Sister ship to the Titanic, Britannic is the world’s largest civilian shipwreck. In 2016, 100 years after her sinking, an expedition has used the latest underwater technology to reveal her secrets.
Sunk by a German mine in November 1916, the Britannic was the largest of the three Olympic class luxury liners built by the White Star Line at Belfast's Harland & Wolff shipyards. She was commissioned as a transatlantic passenger liner and underwent crucial design changes after the disastrous sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the subsequent accident inquiries. These safety alterations included the raising of some watertight bulkheads to B deck, introducing a double hull at the engine room and boiler room levels and changing the design of the lifeboat launch system. The number of lifeboats was also increased.
Launched in 1914 just before the outbreak of the First World War, the vast four-funnelled ship was repainted in hospital colours - white with a green stripe and prominent red crosses on her side - when she was refitted. Britannic entered service in December 1915 under the command of Captain Charles Bartlett. She had cost over £1.9m and was the largest ship in the world in active service. Her early deployments involved the evacuation of wounded men during the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign in the Eastern Mediterranean, and her work continued as casualties on the Macedonian front mounted rapidly.
On her sixth and final voyage on 21 November 1916, with 1,065 people on board, the ship was transiting a narrow strait south of the Greek port of Piraeus, near the island of Kea. At 8.12am a large explosion was heard and initial reports suggested the cause was either a mine or a torpedo. In October, a German U-boat U-73 had laid mines in the area, but the German Navy claimed the sinking as a torpedo hit. It took until the 1990s to confirm definitively that the ship was sunk by a mine. Although damage was extensive, only six of the watertight compartments flooded and the ship remained afloat, but as it listed, water began to enter open portholes on the starboard side.
In an attempt to beach the ship off Kea, Capt. Charles Bartlett ordered full speed ahead. The movement, however, caused more water to enter, and Bartlett quickly ordered the engines stopped. At approximately 9.07am the Britannic sank. Breached in the bow section just forward of the bridge, she went down far faster than the Titanic, in just 55 minutes, but with much less loss of life. Thirty people died when the Britannic sank. Those critical design changes helped, as she was equipped with lifeboats for 3,500 people, her maximum load on return from the front with casualties. Much warmer waters would have helped the survival rate too. The grand liner now sits on the seabed, 120m below the surface of the Aegean Sea.
The underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau rediscovered Britannic in 1975. The French team was joined by MIT's Dr Harold Edgerton, whose recently-developed side-scan sonar helped to locate the wreck. Cousteau later explored Britannic using a submersible named Denise, recovering the ship’s engraved sextant. The ensuing documentary included a visit to her former workplace by 86-year-old Mrs Sheila Macbeth, who had been 26 and a serving nurse on the ship at the time of her sinking.
Visiting the Britannic
British filmmaker and maritime historian Simon Mills has owned the UK government's legal title to the wreck since 1996. Mills has been visiting the Britannic since 1995, when he accompanied the marine explorer Bob Ballard to her final resting place. That first visit took place in a US Navy nuclear submarine. "It's a far better preserved example of the Olympic class liner than the Titanic," says the author of several books about the sister ships."She lies in 120m of water and is relatively intact apart from structural damage at the bow section".
"The sheer length of the 50,000-tonne ship meant that her bow hit the bottom while her stern was still above the surface and the huge pressure further cracked the bow like an eggshell in the area of the mine strike. The impact buried part of the bow section under the seabed." Mills added that "judging from the imagery shot over that time, we've all aged more than the Britannic", explaining that the curse of the Titanic - iron-eating bacteria - is much less prevalent on the Britannic, probably because she is in much warmer, more oxygenated, shallower water and is covered by a more diverse ecosystem of organisms that compete with the destructive rust-feeders.
The 25m support vessel U-Boat Navigator that the team operates in the Kea channel above the wreck is equipped with two Triton manned submersibles: one three-man vessel and a one-man sub. Dmitri Tomashov is one of the sub pilots. He has been visiting and filming the wreck for a documentary series since 2013 and has logged 65 hours on the Britannic since then. "Our main goal is filming and surveying the whole ship, so both subs are equipped with 6K Red Dragon cameras and powerful LED lighting, the secret to high quality underwater filming at depth," he explains.
The addition of the second Triton this year is an added element of safety and each Triton can film the other working, or they can shoot the same subject simultaneously from two different angles. Another advantage of these Tritons, which are depth-rated to 1,000m, is the viewing sphere made of optical glass allowing filming at desirable angles without distorting the image.
