Richie Kohler: The “Deep Sea Detective” speaks about the Britannic, the Titanic, U869 and his Hollywood movie

Interviews, Shipwrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Richie Kohler is a familiar figure to millions of people worldwide, through his TV Show “Deep Sea Detectives”, hosted together with John Chatterton on History Channel.Richie Kohler’s lifelong passion has been exploring the famous shipwrecks around the world, including the SS Andrea Doria and the RMS Titanic.

Richie’s work identifying a World War II German submarine, U-869, off the coast of New Jersey has been the subject of several television documentaries and a best selling book by Robert Kurson, titled “Shadow Divers”.

The New York Times bestseller is currently being developed as a motion picture by Universal Studios.

Richie has a special bond with Greece, as the Titanic’s sister ship the Britannic, first discovered in the 1970s by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, sunk close to Kea Island and resting nearly intact on the seabed, at a depth of approximately 120 metres.

His brand new book, on the Britannic, “Mystery of the Last Olympian”  is out now!

Here’s what Richie said to

about his past and present explorations, his plans about the future and… everything else in between:

A movie about U869 is on the cards; at which stage is the production and what is your involvement with it?

Originally the film rights for Shadow Divers project was picked up by 20th Century Fox, who worked for nearly ten years to get the right screenplay and the right actors to align at the same time, and although they had some incredibly talented people, they couldn’t make all the pieces fit.

So two years ago, the rights to our story were once again available and Universal Studios grabbed it up! We now have the incredibly talented John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie, Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil etc.) not only writing the screen play but directing as well.

The producer is Gil Netter (Life of Pi,  The Blind Side, Flicka, Water for Elephants etc) who really loves to turn books into films and incredibly enthusiastic about our project.

Both John Chatterton and myself are advisers on the film, and look forward to being behind the scenes as they say. We are hoping to see it in theaters within the next 18 months!

Stepping back in time, which specific dive would you consider as the one that really stands out, out of the thousands of dives you’ve done so far?

When asked this question, I always answer the NEXT dive!

The truth is no matter how cool the dives are that I made, something always comes along that is even more incredible.

My two dives on Titanic was breath taking and certainly one of my favorites  and who would have thought that nearly a decade later I would be working with no other than the man who discovered Titanic, Dr Bob Ballard.

While exploring shipwrecks in the Gulf Of Mexico, our  work resulted in yet another historical correction and a World War Two hero finally getting the recognition he deserved.

As I stood at the award ceremony in the Pentagon and shook the hand of the Secretary of the Navy and the son of the Heroic Captain Claudius, I realized how we as divers can make a real difference in peoples lives.

As I have done with the U-869, The USS Murphy, The USS Lagarto, and now with the PC-566, the human connection and making a difference is the best thing I can accomplish diving.

As the years go by  the “favorite” wreck has changed, as diving has changed, and I have changed. In recent years, I have been obsessed with the HMHS Britannic, and it has become my favorite wreck dive.

As the sister ship to Titanic, she has an incredible linage and the expeditions to explore her are challenging and worth the labor to achieve this beautiful dive,  a unique frozen moment in time.

What are your feelings when you dive a wreck for the first time?

I am still as excited about diving as I was forty one years ago when I was first certified as a diver.

There is a special feeling in my gut when diving an unknown site, a virgin wreck. Its an addicting hobby and its not often in life we are gifted with that first.

To swim about seeing that which has been lost to the world and KNOWING your the first, makes my hear beat faster. It prompts one to travel further and deeper, to keep looking and searching for yet another lost ship.

To be honest though, I also get pretty excited to go scallop lobster or bottle diving, but shipwrecks will always be my first love.

With the TV series you were hosting with John you introduced millions of viewers across the Globe to scuba diving; how important do you think this is and what your message would be to anyone who would like to take up scuba diving?

Working for television has granted us incredible access to not only fanatstic dive sites, but incredably talented people, experts in everything from oceanography, hyper-baric medicine, submersible technology, historians and explorers.

I feel honored to work with such people and have a sense of obligation to the people who would watch to do my best to a positive influence for diving and our stewardship of the oceans.

To anyone who may want to become a diver this is exciting time to become an underwater explorer as the technology and training have grown to make diving safer than ever before.

With the right training and equipment the worlds oceans, it billions of wonderful  and strange denizens is only the beginning.

There are shipwrecks and caves, even under polar ice are mysteries just waiting to be explored.

You’ve been to Greece and dived at some of the wrecks, among them the Britannic. Tell us a bit more about your experience and impressions from these dives.

I have been to Greece three times, 2006, 2009 and 2015.

The reason was always to visit one of my favorite wreck, the Britannic but in 2015 I did get a chance to visit another shipwreck lost off Kea, the SS Burdigala, which was also sunk during World War 1 by the mines laid by U-73.

The thing about both shipwrecks is how intact they are. All of the artifacts are still in place just like the day the ships sank.

