I met Peter Nicolaides in his appartment in Athens,a large penthouse just under the rock of the Acropolis with an exceptional view of the Parthenon.He's about to start his own diving school in the same building and all over the place one could see diving equipment and boxes with old documents and magazines.Peter is a calm and very friendly person who makes a good impression at first sight.I would define him a "man of the Sea",as his passion for everything related to the "silent world" is more than evident.We talked for about 3 hours and I must say that it was one of the rare times that I enjoyed a discussion so much.
The folder of the Cousteau expedition was thick:Photos( including some photocopies of some unseen photos of the survivors,taken in Athens),official documents,Cousteau's speeches,the diary of the Greek archeologist who was monitoring the dives,some old "Commutators" (the official publication of the Titanic Historical Society),various articles, old Greek newspapers,drawings made before and after the dives and the official presentation of the "Odissey" video.
Peter Nicolaides with HSB webmaster Michail Michailakis
Here is the recorded part of our discussion:
Michail Michailakis:The fact that we don't have photos from the 1976 expedition is suprising.Why is that?
Peter Nicolaides:Yes,that is true.The reason is that we had problems with our equipment.It was impossible to arm the photo- cameras because of the pressure.This happened below 80 meters (Note:Britannic's wreck is at 120 meters)
MM:After the 1976 expedition Ken Marschall made a superb illustration of the wreck,showing a largely intact Britannic with one large hole in the portside.A second version followed after the 1995 expedition and it was quite different.It seems that the bow section is badly damaged and almost detached from the rest of the hull,probably because of the impact to the seabed while the ship was not completely under water.I'd like to have your comment about these illustrations.
PN:Without any doubt the second version is closer to the real thing.The damage of the bow section is accurate.In fact,I remember the twisted steel plates and those "waves" in the sand,caused by the forward movement of the bow.The first version,is more "ideal".However,I must say that we had noticed some steel plates bent outwards,as seen in that picture.
MM:Did the divers try to penetrate inside the wreck?
PN:Yes,but only where access was undisturbed and there was no danger for the divers.We went inside the bridge area,from where we took the items.We also visited the large halls further aft.
MM:Do you mean the Grand Staircases?
MM:What about the glass domes over those areas?It's said that that one of them is still intact.
MM:Do you remember which one?
PN:No,I'm sorry.Consider that it took us about 20 days to explore the wreck,because we made it part by part.I didn't dive inside the area with the intact dome but those who did confirmed it.
MM:So one dome is intact and the other not.
MM:What about the pipe organ?Did you find anything?
PN:Ah yes...If I remember well,we also took some remains to the Calypso.At first we didn't know what they were.Some even said that were ammunitions,others were talking about pieces from the ship's pipelines.Later,we understood that they were the remains of the pipe organ.
MM:What do you remember from the ship's exterior?
PN:I remember the massive presence of sea life.You can find many organisms down there.The conditions are ideal:clear water and many currents.Many fishing nets cover the wreck.There's another thing I remember clearly.Many of the portholes were still intact and in excellent condition (including the glass).
MM:Did you noticed open portholes?
PN:Yes,many of them were open.
MM:What was the condition of the wooden structures?
PN:The general condition of the wooden parts was very good.Wood suffers little in those depths.The wooden floor of the promenades is still in its place.
PN:The sense of how big Britannic is.The enormous mass of the wreck is really impressive.It's the thing I remember most.
MM:I've read that the team also explored the debris field behind the wreck,in order to find the cause of the explosion.
PN:I don't think that the debris field is so large.Many of the flotsam was carried by the currents before arriving on the sea floor.We've found some bed frames and other small items of everyday use.For sure,after the explosion many steel plates were detached from the hull.However,take notice that steel plates do not make a vertical movement when they sink,especially after a big explosion.I've seen steel plates sinking by accident during ship repairs in Italy.A sinking steel plate may make a nearly orizontal movement for many meters and then suddenly go straight down.So it should be difficult to locate the position over which the explosion took place,even after having found parts of the hull.
