This is a detailed report of my recent trip to Kea Island, Greece to dive the HMHS Britannic and the other great wrecks there. I will be posting detailed write-ups for each of the wrecks following this post.
The goal is to provide enough details to aid anybody else planning to visit the island to dive the famous wrecks there. Kea is a small island about an hour ferry ride off the coast of Greece, near Athens.
The “main attraction” for diving Kea is the iconic HMHS Britannic.
The HMHS Britannic has always been at the very top of my list of “must do” wrecks. This was my fourth big trip of 2023 after Antarctica in March, Bikini Atoll in June, and the USS Moray in July. It had already been a crazy cool year and I was looking forward to this trip the most.
The dive team consisted of four members:
- George Vandoros (Local Dive Guide)
- Ben Lair
- Justin Judd
- Me (Brett Eldridge)
This trip report will cover travel, logistics, lodging, food, diving operations and of course, the wrecks!
There are currently three wrecks in the Kea Underwater Historic Site (KUHS) with hopefully more to be added in the near future. A quick summary for each wreck is below:
The Patris is a very cool, picturesque paddle steamer that sank on Feb 23, 1868 which means it has been underwater for a very long time! She hit a shallow, submerged reef (but which had been mapped) due to navigational errors and sank. The bow and stern sections are separate with a large and amazing paddlewheel on the stern section. The depths range from 100 feet (30 m) to 180 feet (55 m) and the wreck is a very cool “warm up” dive for the deeper wrecks.
The Burdigala is an amazing transatlantic luxury steamship that is about 600 feet long so there is plenty to explore! Interestingly enough, it sank shortly before the Britannic and, most likely, by underwater mines planted by the same German submarine that planted the mine that sunk the Britannic. It was only recently discovered in 2008 and stands upright with a max depth of 250 feet (75 m) with the top of the wreck at 200 feet (60 m). Most divers do this wreck as a second work-up dive before the Britannic.
The HMHS Britannic is considered by many to be the pinnacle of wreck diving (I would concur). Many would call it the “Everest” of wreck diving but I would call it the “K2” of wreck diving given the complexity of diving it and the risks involved. The wreck lies in 385 feet of water (117 m) and has about 100 feet (30 m) of relief as she lies on her starboard side and is about 880 feet (269 m) long. It is the largest underwater intact ocean liner wreck. It is a beast. I’ll provide a ton of details on this wreck in a detailed post.
Compared to some other locations (e.g., Bikini Atoll), Kea is relatively easy to get to. Here is a quick rundown of the logistics of my outbound journey:
- LAX – FRA on LH 457 @ 3:00pm-11:20am (next day)
- FRA – ATH on LH 1282 @ 1:45pm-5:30pm
- Taxi to the port of Lavrio
- Ferry or Speedboat to Kea
For many people in the US, they will need to connect on the East Coast or somewhere in Europe to get to Athens. For those who are close to New York, there are daily flights into Athens which makes the trip a little easier.
One cautionary note: I didn’t realize this when I booked my flights, but the last regular ferry (at least the time of year we traveled and on the day we arrived) was at 3:30pm. If you don’t arrive in time, there are really only two options. The first is to spend the night in Athens or the port of Lavrio and then take the 8:30am ferry to Kea. The second is to arrange with Keadivers to get a speedboat (conditions permitting) after you land.
Coming from California, any flight I took that had a connection in Europe (as opposed to splitting the flights and connecting on the East Coast) resulted in a landing too late to get the ferry. Ben and I were both landing too late so we arranged for a speedboat transfer which was pretty interesting since the wind and swell had picked up. The owner of Keadivers (Yannis) and the dive guide (George) met us at Lavrio and got us safely to Kea.
Of course, diving with a rebreather and a drysuit and full frame camera with flashes and video lights always involves about 200 pounds of gear which is a hassle to drag around airports, hotels, taxis, etc. I had my rebreather in a Pelican case, my general dive gear and clothes in a rolling duffel bag, my camera housing & accessories in another Pelican case, my drysuit and undergarments in a duffel and then a backpack. On the way out, I carried on the backpack and underwater camera housing Pelican (even though both were overweight) and only the backpack on the way back.
