Interview with Carl Spencer (leader 2003 Britannic expedition)

1)What is the condition of the front of the Britannic's superstructure? Is the bulwark along the front of A-deck still intact, or are there holes appearing in it (which was implied by one photograph)?

 The Superstructure in general is in amazingly good condition considering it's years underwater. There is very little marine growth internally, however externally the superstructure is covered in mussels and hard fauna which is helping preserve the steel structure. In comparison to her famous sister Titanic - the shallow depths at which Britannic lies make her vulnerable to marine growth, which is the dominant organism on the wreck and it's this growth that is actually protecting the steel from the ravages of nature. In contrast Titanic is being consumed by it's dominant organism, bacterial colonies called 'Rusticles'.

 The Bulwark along the front of 'A' Deck is still totally intact as far as I remember, I don't recall any holes, however I was not really looking for them, so that's not to say they are not there.

2)What is the condition of the Britannic's forward hatches (# 1, on the forecastle deck, and #2 and #3 on the collapsing fore well deck)? Do they show any damage, and are they all missing their covers? Is the number 1 hatch obscured by a fishing net?

 As far as I can tell all of the Hatch covers on the bow of the ship are intact. In fact the hatch cover on #1 is definitely intact and in place as one of our divers had to squeeze through the hatch skylights to penetrate the top of the fireman's staircase.There are no fishing nets across any of the hatch covers to the best of my knowledge.

3)The area aft on A-deck, towards the first class smoke room, had been observed in 1998 to be in a worse condition than other areas on A-deck. Is that observation still accurate?

 Unfortunately we did not get a chance to venture much further back from the Grand Staircase and wireless/marconi room this time as we had specific objectives that had to be completed on the bow before moving onto the stern.

4)Was any penetration of the main engine room attempted? If so, were the piston engines observed or the turbine in the turbine engine room?

 Yes, an attempt to penetrate the reciprocating engine room and turbine was made through the 4th Funnel, however there was a collapsed bulkhead and a silt bank that was obscuring the passage through and we ran out of time before we could make further attempts. The diver that made the penetration [Zaid Al-Obaidi] did however observe the crankshaft and connecting rods of one of the triple expansion engines, unfortunately as it was an exploratory dive he did not have a video camera.

5)Is there any particular area that you think needs further exploration, and if so, which one?

 Boiler rooms definitely. We have run guidelines in from the break in the bow, through the fireman's passage, through the first coalbunker into boilerroom #5 and up to the next bulkheads and watertight [WT] doors at the coalbunkers for Boiler#5. Another attempt on the reciprocating engine rooms should also be made. These are the largest reciprocating engines ever made at over 40' high and weighing in at 1,000 tonnes each. It would be very cool to document them.

6)Richard Stevenson, a diver of your team, has ventured into Boiler Room #6 in order to check the WT doors but it was not possible  to proceed  further aft in order to control the WT door between Boiler Rooms #5 and #6. However, a recent article published in the journal of the Titanic Historical Society reported that there was evidence suggesting that this WT door was partially closed. Can you give us more details about this?

 The WT doors between the fireman's passage/coalbunker and Boiler Room #6 are 100% wide open. Richie made his way through boiler room #6 to the next WT door, but he put the video camera down once he got into the boiler room in order to extend his exploration to the next WT door. Richie reported back that the WT door was partially closed [25%], however this was more of a glancing observation that he made whilst he was attempting to navigate his way out of the wreck. It needs to be verified and documented on video, so further dives are an absolute must for the boiler rooms. The boiler rooms are full of artefacts in perfect condition such as the boiler stokers wheelbarrows and the companionways and walkways that extend above the boilers - it's very cool inside there.

7)For how far is it possible for humans to penetrate into the wreck? Would the use of ROVs be a better alternative?

 The simple answer from a scientific and historical point of view is ROV would be better. They are not limited to time underwater and can operate around the clock and be guided by historians rather than a divers instinct. However an ROV can never give you the 3D perspective that actually being there does and there is something very special about actually touching, penetrating and feeling the wreck - it cannot be transposed onto film. I think the nearest thing to it would be James Cameron's 3D IMAX Titanic movie "Ghosts of the Abyss"

8)Apart from the size, which other aspect of the wreck impressed your divers the most?

 The fact that the wreck is so intact in beautiful crystal clear warm water. Britannic was a beautiful looking ship and in many was she is even more beautiful now with all of the colourful marine growth on her. Britannic is crammed full of well preserved artefacts such as the Marconi Radio Tuner - It's an awesome sight. Having dived Titanic the same year I can say that with the exception of Titanic's bow, Britannic is a far more impressive sight.

9)What's your idea of the current condition of the ship? Is there much deterioration to be seen?

 The wreck is in exceptional condition, with the exception of a few wooden internal partitions that have long since rotted away, she is almost complete. More interesting will be the scientific results from the experiments we ran as part of the 2003 Expedition. These were carried out by Droycon Bio-Concepts, the same guys that have been conducting experiments into the deterioration of Titanic since 1998. These results should eventually give us an idea as to the rate of decay of the wreck and it's eventual return to nature

10) You were the first team to locate the remains of a mine barrier near the wreck. Taken into consideration that the Kea Channel was also mined during WW2, do the sonar images give any clue regarding the type of those mines? Were any parts from Britannic's hull observed near that mine barrier?

 The location of the mines were exactly as recorded by Klt Gustav Siess, Captain of the U73. His records served as the staring point for our search team, led by Sonar Expert Bill Smith. The particular series of mines we were looking for were anchored to the seabed by a 3-pronged base and chain. Once we had clear sonar images of these remaining identifiable mine bases in the exact locations as Klt Siess records, directly in the path Britannic had sailed, we were able to correlate the orientation of the wreck as she lies today against Capt. Bartlett's records immediately following the 'dull thud' of the explosion. The physical evidence and the records had only one conclusion - Britannic had hit a mine from U73. 

 There did not appear to be any large sections debris near the mine field, but there are several small debris fields between the minefield and the wreck itself, however the weather turned and we were forced to conclude the sonar ops before we had a chance to examine the targets further.

11)What's the average total cost of a diving expedition to the Britannic and how much time is required in order to prepare it properly?

 Our expedition was unique in that it was not just a diving expedition, but also comprised scientific and sonar elements along with a TV crew.

 The whole expedition from conception to making the dives took 3 years of planning. However there are plans in motion by the wrecks owner and a Greek consortium to make the wreck more accessible for future expeditions and so hopefully planning should be reduced to 1 year. Only time will tell.

 In terms of cost: our dive team, vessel, scientists and sonar guys came in at around US$250,000. In reality as the wreck is so close to Kea and Pt St Nikolas and if you could assemble the right team it would probably cost around US$150 per diver to make the dives from a local boat.

Many thanks to Carl Spencer for taking the time to answer our questions and for providing amazing visual material from the 2003 expedition.

I would also like to thank Mark Chirnside and Remco Hillen for their help regarding the questions of this interview.