A Chat With Britannic Diver Richie Kohler

Deep diver Richie Kohler getting suited up to dive the Britannic. (Photo credit: richiekohler.com)

For deep diver Richie Kohler, the Everest of diving is the Britannic, sister ship to the Titanic.

The Britannic lies 400 feet below the surface in Greek waters after having been sunk in 1916, as Kohler contends, by a German mine.

DeeperBlue.com got a chance to briefly chat with Kohler, who was featured in Robert Kurson’s book “Shadow Divers” and co-hosted the History Channel show “Deep Sea Detectives,” at last week’s DEMA Show in Orlando, where he was promoting his upcoming book, “Mystery Of the Last Olympian: Titanic’s Tragic Sister Britannic.” In it, he recounts the multiple expeditions he’s taken to the Britannic wreck site, including one in 2009 that claimed the life of a close friend of his.

While famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau first found Britannic in 1975, the actual cause of her sinking had up until recently eluded those who wished to know. As Kohler told DeeperBlue.com:

“After working on Titanic in 2005, we came to Britannic. When I came to Britannic I came to answer questions about Titanic’s construction and also to answer this one question: Why did this ship sink? Well that was in 2006. Exploration is always a work in progress. You get a little so far, and then either you run out of time or you run out of money or you run out of both. and in this particular case in 2006, our permit was pulled because of confusion with the Greeks. I returned in 2009 and I got a little further and I actually saw the answer, and we thought we filmed it, but the cameras malfunctioned and we didn’t get the image.”

When Kohler surfaced from that dive, that was when he found out that his friend Carl Spencer, a mentor and the one who taught Kohler how to dive that deep during the 2006 expedition and was the 2009 expedition leader, had died on that same dive not a hundred feet away from him.

“I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t know it until I got on the boat. So my head was reeling. Obviously the loss of a dear friend and our leader had us wandering in circles; we just had no direction, we didn’t know what to do, and shortly after that the Greeks once again shut down the diving operations.

“It wouldn’t be until this year, in 2015, that I was able to assemble a team of divers that I had all worked with before, there was no new hands here, everyone had been to Britannic before, with the sole purpose of getting back, getting in there, getting the shot, and proving what we already knew: how and why Britannic sank so quickly.”

While Britannic lays on its side 400 feet below the surface, the ship has a 100-foot-wide beam, which means divers could touch the wreck at 300 feet, according to Kohler:

“So if you can visualize this, imagine you’ve got a 10-story ship on its side that’s nearly 900 feet long. It is massive. The name ‘The Olympians’ is well-fitting. Unfortunately when we look at Titanic, she’s broken in half so we don’t get this, and she’s also buried in the mud, so we don’t really get to see the size, but on the Britannic, we can, so as technical divers, the equipment we used are closed-circuit rebreathers. The gases that we’re using vary by diver, we quite often use team gas, which can quite often be heliox . . . but on this particular project we used trimix.”

A 40-minute dive exploring the wreck means more than six hours of decompression, according to Kohler. In 2015, his team used a Russian vessel called the U-Boat Navigator. The ship had a diving bell which the divers could sit inside and dry off while they decompressed:

“There’s a camera in there, there’s a headset, you can drink, you can eat a sandwich if you wanted, it’s a four-man diving bell and I had a four-man dive team. We can clip off our scooters, our cameras to it, so what it does now is in previous expeditions, we would have, for every four divers, there would be six or seven support divers so that if any of those divers ever had a problem, a rebreather malfunction, they lost their gases because a hose burst or there was some other issue, we can bring support divers down to shepherd . . . scuba tanks to them or take away the equipment they don’t need.

“By using the diving bell, we’ve removed the need for all of that. Because the diving bell is now our home, our house and our transport.”

Kohler called this year’s expedition to the Britannic “really something like out of Jules Verne,” in that his team was diving with a three-man submersible watching them, filming them and lighting the way. Additionally, the team had a large remotely operated underwater vehicle that in addition to also watching the divers, gave them what Kohler called “a lighting chandelier”:

“We could pick it up and it would shine light down, so it was incredible. One of my dive team said that this was something out of science fiction and I wryly corrected him and I said, ‘No Even, it’s science fact. We’ve just done this — it reality happened.’ And it did, it looked like something out of ‘The Abyss.’ It was unbelievable and I was so fortunate to work with such incredibly talented people in my team as well as the incredibly talented and gracious hosts aboard the U-Boat Navigator that is a Maltese-based research operation and a part of the Russian Geographical Society.”