MM:What caused the explosion?Mine or torpedo?
PN:I can't say for sure.According to our team,it was a torpedo but later new theories came up.They had seen a periscope before the explosion.Cousteau made his own research and found a submarine beached off the coasts of ex-Yugoslavia.He went there and explored the submarine.
PN:The wreck itself didn't have much importance.From what I remember though,he had found evidence that Britannic had been torpedoed and that the Germans had admitted that they actually did it.According to them,Britannic was secretly carrying troops and ammunitions.
MM:How did Cousteau find the survivors?
PN:Most of them were not alive anymore.We placed an ad in newspapers to locate those still alive.Some responded but they didn't want to come in Greece because they had bad memories.Only Sheila Mitchell accepted the invitation.She was very excited about the whole project.
MM:Her memories were still vivid?
PN:Extremely vivid.Her biggest disappointment was when we didn't let her dive with us!She was feeling ready to do it.She was saying:"I'm 86 years old and I have nothing to lose.I've lived my life"
MM:Didn't she like the dive inside Cousteau's submarine?
PN:Yes,but she wanted to dive to her cabin in order to take back some of her personal items.A wallet and a pocket watch.She was a remarkable person.
MM:What about William Tantum (then president of the Titanic Historical Society)?
PN:Cousteau made the search for the wreck and planned the expedition.However it was the THS that provided the maps and the blueprints of the ship.William Tantum brought all this material with him,so we were able to identify the area of the damage (coal hold ) where according to our information the second explosion occured,due to the coal dust present in the hold.
MM:According to the inquiry,there was only one explosion.
PN:Many testimonies claimed they had heard a second explosion right after the first one.It's important the position of the witness on the ship.If you're too close you'll probably hear one sound,especially if the second explosion occurs almost simultaneously.If you're further aft there's a greater possibility to distinguish the two different sounds.
MM:Anything about the eye-witness interviewed by Tantum on Kea?
PN:I remember him clearly because I was translating to Tantum.He was a 15-old sheperd boy back then.He said that it was a very beautful day and he was watching the large steamer sailing across the channel.He heard the loud explosion and watched the ship as she began to sink.His most vivid memory was the view of the three giant propellers still turning outside the water.
MM:Tell me about the damage in the starboard side.Is it visible?
PN:It was very difficult to arrive to that side because of the debris in the area inside the big hole.One of our team had said something about steel plates bent inwards,but I can't remember if he was talking about that area.
Peter Nicolaides:A professional
Diver,Biologist-Oceanographer and Offshore Engineer.Following high-school
in Athens College he went on to complete his B.Sc (Hons.) in Marine
Biology and Hyberbaric Physiology at Queen Elizabeth/King'
College,University of London.After gaining professional diving experience
in the Mediterranean,Red and North Seas he continued into postgraduate
studies in Offshore Engineering-M.Sc (U/W Science and Technology).
In 1975 as diving officer for the National Geographic expedition in Greece led by Peter Thockmorton,he discovered the most ancient wreck known to date,of the Early Bronze Age,off Dhokos island.
In 1976 he was member of the first diving expedition to the wreck of HMHS Britannic, led by Jacques Cousteau.
Since 1977 he has been operating SST Maritime,a company involved in coastal and offshore engineering.
In 1988,he discovered the treasure-laden wreck og the flagship of the Turkish fleet,blown up by the Greek revolutionary hero Kanaris in 1822,off Chios island.
In 1998 he founded the Aegean Diving College(ADC),a private organization dedicated to providing the best and safest marine ecological education in the Mediterranean.
Both SST and ADC carry out marine research projects with the University of Athens,the University of the Aegean,the University of Patras,Oceanographical institutes and Greek government agencies,involving energy and communication cables,platforms,pipelines,sewage treatment works as well as major marine construction projects.
Peter is a Member of the Society for Underwater Technology,a 3*CMAS Instructor and a PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor.