Mission Titanic – Uncovering the Deep-Sea Wreckage
Dive into the journey to resurrect the Titanic shipwreck, a century after its tragic maiden voyage.
Huddled inside the Jean Charcot’s darkened control room, James Delgado and Bill Lange exchange panicked glances. More than 4,000 metres beneath them, deep in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, their million-dollar submersible has snagged on a jagged piece of metal.
That is not, however, Delgado and Lange’s sole concern. Six hundred kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland, Hurricane Earl is barreling towards their location. Violent winds, huge waves and driving rain are assaulting the deck crew as they scramble to ready the research vessel for a race back to shore. But no one can go anywhere until the beleaguered submersible is freed – a monumental task even in the best conditions.
As the group weighs the situation it becomes increasingly clear that their mission – to create a 3-D map of the world’s most famous shipwreck – is in jeopardy.
(Photo: Ralph White/Corbis)
On April 15, 1912, the purportedly unsinkable Titanic struck an iceberg during its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. The world’s largest steamship at the time – 66,000 tons and four city blocks long – it sank within three hours, taking more than 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers with it. Over the subsequent decades many expeditions set out to find the wreck, but efforts were foiled by woefully insufficient undersea equipment.
By the early 1980s technological advances made it possible to search at much greater depths. In 1985, 73 years after the Titanic plummeted to the ocean floor, the ship was finally found by a French-American team. Grainy black-and-white images revealed the Titanic was snapped in two, with a massive field of debris scattered between its halves.
Since the initial discovery, many companies have visited the remains, and there have been several dives to bring up artifacts. These expeditions, which began in 1987, have been a lightning rod for controversy. Objectors argue the wreck is a gravesite and should not be disturbed out of respect. Various scientists have also expressed concern that human tampering is hastening the vessel’s decay, stressing the need to protect the shipwreck as a historical site.
But the company that owns salvaging rights to the site, RMS Titanic, Inc. (RMST), has often seen things differently. RMST has recovered, preserved and exhibited more than 5,500 objects from the wreckage. Several years ago, however, Chris Davino, head of RMST, began to feel that his company could do more. In 2010 he reached out to some of the company’s most vocal opponents with an interesting proposal: Why not use the very latest in submersible and sonar-imaging technology to survey the wreck site – almost half of which had never been seen – and create a picture of the ship unprecedented in its detail, accuracy and clarity? Dubbed Expedition Titanic, the mission would help researchers assess the deteriorating condition of the hull and also analyze how exactly the Titanic tore apart and why it fell as it did.
It was an opportunity the scientific community couldn’t pass up. Leading organizations – including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (the group that discovered the Titanic back in 1985), the Waitt Institute for Discovery and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – joined forces with RMST, which would foot the operation’s $4 million bill. Maritime archaeologist Delgado, a veteran of more than 100 shipwreck investigations, and 3-D-imaging expert Bill Lange would be part of a dream team of nearly 50 oceanographers, marine researchers and technicians. Excitement was high. “In terms of what is lying on the seabed now,” says Delgado, “there will no longer be any secrets for us.”
On Monday, August 23, 2010, the Jean Charcot set off from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Two days later the team was positioned above the wreck site, ready to put three underwater robots into action. The first of these robots was the box-like REMORA ROV, a remotely operated vehicle weighing 900 kilograms, equipped with 2-D and 3-D high-definition cameras and capable of diving 6,000 metres.
The ROV was lowered over the side with an industrial winch, its only tether to the boat a 6,700-metre fibre-optic cable. The robot’s klieg lights enabled its pilot – sitting in a tiny control room aboard the Jean Charcot – to navigate the pitch-black waters and then glide alongside the silt-encrusted bow while transmitting footage to Delgado and his team, who sat in front of an array of huge screens wearing 3-D glasses.