"There is nothing else out there right now that can outperform the Tritons," says Tomashov. "I can be in the water for seven or eight hours at a time, though there is a limit because concentration has to be absolute and over time you do get pretty exhausted, even though comfort for both the pilot and the passengers is at a high level in these machines." The U-Boat Navigator is also equipped with an Ageotec Perseo remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and the one-man Triton can deploy a tiny ROV of its own for close inspection of particular areas that the subs cannot approach.
Her depth at 120m places the wreck just inside the depth limits for exploration by human divers. "Britannic lies in that sweet spot where we can use technical divers, ROVs and manned submersibles to explore the exterior of the ship. The 2016 expedition has pretty much completed what we need in terms of exterior surveys. We've done as much imaging as we reasonably can," says Mills. The next phase will be penetration of the wreck to identify, retrieve and conserve selected artefacts. However, that is now in the hands of the diplomats from the UK Foreign Office and the Greek Ministry of Culture, as no historic artefacts may be removed from Greek territory without the permission of the Minister of Culture.
Marine exploration technology has massively improved since the mid-1990s, especially on the technical diving front. The advances have been in the development of closed-circuit rebreather (CCR) technology where the diver’s exhaled air is first chemically scrubbed of carbon dioxide, before being topped up with a small amount of additional oxygen.
A CCR operates in much the same way as an astronaut’s backpack and uses the same technology as the life-support systems of the submarines. As the name suggests, they emit virtually no excess gas. This is important for the next stage of exploration in the wreck. Bubbles or pools of exhaled gases would disrupt the delicate marine ecology of the interior, speeding up the degradation of fragile wood panelling, for example.
The depth is near the limit for even experienced technical divers and their time at the bottom is limited to 40 minutes or so. Even that short dive time on a gas mix of helium, oxygen and nitrogen requires a slow decompression of over five hours to reach the surface safely. Oxygen levels are reduced in the mix breathed at depth to prevent the very real dangers of oxygen toxicity - the gas can trigger convulsions and deaths at increased pressures at depth.
Nitrogen levels are also reduced relative to normal air and replaced with helium to avoid the dangers of nitrogen narcosis, a "rapture of the deep" that impairs judgement and incurs penalties in the divers' bodies as nitrogen bubbles form in the tissues. These dangers are reduced by a long, slow ascent to the surface, stopping at precise depths and changing gas mixes until the divers are breathing air in the shallows.
Evan Kovacs is a technical diver and director of underwater photography at the Advanced Imaging Lab, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. He has dived on the Britannic many times over four expeditions in 2006, 2009, 2015 and 2016. Kovacs explored the Titanic in 2005 with the History Channel and opted to visit the Britannic in 2006 to see if they could learn something about the Titanic by looking at the differences in construction and the changes made to her sister ship.
"Britannic is a magnificent ship, beautiful to look at and massive in all ways. Unlike the Titanic she is almost intact; she is one of my favourite long-term projects," he says. "This year we were using the U-Boat Navigator as a support vessel. It's the best in the world in my view, just brilliantly designed and perfectly equipped for this kind of work."
One of the big advantages for the divers and image makers in 2016 was the presence of a wet bell. This is a platform with a breathable air bubble supplied with hot water and communications from the surface. "We can pump down unlimited gases to a diver in distress, which is a huge safety bonus. Plus it's easy to keep hydrated and to be able to eat and listen to our iPods during the long hours of decompression. The only thing missing is a cup of hot tea," he jokes.
To get around this huge wreck in the limited time - only 45 minutes - that the divers have at depth, they use underwater scooters. Even with rigorous safety measures in place, the sea is still unpredictable, especially at these depths. Britannic claimed the life of world-renowned technical diver Carl Spencer in 2013 and Kovacs says that it's not uncommon to hear the explosions of illegal fishermen nearby.
Kovacs' holy grail for this wreck is a rivet-accurate blended acoustic and optical model of the entire exterior yielding a hugely accurate picture of the bulkheads. What this means in practice is a 3D volumetric model. The acoustic images have been taken with multibeam and side-scan sonar from the Perseo ROV and these will be overlaid with the optical results from the divers.
On land, this is not such a difficult proposition, but underwater there is a classic mosaicking problem. It is impossible to go super-wide to gain the entire perspective - underwater visibility prevents that on a structure of this scale. The team must first build an acoustic model to ground-truth the optics. Currents, camera lenses and pitch and yaw of the diver’s attitude all introduce errors where it is important to run a straight line. "If we can do this and in real time, then this has huge implications not just for marine archaeology, but also the oil and gas industries, where the results from visual pipeline inspection robots could be overlaid on an acoustic examination for faults and leaks," says Kovacs.
