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Remains of the RMS Titanic Discovered

Remains of the RMS Titanic Discovered

Overview

In 1985 a joint French and American team found the submerged wreckage of the Titanic, the famed luxury liner that struck an iceberg and sank on April 14, 1912. More than 1,500 passengers and crew perished in the wreck. Using a revolutionary sonar vehicle system and a submersible camera-outfitted robot called Argo during the expedition, representatives of the U.S. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the French Research Institute for the Exploration of the Sea (INFREMER) located the remains of the Titanic on September 1, 1985, after a 56-day search. The Titanic rested some 2.5 miles (4 km) beneath the ocean surface and about 350 miles (563 km) from the coast of Nova Scotia in the North Atlantic. Return trips have yielded ghostly images of rust-encrusted wreckage along with information about that starry night in 1912 when the vessel sank.

Background

Oh, they built the ship Titanic to sail the ocean blue. / They thought they had a ship that the water would never go through, / But the good Lord raised his hand, and said the ship would never land. / It was sad when the great ship went down.

The words and tune to this childhood song vary slightly from place to place, but the story remains the same: The supposedly unsinkable R.M.S. (Royal Mail Ship) Titanic slipped beneath the sea, and hundreds of people on board died in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean on April 14, 1912.

The luxury liner set out on its maiden voyage only five days earlier. When compared with her contemporaries, the ship was huge, nearly 883 feet in length. The voyage went smoothly until the night of April 13th. On that night, a nearby ship, the Californian, radioed that it had come upon impassable ice to the north of the Titanic's location. Following the transmission, the Californian's crew shut down the radio for a period of time.

Aboard the Titanic about 40 minutes later, the lookout realized that the ship was heading straight for an iceberg just a quarter mile ahead. The first officer ordered the engines reversed and the wheel hard to the starboard. The evasive action was too late, and the iceberg grazed the Titanic, slicing a catastrophic 300-foot-long (91 m) gash into the ship's hull. The navigator quickly radioed a distress call along with the doomed ship's position, but the message went unnoticed by the Californian's crew, whose radio was still turned off.

After midnight, the orders were given to abandon ship. Lax safety regulations allowed the Titanic to carry only enough lifeboats for about half of the passengers, and in the confusion many were launched before they were completely filled. Some of the crew went below to try to load additional passengers onto lowering lifeboats from openings on the sides of the ship. Still, many lifeboats floated away from the Titanic at less than full capacity. Although the Titanic had some 2,200 passengers and crew on board, its 20 lifeboats and rafts only carried 705 of them. Those 705 were the only survivors.

While the lifeboats were boarding and launching, the Titanic shot signal rockets into the air. Although some of the Californian's crew saw them and reportedly passed along the sightings to the ship's captain, the Californian never responded to this plea for help.

At 2:20 a.m., the mighty Titanic sank. The lifeboats floated for another two hours before another liner, the Carpathia, arrived at the scene. The Carpathia, which had heard the Titanic's first radio distress call, pulled the Titanic's survivors to safety. In the end, more than 1,500 passengers and crew had died, and only about 300 bodies were recovered.

The tragedy and drama of the historical shipwreck caught the attention of Robert D. Ballard, a marine geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and head of its Deep Submergence Laboratory. He spent 13 years searching for the shipwreck before finding the Titanic during a joint expedition with INFREMER in 1985. Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel of INFREMER were the chief scientists of the expedition.

The scientists had a difficult time finding the Titanic for several reasons. The exact location of the Titanic was unknown. When the Carpathia began picking up survivors, the Titanic had already sunk and the lifeboats had likely floated a considerable distance from the shipwreck site. In addition, the sea in the area was more than two miles (3.2 km) deep, making impossible anything but dives with highly advanced equipment that could survive the great pressures of the depths.

In 1985 the American component of the joint expedition embarked aboard the U.S. Navy research vessel Knorr to scan a 150-square-mile (389 sq km) area in the north Atlantic Ocean for the shipwreck. The French team, which had arrived earlier, was aboard another research vessel, the Le Suroit. Combined, the crew used both sonar devices and remote TV cameras to view the ocean floor. Crew members aboard the Knorr rotated turns watching the images relayed from the cameras. Fifty-six days into the expedition—at 1 a.m. on September 1, 1985—the crew member watching the images stopped and said, "Wreckage," followed a second later by shouting, "Bingo!" The crew on watch erupted in cheers.

Impact

Both the search for the Titanic and its findings have important ramifications. They have demonstrated advancements in undersea exploration, while shining some light on the final moments of the Titanic.

The joint expedition had several key components. One was the Argo, a robot search vehicle that contained cameras, sonar devices, timing systems and other electronic equipment. The expedition was actually a testing ground for the Argo, which was developed in Ballard's lab. The Navy was supporting the work on Argo as a tool to find lost submarines and to perform deep-sea intelligence missions. On the Titanic expedition, however, Argo's primary duty was to locate the shipwreck. The Argo, towed by the Knorr, skimmed the ocean floor, taking pictures, collecting data, and sending specimens up to the Knorr. On the surface, scientists watched and waited. It was the Argo that transmitted the first images of the Titanic.