Both the depth of water and government protection has made sure these historic sites have been undisturbed. The water here is so incredibly clear, it is not uncommon to have over 150ft/46 meters of visibility in the water and the wrecks have a colorful protective coating of corals, oysters and marine fauna.

Huge schools of bait fish swirl around both wrecks and indeed these huge ships have become a diverse home to a wide variety of sea life. The same coating of thick growth protects these two wrecks and the are incredibly intact.

To be able to peer inside the either one is a to see backward in time, with everything stopped in a moment of violence. Now all is peaceful and quiet. I love diving here.

Any other specific memories from Greece?

Like all dive trips, we plan, dream and travel more than we ever spend time in the water, and with all the time I have got to spend on Kea I have grown to love the island and the people.

On days that the weather is to rough for diving we would rent mopeds and travel around seeing much of this quiet little island.

In 2009 I was fortunate to even fly a helicopter around the island and from the air, it looks lke a jewel set in the deep blue sea, white waves crashing all around the rocky edges.

Of course when on the mainland I spent a little time in Athens and also seeing the historic ruins of Poseidon’s temple and other wonderful sights, but the islands are for me the real Greece, the Greece I love.

Identifying wrecks is a thrilling and exhausting process. What were your reactions when you said “yes! it’s the U869”?

It took us almost six years to finally find the answer and solve the 60 year old mystery, but it was a bittersweet process. Yes, we were happy, but also exhausted and sad.

Three people died trying to figure out the answer and that is never easy to accept. For me the work on the wreck ended that day, but a new project was ahead of me, to find and talk to the families of the fallen sailors on the U-boat, so that not only was the deaths of our three friends not in vain, but to tell the families with respect what had happened to the sailors during the war.

It was the first time I would become personally involved in fixing broken history, and then seeking out and talking with families of lost sailors. No one should ever be unknown, lost to the sea in an unmarked grave, and given families closure is an honor I hold dear.

How was it working with Dr. Ballard on U166?

Dr Ballard, likes to be called Bob. To be honest I was more than a little nervous to meet and work with him but once we shook hands he was a very down to earth person.

Serious and passionate about his work, he accepts nothing less than excellence of his staff and crew, this is most certainly from his military career, but he is kind and leads by example.

When we sat side by side in the control room, and watched on the monitors as the ROV’s Argus and Hercules filmed and explored the wreckage of both the German submarine U-166 and her final victim the SS Robert E Lee, my job was to detail for Dr Ballard not only the specifications about a type IX German U-boat but also about the battle between them and how they both were sunk.

I must say it was surreal for me to telling Dr Bob Ballard about shipwrecks, but I do know the subject well and he agreed with all of my insight and findings. When I mentioned to Bob that due to the fog of war, the Captain that sank the U-166 was not awarded a medal, but rather punished as the Navy thought the sub had gotten away!

Well Bob wanted to set the record straight and reached out to friends at the highest ranks of the US Navy and soon I was invited to the award ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington DC as the late Captain Claudius was posthumously awarded the legion of merit for valor in combat, nearly seventy years later.

I was very proud that day to stand there and shake captain Claudius’  sons hand and the hand of the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus.

The things we as divers can do that affect other peoples lives is amazing!

Diving at the Titanic with the MIR submersible: Images, impressions and feelings?

It was for me the penultimate moment in my career.

I had been working for television on Deep Sea Detectives at that point for almost 3 years and so understood that this was a big TV project, but it was much more than that to me personally.

First the History Channel didn’t want to risk the $300,000 dollars it would cost for the expedition so initially they said no. But John Chatterton, Kirk Wolfinger and I all chipped in 100,000 each to charter the Russian research ship Keyldish and the two MIR submersibles.

As wreck divers, how could we let the chance to dive the Titanic go by? We could not. When I first started to climb the ladder to get into the submersible I realized that for me, this was just like going into outer space.

Just like and astronaut I was in a uniform with the flag on my shoulder, mission patches on my chest. All around me were dozens of engineers, scientists, electricians and mechanics who all worked very hard to make sure we would be safe and stay alive in our tiny submarine as we descended two and a half miles/4024 meters down to the seafloor.

My sub buddy was the famous cameraman Ralph White and our Pilot was Genya. Every single moment of the launch and descent stays with me, but the moment we could see the sea floor out of the tiny ports I was amazed.

It was just featureless mud at first but to me it was like the ground of the moon. To see the wreck for th first time was even more amazing, I think I said oh my god oh my god and was not very professional as the emotion just took over me.

I was so excited and happy for the first two hours, but then when we got to the stern, the fact that 1500 people died in this wreck really struck home. Shoes on the sea floor was the only marker for a persons grave, so many people. It was an over whelming experience both emotionally and physically.

It was my first time to really let the reality sink in. From Titanic, I found my way to explore her lesser known, and to me, more beautiful sister Britannic.