While owner Simon Mills has been offered the opportunity to dive to the wreck, he has declined "I am a recreational diver," he says. "What these technical guys do is a different ballgame. The next phase is to enter the wreck with the permission of the Greek government and retrieve and conserve artefacts by deploying small ROVs and manned dives. I prefer to remain on the surface and communicate with the divers, who have the dexterity and ability to weigh up the hazards that no robot can ever have, while ROVs can continue to work safely after the divers have exceeded their safe bottom times. I hope that we will be back in 2017."
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How did the Britannic the sister ship to Titanic sink? ›
At 8.12am on 21st November 1916, while steaming in the Aegean Sea HMHS Britannic struck a mine and sadly sunk in only 55 minutes with the loss of 30 lives.What happened to the Titanic's sister ships? ›
While Olympic, the lead vessel, had a career spanning 24 years and was retired and sold for scrap in 1935, her sisters would not see similar success: Titanic struck an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage and Britannic was lost during World War I after hitting a mine off Kea in the Aegean Sea before she could enter ...What are the coordinates of the Britannic wreck? ›
The wreck of HMHS Britannic is at 37°42′05″N 24°17′02″E in about 400 feet (122 m) of water.Did they ever find the Britannic? ›
In 1976, famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau found the Britannic lying on its side 400 feet below the surface of the Aegean. The cause of the explosion remains unknown, but many believe that the Britannic hit a mine.Why did Britannic sink so fast? ›
The first is that Britannic struck a mine, causing catastrophic explosive damage. After the collision with the iceberg Titanic had a total of about 12 square feet open to the ocean across five watertight compartments, enough to bring her down in 2 hours 40 minutes. Britannic had about 16 square feet open to the ocean.Did the captain of the Britannic go down with the ship? ›
He was appointed as an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve in 1893. He is perhaps best remembered as the captain of the Britannic from 1915 to November 1916, when the ship was sunk off Greece by a German-laid mine. After the war he served as Royal Naval Reserve aide-de-camp to King George V.What ship abandoned the Titanic? ›
American and British inquiries accused the SS Californian and its captain, Stanley Lord, of abandoning the Titanic. Decades later, the discovery of Titanic's wreck exonerated Lord and the Californian's role in the disaster, re-opening accounts that implicate another ship.Who was the Titanic's lost child? ›
Sidney Leslie Goodwin (9 September 1910 – 15 April 1912) was a 19-month-old English boy who died during the sinking of the RMS Titanic. In 2008, mitochondrial DNA testing by bio-anthropologist Ryan Parr and the American Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory revealed his identity.Was the Britannic bigger than the Titanic? ›
Was the HMHS Britannic bigger than the Titanic? The HMHS Britannic was slightly larger than the RMS Titanic. The Britannic measured 882 feet (269 meters) in length and had a gross tonnage of 48,158, compared to the Titanic's length of 882 feet (268 meters) and a gross tonnage of 46,328.Can you go inside the Britannic wreck? ›
The Britannic is too far underwater for most recreational scuba divers but experienced technical divers can reach and explore the wreck.
Why did Britannic sink sideways? ›
At 08:12 a loud explosion shook the ship. The explosion had taken place on the starboard side between holds two and three and was probably caused by a mine.Who owns the Britannic wreck? ›
Q&A with Simon Mills, owner of the HMHS Britannic wreck.How big was the hole in the Britannic? ›
The Britannic sunk very quickly, in 55 minutes actually! The explosion had opened a big hole of about 20 and 30 feet in size and much water was coming into the vessel.What happened to Britannic's bell? ›
The bell remains underwater; Greek law prohibits the removal of any artifact. But its discovery answers a long-standing mystery. After the legendary Jacques Cousteau became the first deep-sea explorer to locate the Britannic in 1975, speculation swirled about whether he made off with the bell.Why can't Britannic be raised? ›
Britannic is highly protected by the local government as it lies in their waters. Even Owner Mills has difficulty working the wreck. There are no plans that have ever been presented to Raise the Britannic now or ever.Do ships still hit icebergs? ›
How often do cruise ships hit icebergs? While ships might regularly make contact with ice, it's unusual for it to be an issue.How deep was the water where the Britannic sank? ›
In 1975 French ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau discovered the wreckage of the Britannic. The ship was found lying on its starboard side at a depth of some 390 feet (119 metres). It was intact except for a large hole in its bow.Who rescued the Britannic survivors? ›
One of them, Francesco Psilas, was later paid £4 by the Admiralty for his services. At 10:00 a.m. the Scourge sighted the first lifeboats and ten minutes later stopped and picked up 339 survivors. The Heroic had arrived some minutes earlier and picked up 494.What happened to White Star Line after Britannic sank? ›
On May 10, 1934 the two rivals merged, creating Cunard White Star Limited and by 1949, the line reverted to using the name Cunard. The last surviving White Star Line ship is the Nomadic, which is to be restored with help from Harland & Wolff and Nomadic Preservation Trust.Who was the last Britannic survivor? ›
Jessop is most well known for having survived the sinking of both the RMS Titanic in 1912 and her sister ship the HMHS Britannic in 1916, as well as having been onboard the eldest of the three sister ships, the RMS Olympic, when it collided with the British warship HMS Hawke in 1911.