The French team relied mostly on SAR, a sonar search vehicle that on every pass scanned a swath of ocean floor a half-mile (0.8 km) wide. As it turned out, the SAR had come within 900 feet (274 m) of the Titanic before the French ship left the expedition in early August, a month before the Titanic was discovered.

Following the discovery of the ocean liner's resting place, the joint U.S.-French team launched a remote camera capable of taking high-resolution, still photographs. Those photographs provided detailed images of the socalled debris field, which held the remains of the Titanic. The photographs showed torn and twisted pieces of the ship alongside scattered anchor chains, plates, and possibly intact bottles of wine.

Nearly a year after the discovery of the Titanic, Ballard returned to the shipwreck site. This time he brought Alvin, a manned, deep-sea submersible. Alvin includes a titanium crew compartment that is 7 feet (2.13 m) in diameter, and can hold up to three people and a variety of equipment. Ballard also brought the much smaller Jason Jr., a robot submarine developed in his lab for the Navy. Unlike the Argo, Alvin and Jason Jr. are physically unconnected from the "mother ship" at the surface. Jason Jr. is an unmanned vehicle controlled by a scientist aboard Alvin. Jason Jr. can travel up to 200 feet (61 m) from the Alvin during operation. While scientists could get close to the Titanic in Alvin, the shipwreck's wires, railings, and other obstacles made those types of ventures dangerous. Jason Jr., however, was small enough to negotiate around the obstacles and even enter the ship, and its single camera could relay pictures directly to the scientist controlling it.

During the Alvin and Jason Jr. missions, both experienced problems and taught the scientists more about deep-sea research. Alvin took its first trip to the Titanic without Jason Jr. After a 2.5-hour free fall through the water to the ocean floor—the free-fall descent saves energy for sea-bottom travel—Alvin's batteries developed leaks and its sonar failed. The Alvin's crew brought the submersible back to the surface for a night of repairs. The following day, Alvin worked and the deep-sea mission went smoothly until the final ascent to the ship. Attached to Alvin during the ascent, Jason Jr. came loose at the ocean surface, and divers had to jump in and save the little robot, which was no longer under Alvin's control. Again, the scientists and technicians had to make quick repairs. Subsequent dives with Alvin and Jason Jr. were successful and provided closeup and "aerial" views of the wreckage.

Many of the photographs from these expeditions to the Titanic provided clues to the ship's demise. For instance, photographs indicate that one of the ship's four giant stacks was ripped from its foundation and fell across the bridge as the ship sank. The collapsing stack also pulled the mast backward. Survivors reported seeing multi-millionaire businessman John Jacob Astor for the last time standing approximately where the stack fell. Astor, who had purchased passage on the Titanic for himself and his new wife as part of their honeymoon, likely died there on the deck.

Other photographs of the shipwreck show that the entire debris field astern of the Titanic is filled with remnants of one area of the hull. From these photographs and other evidence, the research team concluded that the hull had been torn asunder. The photographs and data clearly show two major sections of the Titanic some 1,800 feet (549 m) apart, which supports survivor accounts that the ship split in half as it sank.

After analyzing the research team's evidence, Dr. Ballard concluded that these initial violent events at the surface were followed by a slow fall to the depths of the ocean, where the Titanic settled without much further damage. Other authorities had previously hypothesized that the Titanic underwent a 100-mile-per-hour (161 kph) collision with the sea floor.

In addition to providing insight into events on the night the Titanic sank, the expedition demonstrated that an unmanned submarine, and Jason Jr. in particular, could be a boon for deep-sea oceanographic research. Ballard believed that if control of these submarines could be extended well beyond the 200-foot (61-m) limit for Jason Jr., eventually technicians would be able to remain aboard the research vessel and control the robot vehicles from there. Dangerous manned missions to the ocean depths, then, would become obsolete. In 1995 Ballard was part of the team that discovered the underwater wreckage of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown. For that expedition, the team used a remotely operated submersible called the Advanced Tethered Vehicle to reach the wreckage on the floor of the north-central Pacific, some 16,650 feet (5,075 m) down.

In the 1990s, recovery plans led to a series of salvage missions to the Titanic. These missions were joint operations between IFREMER and R.M.S. Titanic Inc., which "owns" the wreck.

LESLIE A. MERTZ

Further Reading

Books

Ballard, Robert. The Discovery of the Titanic. New York: Warner Books, 1987.

Carter, J., and J. Hirschhorn. Titanic Adventure. New Jersey: New Horizon Press, 1999.

Periodical Articles

Ballard, Robert. "A Long Last Look at Titanic." NationalGeographic 170 (December 1986): 697-727.

Ballard, Robert. "How We Found the Titanic." NationalGeographic 168 (December 1985): 696-719.

Cook, William J. "Beneath the Waves, Traces of World War II." U.S. News & World Report (15 June 1998): 26.

Holden, C. "Americans and French Find the Titanic." Science (27 September 1985): 1368-9.

Kentley, Eric. "Diving to the Wreck." USA Today 123 (March 1995): 67.

Wilson-Smith, Anthony. "That Sinking Feeling." Maclean's (9 September 1996): 16-7.

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