Kohler’s book — co-written by Charlie Hudson — comes out in February 2016, and that year marks the 100-year anniversary of Britannic‘s sinking.

Kohler said he is negotiating with different media producers to get the story out not just in book form but also as a TV documentary.

When asked what’s next now that the book is complete, Kohler told DeeperBlue.com:

“I’m not done with Britannic. . . . For me, Britannic is simply the penultimate, it is the Mount Everest of wreck diving, and there’s a few reasons for that. First off, when I see it, I see Titanic. And I’ve been to Titanic and I’ve looked at it, and if you said to me, ‘Richie, you won the lottery, you can go anywhere you want to go, would you rather go to Titanic again in a submersible or dive Britannic?’

“I’m a diver, I want to be in the water, I want to go inside, and there’s still more questions, there’s still more things that have never been seen on Britannic, so my work there is not done.

“On top of that, there are works in progress right now to recover artifacts from Britannic for the Belfast Titanic Museum in Ireland, so that other people can now enjoy the story, and like any museum it’s about bringing history to life, sometimes with the physicality of artifacts. We can all look at pictures, we could all look at video, but to see a physical object in a museum brings it home, it humanizes, at least for me, the story. So I’ve been asked by the Belfast Titanic Group to lead the dive team for that recovery and right now we’re just waiting for all of the associated ministers in Greece to sign off on the work. It’s not easy, you can’t go to a foreign country and take historical artifacts without crossing T’s and dotting I’s.”

As for whether age may be catching up to him, the 54-year-old says he’s been sharing his dive data with the Divers Alert Network since 2005.

“I’ve been doing that with almost every deep dive since i was working on ‘Deep Sea Detectives.’ And what I do basically is I give them all the data from my dives. and on other Britannic expeditions in 2006 and 2009 we actually had them onboard so they could do doppler on us and check the level of micro bubbles in our bodies, check our neurological condition after these dives.

“I’m highly cognizant that I’m not an 18-year-old young Turk anymore. But, I also believe that as long as I’m physically fit . . . the biggest problem is decompression. And the physicality of the dive is also there — you’ve gotta be in good health and shape . . . just standing up with the equipment. Swimming in the current, it’s very exhausting. Most people think, ‘Oh you’re decompressing, you’re not moving,’ but to quote a British friend of mine, you’re ‘quite knackered’ at the end of a six-hour dive.

“So I think the biggest thing is to not push — I know this is gonna sound crazy to the sport diver, but everybody’s got limits. And for me, people go, ‘Well what about Carpathia? That’s 500 feet. What about this wreck? What about 600 feet?’ For me, I think in my career, the deepest dive I’ve ever made is two and a half miles in a submarine and the deepest dive is just over 400 feet. I’m happy with that being the line; I’m more than willing to allow the next generation of young explorers to push the envelope even further.”

Kohler noted that in his lifetime, 130 feet used to be a deep dive, and divers were warned against going any deeper.

“We jump ahead 10 years, I was diving the Andrea Doria on air and, ‘Don’t go deeper than 210 feet,’ you know? And then when trimix came out, I hit a wall at about 360 feet, because I physically couldn’t carry enough gas. . . . I just couldn’t carry enough tanks. And I am not one to depend on anything else being anywhere when I need it; if I can’t carry it, I’m not doing it. So that was the wall I hit.”

Then, Kohler discovered rebreathers:

“A rebreather now gave me a quantum leap in my ability to go further, and it also is giving the next generation of explorers the ability to go quite further.

“So . . . for me, 400 feet diving the Britannic is my limit. As you can obviously imagine, we only make one dive a day, and you have to at some point entrust your teammates to make a decision for you. And what that means is you have to have a dive marshal and if he looks at you and goes, ‘You don’t look too good today, Richie. You look a little tired, I’m knocking you out of the rotation.’ You don’t balk, you don’t — this is what it’s gotta be. Because there is no margin for error at all in your physical health, in your equipment, in your mental health, you can’t be tired, you can’t be hung over, you’ve gotta be 110 percent.

“I honestly believe that I can continue to do this kind of diving until I’m into my mid-60s, and then after that, I’ll continue to dive until they put me in a pine box.”

Many thanks to Richie Kohler for taking the time to chat with DeeperBlue.com. To learn more about “Mystery Of The Last Olympian,” check out the book’s website.