WHERE WILL WE LAND? What will we see? On a diving descent, nothing compares with an ocean-liner coming into view. The sheer size of these wonderful wrecks never ceases to amaze me; words can hardly convey the immensity of, for example, the Britannic, the world's largest sunken liner. Even a recent exploration of the Transylvania, some 31,000 tons lighter in life, held me in awe.
Since 1900, many liners have been dismantled for scrap at the end of their glamorous careers. But hundreds of passenger ships have been lost in the oceans and still lie in wait for intrepid divers.
Some, like the Titanic, have gripped the imagination of the world, while others, such as the elegant Lusitania, have changed the course of history. Many have faded from public awareness, despite the drama and loss of life involved at the time of the wrecking, and most have not been seen since the day they went down.
Technical divers have enjoyed pioneering adventures on deep liner wrecks. The first dives made to the Andrea Doria, soon after she was sunk in 70m off Nantucket Island in 1956, were truly technical for their day. Throughout the '80s and '90s, the deep divers of America transformed this 29,000 ton Italian vessel into an icon of technical diving that would yield artefacts over a long period.
Talk of treasure ships and our first thought is of pirate vessels, the flamboyant escapades of Blackbeard and chests of gold coins. But 20th century passenger liners are the real treasure ships, and often had large consignments of precious metals aboard. The P&O liner Egypt is a fine example. When lost in 1922 in the Bay of Biscay, she carried £1 million-worth of gold and silver.
In 2001, this 125m wreck was one of the deepest I had photographed, and evidence of the most famous gold salvage of all time, by the Italian company SORIMA, was plain to see as I swam around broken cargo hatches at seabed level.
And while UK divers explored the Egypt, our Antipodean counterparts were venturing onto the equally deep Niagara, also salvaged for its gold by SORIMA after being lost off the North Island of New Zealand.
Ireland is well off for sunken liners, and in the south the 115m-deep liner Arabic has been visited in recent years by a salvage company following up on rumours of gold.
The turbine-driven Empress of Britain, a 42,000 ton monster liner off Ireland's north-west coast in more than 160m, has also been examined with gold recovery in mind. The inverted wreck appeared featureless but for her huge propellers and breaks in her massive hull, shown clearly in grainy black and white images taken by commercial divers and from ROVs.
During both world wars, liners such as the Empress and Arabic carried tons of gold to the USA to pay for the war effort in Europe, as did the White Star Lines' Laurentic, which now lies in only 39m of water off Donegal. These shallow green waters have invited divers to explore the wreck for decades, and it remains as popular as ever, lying flat to the seabed with her bow tip intact and the boilers marking the highest point.
The Laurentic sank after striking a mine in WW1, and today holds the record for the most gold ever recovered from a shipwreck. But it is just one of a number of examples of liner wrecks that are accessible to all levels of diver. The 12,000 ton Otranto, sunk off the isle of Islay on Scotland's west coast, is another. You can find her among the gullies and kelp beds below Machir Bay in just 15m of water, well broken up and in a challenging location, but accessible nonetheless.
The Oceanic off Shetland is yet another shallow-water liner wreck, as is the popular 13,000 ton Alaunia, the biggest wreck in Sussex waters. It is reachable by most divers, because its top lies in only 13m.
Move along the coast to Hampshire waters, and one of the largest wrecks in the area is a luxury 11,000 ton liner, the Cuba. Though the wreck lies in shallow water, visibility here is normally poor because of local spoiling grounds.
Hampshire provided my first experience of diving a passenger liner. Back in the 1980s, the Royal Mail steamer Mendi was an exciting and relatively challenging dive off the back of the Isle of Wight. Aged 21, I was thrilled to explore this wreck at 40m, even though I was wearing a wetsuit.
Around that time I can remember reading Kendall McDonald's description in his book Dive Sussex of a P&O liner called Moldavia. He called it a giant wreck lying a long way offshore. The photograph of the ship looked awesome, and venturing a long way offshore was in those days an adventure in itself. Of course, today the Moldavia is as popular as any wreck in the English Channel, and lies on her port side in 45m of water.
Many Brighton and Littlehampton dayboats make regular shuttles out to the site, and individual divers can book a spot on a boat via several of the charter-boat websites.
Weymouth is another destination for divers who wish to explore passenger liners, because the Dorset coastline is home to several well-visited wrecks in this category, including the Mekness, Rotorua and the ever-popular 5800 ton Salsette.
Move along the coast into Devon waters and the 65m-deep, 12,000 ton liner Medina off Start Point provides up-and-coming technical divers with yet another challenge.
But the biggest guns in the world of ocean liners have to be the White Star leviathans. Titanic is big, but her younger sister Britannic, which lies off Greece, is bigger. This 48,000 ton vessel remains my favourite wreck dive, and left me with one of my two best mental images of ocean liner exploration.
During the 1998 expedition to the wreck, my old dive partner Chris Hutchison and I circumnavigated the entire wreck on scooters at 120m. Visibility was outstanding at 40m-plus. No torch was required in the ambient light as we wove through covered walkways, over teak decks under davits and through the navigation bridge.