And what they saw was riveting. “It was as if I was back down there,” recalls Delgado, who had made the deep descent to the wreck site in a Russian Mir submersible a decade earlier. “But the scope of the camera’s sweep was such that I was seeing far more than I had through the Mir’s tiny porthole. I could drop down into the weld deck area just behind the forecastle, then move towards the cargo holds and up the big steel bulkhead leading towards the bridge. I could look in past one of the windows through the open door of the crew’s galley and see pots and pans lying on the deck. It kept me on the edge of my seat for hours.”
While the ROV was capturing a constant stream of live footage, the expedition’s other two robots, nicknamed Ginger and Mary Ann – as a nod to Gilligan’s Island
– were scanning the debris field using sonar. The Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), whose technology works like medical ultrasound, could find any objects that settled after the ship tore apart. Chubby and torpedo-like, these robots carried out several 22-hour trips, criss-crossing the wreck site in a fashion the crew referred to as “mowing the lawn.”
Unlike the ROV, AUVs are untethered. Before each dive, technicians from the Waitt Institute programmed flight patterns for “the girls,” and then launched the robots from Jean Charcot’s stern. Once the AUVs resurfaced, the terabytes of data sealed within their hulls were downloaded and run through computer-imaging programs that translated the sonar pings into shapes of suitcases, chairs or wine bottles.
Up to 15 years ago, mapping the wreck site was done from the ocean’s surface. An underwater camera would be dropped to the bottom and, once retrieved, the film developed, with the black-and-white photographs cut and taped together to create a mosaic, often using a particular object – one of the Titanic’s boilers, for instance – to help estimate a sense of scale. Delgado compares it to “driving around in a car and trying to map a neighbourhood in a blinding rainstorm while all the lights are out in the city and only your headlights pick out what you’re seeing.”
Despite the technology now at the disposal of Expedition Titanic’s members, some factors remain beyond their control. Less than a week into the mission, Hurricane Earl begins to churn toward the team. Staff are rushing to finish as many mission objectives as possible before heading back to St. John’s, when the ROV’s fibre-optic tether becomes entangled on the Titanic’s jagged hull. For Delgado, Lange and the others, minutes feel like hours as the robot’s pilot uses a joystick to unthread the tether. One wrong move will send the $3 million ROV to the sea floor, with no hope of retrieving it.
“You’re under a lot of pressure because it’s not cheap to be out at sea,” says Dave Gallo, expedition leader and director of special projects at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “But it’s always safety first.” A floating industrial environment carries more risks than a land-based one; after all, says Gallo, “It’s not like the ocean stands still for you.”
Deck crew wear life jackets, hard hats and steel-toed boots, and they make sure all non-essential personnel remain inside. If a cable hoisting heavy equipment snaps, it could slice a person in two. Ships that travel these waters have to expect the unexpected.
After a nerve-wracking hour, the pilot frees the ROV, which is slowly winched onto the deck. The research vessel can finally begin its 36-hour trip back to the safety of shore.
Expedition Titanic wrapped up three weeks later on September 21, 2010. Despite the challenges it had encountered, the mission was deemed a success. Not only did every person and piece of equipment make it home, the team also brought back thousands of detailed images of the wreck. The next step is to compile the data into a complete archeological site map, a massive undertaking that will take years to finish. Delgado, who is responsible for the map, compares it to a large-scale CSI mission. “We’re plotting the scatter of tens of thousands of pieces. We will know where everything lies on the seabed, and where on the ship it might have come from.” In this way, Delgado and his colleagues hope to reverse-engineer the fragments into a three-dimensional floating ship.
Raising the wreck virtually will be one of the mission’s many breakthroughs. Until now reports have conflicted on how quickly the ship is being eaten by bacteria. But thanks to the expedition, says Lange, “historians and policy makers will be able to find better ways to protect and conserve the site.”
As he prepares for the 100th anniversary of the Titanic, Delgado continues to be awed by the images he’s been studying. “No matter how objective a scientist you are, you have a very clear sense that this is a site where something tragic happened.”