My clothing was very minimal and only took up about 5% of the weight of my luggage. Definitely a sign of a well planned trip. 🙂
On the return trip, we had to overnight near Athens airport since I had a 7am flight from ATH-FRA and there was no way to get a ferry out of Kea in time to make that.
We procrastinated and ended up staying in a dump hotel in the port of Lavrio but had a nice meal and got to bed early. The alarm went off at 4am to make the 30 minute journey from Lavrio to the Athens airport from 4:30am-5am. I then reversed my flight route and went ATH-FRA with a tight connection and then FRA-LAX and arrived back in LAX at 1:30pm or so on the same day I left.
Kea Island Lodging
There is a very nice hotel literally adjacent to the dive shop (Ydor Hotel & Spa); however, it was closed for the season. We were referred to Maria Lemos to find an apartment for our stay. Our primary request was that it be walking distance to the dive center and quiet. We ended up renting a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment from Maria that had a really nice view of the harbor and was a 10-15 minute walk from the dive shop. As a bonus, there was a nice restaurant “Ennea Kores” (translated, I think Nine Daughters) literally below the apartment (it was on a cliffside).
Maria was very easy to work with and very prompt. Before leaving the US, I had asked her for the address of the apartment so we could get a taxi there. She simply replied back, with a grin, “there are no real addresses on the island” and indicated that she would pick us up at the port and drive us to the apartment. 🙂
The apartment we rented was perfect and I would definitely recommend Maria Lemos if you are considering staying in Kea.
As you would expect, the food in Greece is great. We ate at many different restaurants and would often go to a “locals” place with some of the dive team for dinner.
Kea has seafood, meat, pasta, fresh vegetables and — wait for it — fried cheese with honey! We ate often at the restaurant below our apartment “Nine Daughters” since it was close and easy, the restaurant close to the dive shop “Breezes,” and a few other places including an excellent lamb restaurant up on a hill at the port and another meat restaurant up on the hill behind the dive shop. Ben and Justin both had “dessert” pancakes for breakfast at Breezes!
Pictures below are from me and Ben Lair:
There is something for everyone on Kea — and many of the restaurants were already closed for the season.
Pre – Dive Operations
We did all of our diving with Keadivers in Vourkari which is a small village on the North side of St Nicolas Bay in Kea.
It is worth noting that before Jun 2022, permits from Greece and the owner of the Britannic, Simon Mills, had to be obtained on a “per expedition” basis. There was no “show up and dive” operation and the permit process was very lengthy and unpredictable. Since then, Keadivers has a permit to dive the wrecks and logistics are much easier. This is what spurred us on to book the trip and dive the wreck. Note that it is mandatory to have a guide on all dives (which I would want anyway) and that no wreck penetration is allowed without a special permit.
Keadivers has a very well thought out and “tried and true” system for doing dives with this complexity. The very interesting aspect is that we were diving the Britannic from a small Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB)! Keadivers has access to larger boats for bigger groups, but there were only three of us diving along with our guide, George Vandoros.
The general routine is that we would go to the dive shop after breakfast next-door at the Breeze cafe and build our rebreathers and prep all of our gear. The dive shop has plenty of room and workbenches to assemble equipment and also blends all of their own gases on-site. We would also discuss the dive plan for the day. Photos below are from me, Justin Judd, and Ben Lair.
It is really important to note that the area is known for finicky weather and it can change quickly. Realistically, you should plan on 50% dive days. We ended up diving 6 days out of the 9. However, it usually works out because you can have a more relaxed day to work on gear maintenance, process photos, explore the island, etc. Also, after a couple days of doing 400 foot dives with 3.5-4 hour runtimes, my body needs a break.