Lying intact on her starboard side, it was the nearest a scuba diver could get to a Titanic experience.
I won't easily forget the first time I saw this giant Mediterranean wreck, either. On a day that afforded extraordinary 50m visibility, I was awed as I looked up from the seabed from under the bridge castle to see this monster towering above.
My other most unforgettable moment was the time we landed on the bridge deck of the upright 17,000 ton liner Transylvania in the north Atlantic off Ireland. At a depth of 126m to the bridge deck, I became one of a handful of people who have seen the entire bridge with all its massive navigational equipment sitting there proud and present.
I shot a whole roll of film before my five-hour decompression hang but hell, was it worth it!
A favourite wreck of mine is the massive 32,000 ton Justicia, the third- largest liner lost during WW1 and now resting in perfect visibility on a clean 70m sand seabed - once again off Ireland, in the north-west. Justicia's front end is amazingly intact and a classic representation of how bows should look.
My time-exposure photographs, taken using a tripod, may have given a misleading impression of this wreck, because aft of the bow it lies flat to the seabed with a slight list to port, its exposed and impressive array of boilers then becoming the highest point. Justicia provides the best scooter ride in UK waters.
Perhaps the most glamorous liners that ever took to the seas were the Cunard Line sisters Mauritania and Lusitania. Mauritania was dismantled at the end of her career but the Lusitania now lies on her starboard side in 93m of water off the old Head of Kinsale.
I only wish I could describe the wreck as I did Britannic. Today the Lusitania is the sorriest of sights, its bow perhaps the only recognisable section and the rest the victim of a combination of salvage and mine warfare.
Diving Lusitania is still a privilege, however, and many ornate artefacts lie strewn around the wreck. Anyone who appreciates the elegance of Edwardian times and what the passengers must have experienced would feel as emotional as I do when I swim the decks of this great 32,000 ton ocean liner.
Whatever the Lusitania's current state, it will always be the liner that changed the course of history. Many say that it was her sinking by the Germans and the consequent deaths of 1200 innocent Americans that provoked the USA to enter World War One.
But even the death toll on the Lusitania is dwarfed by that of the Wilhelm Gustloff. This 25,000 ton Nazi-built liner was sunk in the Baltic Sea off Poland at the end of WW2, with the estimated loss of 10,000. We will never know the exact number of refugees fleeing from Russia's Red Army who were on the ship as she sailed on that January evening in 1945.
Today the Wilhelm Gustloff lies in just 50m of water on her port side, the icy waters helping to preserve much of its teak decking. The name, in gothic lettering, can still be seen spanning the rear of the beautiful counter-stern.
I paused here before swimming over the safety rails and onto the huge poop deck, imagining all those people struggling to save themselves.
The Gustloff, and the General Stuben, which also sank with great loss of life, represent two huge atrocities of maritime history, as do other passenger liners on a lesser scale. For example, as I swam along the 57m seabed level of the Leopoldville, I was riveted by the GI helmets lying in the sand. They had belonged to some of the 800 troops lost when the ship was torpedoed as she approached France to land them for the Battle of the Bulge.
This 11,000 ton Belgian liner now lies on its port side in the tidal waters that race around the Cherbourg peninsula, its guns mounted to the decks.
Some of the most challenging liner exploration in recent years has been by a group of British divers called the Dark Star, led by Mark Dixon. Quietly, this group has been exploring the deeper liners lost in the North Channel between the Mull of Kintyre and Rathlin Island.
It is here that some of the most tidal waters flow, currents with power to pull four buoys under water while awaiting slack. This is what happened when I recently joined the team to dive the Cunard liner Andania in 112m. For once I left my camera topside, on strict advice that it would be best to concentrate on surviving the dive!
The darkness on the wreck was of an intensity I had never encountered before. I didn't dare to venture far from the shotline, for fear of being on the wrong side of the vessel as the tide turned.
Dark Star has also been exploring another liner close by in 104m named the Tuscania. On its decks, wonderful stained-glass windows can be seen. Again, the wreck is very dark and tidal, though not as extreme as the Andania.
I joined the team once again this year for a long expedition to search for two other passenger liners that have not been seen since the day they were lost - the Amazon and the Calgarian - but I'll leave these tales for another day.
The once grand voice of Lusitania, her whistle, now lying off the wreck on the 93m seabed
Richard Stevenson puts scale to the massive anchor on the bow of Justicia.
The Salsette, Weymouth's number one dive destination, is now in shallow water.
The Rotorua today rests in more than 60m in Lyme Bay
A MIR submersible is launched from the Russian ship Keldysh to explore Titanic 2.5 miles below.
A view from inside a MIR submersible of a boat deck window on Titanic.
A resident shoal of fish swims across a monster telegraph on the bridge of Britannic
Mooring bollards on the Lusitania still have their ropes wound around them.
Divers decompressing after a deep dive on a liner. Closed-circuit rebreathers have enabled longer bottom times to be spent on deep wrecks