankets, even cigarette tins). Nothing was left ashore. Some time later, when the THS contacted the American Embassy in Athens for information he received the reply that an "effective security blackout" kept all related information secret.

bulletThe dives:

Along with the inspection with the submarine, Cousteau and his team made a total of 68 manned dives to the wreck. Each diver had 15 minutes of effective diving time. With the descend lasting 9 minutes divers had about  5 minutes to explore the wreck before their return to  the submerged decompression station. The total effective time was nearly 6 hours.

 

Interview with team member Peter Nicolaides

 

Special thanks to Jeff Morell for providing important information.

The photos from the THS Archives are from The Titanic Commutator (Vol.15;No.3;1991)  published by the Titanic Historical Society.