We would check the Windy forecast and Yannis would consult his plethora of apps usually the day before a dive (and sometimes all during the morning of a dive day) to decide whether it was safe to dive. You could see the ocean waves through a low point in the rocks across the harbor so we would also just look with binoculars to see what was going on.
Assuming conditions were good for diving, we would load all of our gear into a van and some extra safety gear and tanks into a car and then take a very short ride down to the boats. We would also get our drysuits on but not zip them up or put on our heavy tops.
We would then load all of the gear (yes, there is a TON of it) into the two RIBs and get our drysuits on before the short 15-20 minute ride out to the dive site.
Since the Britannic is right in the middle of a busy shipping lane, it is important that the ships be alerted to divers in the water. This happens through the normal maritime alert system in Greece; however, you can still hear the big ships coming through underwater water even when they keep a large berth.
Depending upon conditions in between the harbor and the dive site, you might put on a rebreather inside the harbor or wait until you arrive at the dive site. Generally, you gear up at the dive site in the RIB. This takes some getting used to and luckily they have a crew of people to help get all of your gear on.
One thing to note is the sheer number of people involved in a dive operation to successfully and safely dive the Britannic. Besides the four divers, there were two boat drivers, 1-2 safety divers, and a couple people to help get your gear on. They also have two RIBs (minimum) on the dive site at all times. The first boat has the divers and their “primary” gear and the second boat serves as a safety boat. If somebody is blown off the wreck and needs to drift during deco, they can follow them. Or, if there is an injury, they can take the diver immediately to land while the other divers complete deco.
They pre-place a downline with an anchor or other heavy weight earlier in the morning of the dive or you can use one if it is still there from a previous dive. The divers then splash, as gracefully as possible, by falling backwards off the RIB. Note that upon entry, I had my rebreather, a scooter, three tanks, and a full frame camera. It is not easy and I usually ended up “ass over teakettle” as my grandmother used to say.
After the divers enter the water and descend down the line, the team sets up a temporary deco station at 20 feet / 6 meters and will attach it to the downline. They will also stage any tanks you ask them to (we had 50% at 70′ and O2 at 20′) and put a tank of O2 on the decompression bar. I’ve made a crude sketch of what this looks like and included some surface pictures and some pictures I took underwater with an iPhone (more on that later).
Here are some photos that Ben took (note how close the tanker is) and one that I took of Justin “doing time” and watching a movie on the deco bar.
During the deco stops above about 70′, the safety diver will come down and check on everybody and ask your time-to-surface. They will also take cameras and other miscellaneous gear back up to the RIB. If there isn’t a lot of surface current, they will drop a line with a small weight and a bunch of loops so that you can shed unnecessary bailout tanks to make things easier on deco. If there is a stronger current where the line wouldn’t work, they will generally send down a diver to collect extra tanks. This really makes long deco easier.
After you finish your deco, they try to stagger people going back to the boat to avoid a cluster. Once you get to the surface, they send the boat to pick you up. You remove any remaining bailout tanks, your scooter, then your entire rebreather, then swim to the back of the boat and climb up the ladder into the RIB. Here are more photos from Ben:
Needless to say, you need to be in decent “dive shape” to make these kinds of dives. Also, after a big dive with a lot of deco, you want to do as little hard work as possible.
Typical run times on the Britannic were 3.5-4 hours with something like 5 minutes to descend, 25 minutes on the wreck, 3-3.5 hours of decompression with the first stop usually around 170 feet deep. Bottom temp was about 60F with a thermocline about 100 feet or so with a water temperature of 71F above that. Below is a typical dive profile:
Equipment Notes & Work Up Dives
Just a few notes that are worth highlighting for anybody considering doing this dive:
In my opinion, scooters are a MUST. There can be a lot of current on these dives and you can’t afford the time or energy it takes to pull yourself down the line. It is way too easy to build up carbon dioxide when working hard and get into the death spiral.” Also, obviously, the Britannic is massive and you will benefit by having a scooter to get around. Currently, Keadivers has three rental scooters but access to more.