Have skeletons been found on Titanic? ›
People have been diving to the Titanic's wreck for 35 years. No one has found human remains, according to the company that owns the salvage rights.What mystery ship ignored the Titanic? ›
American and British inquiries accused the SS Californian and its captain, Stanley Lord, of abandoning the Titanic. Decades later, the discovery of Titanic's wreck exonerated Lord and the Californian's role in the disaster, re-opening accounts that implicate another ship.Why did the Californian not help the Titanic? ›
Later that night the Californian spotted the flares from the Titanic. Lord was woken - twice - but said the flares were probably "company rockets" - signals between ships from the same line. He took no action. His wireless office had shut down for the night and couldn't receive the Titanic's SOS messages.Was a baby born on the Titanic? ›
William McQuilan - daughter Gertrude Willelmina born 20 November 1912. Karl Olsen - son Charles Ernest born shortly before or just after the disaster. The child died, tragically, 16 May 1912.Did a baby survive the Titanic? ›
LONDON – Millvina Dean, who as an infant passenger aboard the Titanic was lowered into a lifeboat in a canvas mail sack and lived to become the ship's last survivor, died yesterday at a nursing home in Southampton, the English port from which the Titanic embarked on its fateful voyage, according to staff at the home.Was the captain's body found on the Titanic? ›
While we cannot know for sure how he spent his final moments, it is known that Captain Edward Smith perished in the North Atlantic along with 1517 others on April 15, 1912. His body was never recovered.What happened to Titanic's grand staircase? ›
Because each staircase was constructed individually and entirely from wood, it is assumed that the staircase either broke apart and floated out of the stairwell during the sinking or disintegrated in the 73 years before the Titanic's rediscovery.How did the Carpathia sink? ›
During World War I the Carpathia transported Allied troops and supplies. On July 17, 1918, it was part of a convoy traveling from Liverpool to Boston. Off the southern coast of Ireland, the ship was struck by three torpedoes from a German U-boat and sank.Did the Olympic try to save the Titanic? ›
Haddock and some of his previous adventures, wireless operators Ernie Moore and Alec Bagot (who were offered spots on the Titanic by Captain Smith), and the crew that worked hard to get the Olympic ready to assist the sinking Titanic and potential survivors.Did the Britannic flip over? ›
Then the Britannic rolled over her starboard side and the funnels began collapsing and the deck machinery fell into the water as the ship vanished into the depths. It was 9:07 a.m., only 55 minutes after the explosion. In total, 28 lifeboats had been lowered into the water.
What is the deepest shipwreck? ›
It is just over a year since the WWII destroyer USS Johnston was confirmed to be the world's deepest shipwreck, found lying on the seabed 6,468.6 m (21,222 ft) below the surface.Can you dive Britannic? ›
Because it is considered a war grave by the British government, diving is strictly regulated. Furthermore, access to the Britannic must be obtained from both the British owner and the Greek government as the ship lies in Greek territorial water.Did Britannic have a fake funnel? ›
The Titanic's Olympic-class sister ships, The Olympic and the Brittanic, both also had a fake fourth funnel. The reasons were to add a sense of magnificence to the ship and it was thought that this would appeal aesthetically to at least the sophisticated ship goer.Who was the captain of the Britannic? ›
Captain Charles Alfred Bartlett (21 August 1868 – 15 February 1945) was a merchant seaman and Royal Naval Reserve officer, who achieved command status with the White Star Line shipping company, including as captain of HMHS Britannic.What happened to the Britannic 3? ›
She outlived her sister Georgic and became the last White Star liner still in commercial service. Britannic was scrapped in 1961 after three decades of service. She was the last of three White Star Line ships called Britannic.Is the iceberg from the Titanic still there? ›
The average lifespan of an iceberg in the North Atlantic typically is two to three years from calving to melting. This means the iceberg that sank the Titanic "likely broke off from Greenland in 1910 or 1911, and was gone forever by the end of 1912 or sometime in 1913."Who owns the Titanic wreck? ›
Based in part on these assurances, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia awarded RMST salvor-in-possession status and exclusive rights over any items salvaged from Titanic to RMST on June 4, 1994.Can you see bodies on the Titanic? ›
“We've seen shoes. We've seen pairs of shoes, which would strongly suggest there was a body there at one point. But we've never seen any human remains.”Did Britannic hit a mine or torpedo? ›
At 8.12am a large explosion was heard and initial reports suggested the cause was either a mine or a torpedo. In October, a German U-boat U-73 had laid mines in the area, but the German Navy claimed the sinking as a torpedo hit. It took until the 1990s to confirm definitively that the ship was sunk by a mine.Why is it called Britannic? ›
Britannic means 'of Britain' or 'British', from the Roman name for the British.
