On reaching 100m below, even the Mediterranean Sea is dark, cold and a thoroughly lonely place. With each exhalation, the bubbles expelled from the respirator disappear in the eerie gloom, making their slow, inextricable way back to the surface. Your heart rate and breathing are controlled; survival not only depends on the complex array of scuba equipment strapped to the body, but also your ability to remain calm whatever may happen.
Although you feel weightless and free, an unnatural 11 atmospheres of pressure is constantly crushing against your body. At this depth, a special mixture of helium enriched gases is used to minimise the amount of nitrogen dissolving in the body tissues and reduce the chance of ‘nitrogen narcosis’ which can suddenly rob you of rational thought. Nonetheless, so much has already been absorbed that it would ‘fizz up’ and burst your blood vessels if you were foolish enough to make a rapid ascent. Gauges are checked periodically – a small miscalculation could easily take you beyond the point of safe return.
Surely, only the terribly brave or terrifyingly foolhardy could be drawn to so hostile an environment, but either assumption would be sorely misplaced.
Dimitri Galon is one of a rare breed of wreck hunters – an elite group of underwater investigators who routinely expose themselves to extreme danger for one simple reason – intellectual curiosity.
At 60, Galon is a legend in the wreck hunting community. He has spent decades diving and documenting wrecks found in eastern Mediterranean waters. In October last year, for instance, he was part of an international team operating off the island of Tenedos (Turkish Bozcaada) in the North Aegean. In six days they were able to locate, dive and examine four WWII wrecks. One of them, the British submarine HMS Simoon, had only been discovered the previous year by a Turkish colleague on the team Selçuk Kolay. By poring over the records, the name of the wreck was eventually revealed. She was lost in November 1943 with all 48 crew still on board. Her story had remained a mystery for a full 73 years.
When Galon dove the SS Burdigala located off the Greek island of Kea for the first time in September 2008, nobody knew enough to compile any facts about her; not even her name was known. Back then, the slowly corroding pile of twisted and marine-encrusted metal was just that – a wreck.
Inspired by what he saw on that very first dive, Galon hit the books and trawled through the archives, as wreck hunters are ordained to do. War diaries, registers, surviving naval records and the like were all meticulously examined. Colleagues were consulted and any surviving relatives of victims sought out. Forced into shape by a combination of patience and effort, apparently incongruous pieces of the puzzle slowly began fitting together. A name here, a reference there – it can truly be painstaking work. Eventually, however, it all evolved into a meaningful story and a piece of history spanning 120 years was born.
THE SS BURDIGALA
Of the countless wrecks Galon has investigated, the SS Burdigala is the one most dear to him. Formerly known as the SS Kaiser Friedrich, she was launched in 1898 as a luxurious ocean liner built for the German operator NDL (Norddeutscher Lloyd). She had a complement of 420 crew and could accommodate 1,350 passengers, 400 of whom enjoyed the opulence of large lounge rooms, chandelier-lit dining, and 180 first class cabins. Despite being a byword in luxury, and a brief period of transatlantic glory, she never managed the sustained speed of 22 knots originally stipulated by contract with her builders. This severely compromised her ability to compete with the dominant British who were making lucrative transatlantic crossings in six days or less. After legal disputes between NDL and the builders which dragged on for years, the Kaiser Friedrich ended up mothballed. In May 1912, she was sold for a third of her value to the French, who were looking for vessels for the Southern Atlantic route. Now refitted and renamed the SS Burdigala, she proved too expensive to operate and was soon mothballed again.
With the outbreak of WWI, she was commandeered by the French Government and used in 1915 as a troopship which principally operated between Toulon in France, Thessaloniki in Greece and the Dardanelles and Gallipoli in Turkey.
Later that year, she was turned into an auxiliary cruiser and equipped with quick-firing guns and four 5.5-inch cannons.
Her eventual fate was met on the morning of 14 November 1916 when she hit a mine amidships while in the Greek Cyclades. She sank in Kea Channel with only a single life lost.
But good history is always a page-turner.
Less than two nautical miles away from the Burdigala lies the HMHS Britannic – the larger sister ship of the renowned RMS Titanic. Incredibly, she was sunk just seven days after the Burdigala in the same minefield laid two weeks earlier by a single German U-73 submarine. Of the 1,065 people on board, 1,035 survived.
She now rests at 125m below on her starboard side. Lost until 1975, when none other than wreck hunter extraordinaire Jacques Cousteau discovered her, she remains the largest wreck in Greek waters, with the Burdigala the second in size.
In recognition of these historical facts, a special event was organised in 2016 by the Friends of Kea Society and attended by dignitaries from around the world. As part of the event, Galon and a small team of fellow divers were chosen to lay plaques on both vessels commemorating the 100th anniversary of their sinking.
A special plaque in memory of British diver Carl Spencer, who lost his life during a 2009 National Geographic Society expedition, was also laid – a poignant reminder of the dangers wreck hunting involves.
Without doubt, it is Galon, and people like him, who establish the facts and bring history alive. Driven by curiosity and risking life and limb, they pave the way so that we can all more fully understand and appreciate the past. If that result is not the definition of real treasure, then I have no idea what is.