You need spares for EVERYTHING. I had a dry glove pop a pinhole leak on a dive, and I had an drysuit exhaust valve break (it was still usable, but not ideal). Ben had a drysuit wrist seal that needed replacing. If your drysuit has a problem, first of all, your dive is likely going to suck. Secondly, if you don’t have a spare, it is likely that your trip is over. I have standard lists I use for spares for my drysuit, rebreather, and camera.
I highly recommend some form of internal heat in the drysuit. Dives are 3.5-4.5 hours and, even though the water was 71F at the last deco stop, it gets cold, especially if there is a big current running. I’ve been using Venture Heat for years (I bought the initial v1 vest years ago) and got a new version of the heated vest right before this trip (thanks, Oscar @ Venture heat!).
I made some modifications to the O2 delivery system on my rEvo to avoid the limitations of the system below 90m or so. I have detailed those in a separate post. I don’t recommend doing this unless you know what you are doing and why and, if you do it, test it extensively before you take it on a nearly 400 foot dive.
You should bring a Jon Line and be comfortable using it. You might luck out and have no current on all your dives, but I would not count on it.
Bring multiple types of drysuit undergarments. Ben & Justin wore less undergarments than I did but I get cold often. I ended up wearing Fourth Element Arctic Tops & Bottoms with a very thin undershirt under my heated vest. You can always layer or use less if you have a few options.
Be aware of the 100m “typical” limit on equipment. In reality, the sand is at 385 feet but most parts of the dive will be in the 350 feet and above range. Most dive equipment (not all) that has anything like a battery is usually depth rated to 100 m / 330 feet. Equipment will generally work below that, but be aware that not always and buttons often stick. In particular, my Nauticam camera housing needed service so I had them install the “heavy duty” springs so that the buttons would work in deeper dives.
Work Up Dives
For a trip like this, I believe that most people should do some “work-up” dives prior to diving the Britannic. I did a series of four dive days with specific goals:
- Get some deeper dives with extended deco to test the modified rEvo O2 delivery system and the new Venture Heat vest
- Do some dives with a scooter
- Do some dives with a scooter and camera with “switching off” between moving and taking photos
The last two were very important for me. My love/hate affair with scooters is well documented ; however, I knew I would have to use one on this trip. I got back into the rhythm of using a scooter on a couple dives. I then “graduated” to using a scooter and a camera which I also knew I would want/need for the Britannic.
In many ways, this was not your “typical” dive trip.
Midway through the trip, George got a haircut at the local barbershop. It was essentially a mohawk. Ben & Justin decided that they needed to get in on the action and visited the same barber. Photos below from Ben and I:
I decided to not partake in the festivities. 🙂
I will be posting detailed reviews of each dive site with a ton of photos and more data for each dive. Below is a recap of our day-by-day schedule:
- Oct 4th – Travel LAX-FRA
- Oct 5th – Travel LAX-FRA, FRA-ATH, Boat to Kea
- Oct 6th – Dive the Burdigala (this was a push given how tired we were)
- Oct 7th – Off day / Windy – Prep for Britannic
- Oct 8th – Dive the Britannic
- Oct 9th – Dive the Patris
- Oct 10th – Dive the Britannic
- Oct 11th – Off day / Windy / Gear maintenance
- Oct 12th – Off day / Windy / Hike to Lighthouse
- Oct 13th – Dive the Britannic
- Oct 14th – Dive the Britannic
- Oct 15th – Clean & load gear, Ferry to Lavrio
- Oct 16th – Lavrio to ATH, ATH-FRA and FRA-LAX
Overall, we had a fantastic trip. The crew at Keadivers is world class.
Ben / Paragon Dive Group has already arranged to take teams of 6 each year in 2024-2027. If you have ever dreamed of diving the Britannic, this is probably the easiest route to doing it. We’ve done all the leg work and know exactly how everything works.
Stay tuned for the posts for each wreck!