A book of unique photographs has been published illustrating an impressive diving expedition undertaken back in 2019 to Titanic’s sister ship, Britannic.
The Olympic-class liner-turned-hospital ship, HMHS Britannic, was built in Belfast in 1914 by the Harland and Wolff shipbuilders as the third ship to be built locally and delivered to the luxury White Star Line.
Just as her sister ship before her, Britannic had a tragic ending when it sunk near the Greek island of Kea during World War I after striking a mine.
Thankfully, not many were on board the ship when it sank as it was on its way from the UK to Greece to pick up casualties from the war.
Steeped in history, the opportunity to see a largely intact near replica of the world’s most famous ocean liner makes it an ultimate “bucket list” dive to aspire to and, lying over 120 metres from the surface of the water, it is surely not a dive for the faint-hearted.
The book, ‘Expedition Britannic’, has been written by Bristol-based technical rebreather diver and award-winning, deep-wreck photography specialist, Rick Ayrton, who was joined by nine other divers two years ago for the expedition, including Northern Ireland man George McClure, who is originally from Carrickfergus, but has been living in Aberdeen for the past 20 years.
George had a unique link to the vessel, as his great-grandfather worked at Harland and Wolff during the construction of its other sister ship, the Olympic.
Joining George and Rick on the dive was expedition leader Scott Roberts, Luke Kierman, Duncan McCormick, Jacob McKenzie and Steve Prior as well as US divers Joe Mazraani and Rick Simon along with Australian Scott Wyatt.
The men undertook extensive training and preparation prior to the dive to scale what has been described as “one of the pinnacles of deep-wreck diving”.
Over the course of two weeks, the team undertook six dives, each spending between 30 and 40 minutes on the wreck during this time.
For each dive, it takes between three and five minutes to get to the vessel but can take anywhere from two to four hours to return to the surface, as that is the most dangerous part of the dive.
Despite the various risks involved, the team were dedicated to the expedition, which has now been memorialised in this new book, with photographs taken by Rick and contributions by divers who aided the team throughout.
NI native George first met Rick and Scott through their university days as one of the few deep-sea divers across the UK getting interested in the sport at the time.
“Diving has always been a hobby of mine,” explained George, “but I also worked as an engineer in the diving industry for 10 years.
“I am now out of that line of work but still work as an engineer and continue to dive as a past time.”
In 1988, George undertook his very first deep-sea dive, explaining that he has always had a curiosity for what lies beneath the surface of the water.
“Growing up in Carrickfergus around the shore, I always wanted to see what was beneath the surface and when I got to know others who felt the same way, we decided to join this club in university and it just grew from there.”
The Co Antrim man said that “diving is as close to flying as we will get as humans”.
He has now followed in the footsteps of one of the most iconic divers of all time, Jacques Cousteau, who helped to develop the modern-day scuba gear and was the first diver to locate the Britannic in 1975.
A bronze plaque was fixed to the wreck in 1997 paying tribute to this pioneering dive by Cousteau.
“When everyone got together to start talking about the expedition to visit Britannic, you kind of think, ‘Yea, OK, everyone is just raving about this wreck with a big name on it’, but it really was so much more than that,” explained George.
“It was simply breathtaking, it was bigger than anything else I’ve ever dived before and the water was so clear, it was just mesmerising to see in real life.”
He said that out of the 1,100 dives he has undertaken throughout his career, the Britannic has easily made it into the top five.
“I have dived hundreds of wrecks before, but nothing like this,” he said.
“This bucket-list dive has easily ruined all other dives for me, nothing will ever compare to the sheer enormity of this.”
Rick echoed these remarks, calling it “the Mount Everest of all dives”.
“It really is the pinnacle of what an independent diving team, like ourselves, can achieve,” the author of the book told Belfast Telegraph.
“The Britannic is the largest diveable liner on the seabed anywhere in the world and is the only ship of that particular class, linked to Titanic, that is achievable to dive with scuba gear, whereas with Titanic, because it is so deep, you would need submersibles.”
He added that many of the original features are still intact on the ship, despite sinking well over 100 years ago.
“I’ve dived ships of the same era off the coast of Ireland before and a number of them are already disintegrating and there isn’t much left,” said Rick.
“But for Britannic, there are railings, sink taps and the bridge where the captain would have stood.”
One of the other stand-out features was the huge propellers on the port side of the ship.
It is believed that these caused the loss of life to 30 people who set a lifeboat afloat when it was sinking before the captain’s orders of “abandon ship” was announced.
Rick explained that because the propellers were still turning at this time, the lifeboat was unfortunately sucked in and spelled disaster for those escaping.
Well over 1,000 people who made up the crew and hospital staff on board the Britannic actually escaped without incident.
George added that you can still see many iconic features of the White Star Liners on Britannic.
“When you think of the film Titanic for example, you think of the portholes and the bow where Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio was and you could see all the same features in Britannic,” he said.
“We also found the ship’s bell which was rather exciting, but we did not have permission to touch anything on the boat itself.”
In order to dive in the vicinity of the historic vessel, the team had to acquire licences from Greek authorities.
“They basically issue conditions and instructions for when you dive and, because you needed a separate licence for going inside the ship, we were unable to,” said Rick.
“It was basically a case of look but don’t touch.”
This aspect, however, made it all the more special for the team who witnessed this once-in-a-lifetime shipwreck.
“Over time, it will eventually deteriorate and get lost,” said George.
“So, it was just amazing to be there and witness it, especially with the personal link of my great-grandfather, who worked on its sister ship, Olympic, where both were built in the shipyards of Belfast, so that link with home really made it special for me.
“And now this expedition will be forever remembered through this book and Rick’s spectacular images,” he added.
“The team really were fantastic at pulling everything together and I wouldn’t have wanted to do this with anyone else.”
Rick, George and the rest of the team of divers would like to thank Jennifer Sellitti, data collector during the expedition, Yannis Tzavelakos, whose dive centre hosted the expedition, and George Vandross, a Greek technical diver who acted as dive supervisor throughout.
‘Expedition Britannic’ is published by Dived Up Publications and can be purchased for £25.