Why didn t Britannic split? ›
Short answer is because Britannic had already struck the bottom where she sunk (the Kea Channel is 400 feet deep compared to her 882-foot 9-inch length). On top of that, unlike Titanic, which had a port list but evened out later in the sinking, Britannic rolled onto her side.Was there 2 titanics? ›
The Surprising Fates of the 'Titanic's' Sister Ships. The Titanic, which sank in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, had two sister ships almost identical in size and luxury: the Olympic and the Britannic.Can you dive to the Titanic? ›
That's right — you can dive to the depths of the ocean and see the Titanic for yourself. OceanGate Expeditions, a company made up of undersea explorers, scientists, and filmmakers, offers the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.Could the Britannic have been saved? ›
Had RMS Britannic sustained the exact same type of damage to her hull plating in the exact same places that Titanic suffered the night of April 14, 1912 she would almost certainly have survived the ordeal thanks to safety modifications incorporated into her build that were based on the findings of the British Inquiry ...How did the Titanic not see the iceberg? ›
The second study, by British historian Tim Maltin, claimed that atmospheric conditions on the night of the disaster might have caused a phenomenon called super refraction. This bending of light could have created mirages, or optical illusions, that prevented the Titanic's lookouts from seeing the iceberg clearly.What are some fun facts about Britannic? ›
Britannic holds the record as the largest liner sunk in both the First and Second World Wars. With her loss White Star were never able to operate their giant three-ship service as planned before the war, the service maintained instead with surrendered German tonnage, converted for White Star use.Why did the Titanic stop after hitting the iceberg? ›
LONDON (Reuters) - The Titanic hit an iceberg in 1912 because of a basic steering error, and only sank as fast as it did because an official persuaded the captain to continue sailing, an author said in an interview published on Wednesday.Why can't we raise the Britannic? ›
Britannic is highly protected by the local government as it lies in their waters. Even Owner Mills has difficulty working the wreck. There are no plans that have ever been presented to Raise the Britannic now or ever.Who saved the Britannic passengers? ›
Jessop is most well known for having survived the sinking of both the RMS Titanic in 1912 and her sister ship the HMHS Britannic in 1916, as well as having been onboard the eldest of the three sister ships, the RMS Olympic, when it collided with the British warship HMS Hawke in 1911.Are there still skeletons in the Titanic? ›
After the Titanic sank, searchers recovered 340 bodies. Thus, of the roughly 1,500 people killed in the disaster, about 1,160 bodies remain lost.
Is the Titanic iceberg still there? ›
The average lifespan of an iceberg in the North Atlantic typically is two to three years from calving to melting. This means the iceberg that sank the Titanic "likely broke off from Greenland in 1910 or 1911, and was gone forever by the end of 1912 or sometime in 1913."Were any bodies found on the Titanic? ›
In all only 337 bodies of the over 1500 Titanic victims were found, only one in five. Some bodies sank with Titanic. Winds and currents quickly scattered the remainder.Could the Britannic wreck be raised? ›
Can we raise the HMHS Britannic out of the water? Of course we could. It wouldn't take any new technology. Salvors are raising ships every day, and the Brittanic may be a big ship, but it's just a ship.Who dressed as a woman to escape Titanic? ›
portrayed Ismay dressing as a woman in order to sneak into a lifeboat. Lord Mersey, who led the 1912 British inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic, concluded that Ismay had helped many other passengers before finding a place for himself on the last lifeboat to leave the starboard side.What ocean has the most shipwrecks? ›
Bermuda is often considered the shipwreck capital of the world. With more than 300 shipwrecks dotting its waters, the North Atlantic island boasts more wrecks per square mile than anywhere else on the planet.Who was Violet the girl who survived the Titanic? ›
Violet Jessop (1887-1971) was a maritime stewardess and nurse who survived the sinking of both the Titanic and Britannic. She worked aboard ships into her sixties, traveling all over the world. After her last voyage, she lived the rest of her life in Suffolk, England.