Titanic and Other White Star Ships

Titanic: Discovery, Exploration, and Artifact Recovery


Dr. Robert Ballard, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Marine Biologist and discoverer of Titanic's final resting place.

photo credit: The Jason Project)

The Search

Plans to locate and even raise Titanic began almost the moment she sank. The Astor, Guggenheim and Widner families (all having lost family members; (three of the world's wealthiest "Captains of Industry" at the time) hired the Merritt-Chapman Derrick and Wrecking Company to investigate the possibilities of raising the ship in 1912. After pondering the possibilities, Merritt and Chapman subsequently informed the wealthy families that the task would be impossible due to the immense depth of more than two and one half miles.

Since that day, companies and individuals alike have devised various Titanic raising schemes ranging from filling the ship with ping pong balls for flotation, to more technical theories of encasing the ship in liquid nitrogen and creating a giant ice cube that would float to the surface. Most of these elaborate ideas were disbanded due to the immense cost involved, lack of financing, and lack of expertise and equipment.

Many of these various groups were driven by the idea of salvage and yet some just wanted to locate the site to film and document the remains. The first real limitation to these various ideas was yet to be conquered, locating the wreck site.

One expedition attempted locating Titanic in 1953 by going to her last reported foundering position and detonating explosives in order to obtain echo profiles, but the expedition was to no avail. As time and technology progressed, another expeditionary group set out in 1980 to the area with more sophisticated equipment such as sonar, and retrieved some detailed images of the ocean floor, but found no signs or clues to indicate wreckage. This was clearly becoming the proverbial "looking for a needle in a haystack."

Scholars, historians and salvage groups alike began wondering if their search areas were correct. Was the position 41.46 N, 50.14 W correct as Titanic had reported in her famous CQD/SOS calls for assistance? Was it possible that the earthquake of 1929 had buried or swallowed up the giant liner?

Just as it seemed that the search for Titanic was going to go down in history as a lost cause, two organizations in 1984 were busy making plans for a joint venture to take up the search. The well-respected French organization, Institute Francais de Recherches pour l'Exploitation des Mers, better known as IFREMER, and the equally prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, were making serious plans for a highly technical search utilizing world renowned experts in marine biology and archeology.

Flipping for the tab in this venture would be a combination of WHOI (Woods Hole Inst.), the United States Navy's Office of Naval Research using their sophisticated ARGO-Jason equipment, the National Geographic Society, and French taxpayers; since IFREMER is a public owned company.

On July 1, 1985, phase one of the project began as the French research vessel, Le Suroit headed for the intended search area. Le Suroit utilized its new side-scan sonar, capable of a 3,000 foot sweep of the ocean floor on each pass. It began its criss-cross search patterns referred to as "mowing the lawn" as soon as they arrived in the pre-designated area. Shortly thereafter they were joined by the American team led by Wood's Hole senior biologist, Dr. Robert Ballard. Ballard had brought along two remote-controlled sonar guided camera packages called ARGO and ANGUS. The first attempts were halted by severe weather, and a second attempt was made after Le Suroit returned to port for fuel and provisions. After 11 days with no success and 80% of the planned search area covered, time had run out for Le Suroit as she was needed elsewhere for another mission. Continuing the search, Ballard and his team, accompanied by several French colleagues flew to the Azores where they met the Woods Hole research vessel Knorr.

It was now August 22, and ARGO (a towable sled combination of sonar and video cameras) was lowered into a new search area two and one half miles underwater and began its series of sweep patterns. It's monitors topside aboard Knorr, were manned on a 24-hour basis.

At about 1:00 A.M. on September 1, 1985, unusual objects began to appear on the monitors as ARGO was making another one of its search sweeps. Objects that appeared to be man made, clearly wreckage. A cook was sent to the crew quarters to wake up a dozing Robert Ballard. He arrived in the control room just in time to see on the screen, a clear image of a double ended boiler, clearly evidence of debris belonging to Titanic. The ship had finally been found.

To the surprise of the expeditionary group, Titanic was sitting upright on the ocean floor facing north. Her mighty stacks were missing having been ripped away during her famous headstand on the surface. Ballard also realized from the location of her resting place that Titanic was definitely on course. Not immediately discovered, was that the ship had in fact broken in two at or near the surface as several survivors had testified seeing as Titanic slipped beneath the surface, but was later scoffed at the inquiries. The bow and stern sections were approximately 600 yards apart for each other. The bow appeared to be reasonably intact, while the stern section looked as though it had suffered a nuclear blast with its twisted mass of peeled back iron plates and smashed decks.

Subsequent ARGO passes over the site revealed a massive debris field strewn between the sections with corked wine bottles, perfectly intact silverware, glass, dining plates, coal and countless personal items belonging to passengers. Thousands of still photo's and hundreds of hours of video, documented both the ship and the debris field. Titanic had been photographed for the first time in seventy-three years.

The Explorers

Titanic had now given up her best kept secret, her location. This ultimately put the ship in danger, danger from savors and pillagers alike. Minds were already working on how to profit from Titanic's remains. One group was going to sell seats on a chartered submarine that would go to the wreck site and recover artifacts. Ballard was well aware of the potential scavenging to the site, and for that reason he refused to disclose Titanic's exact coordinates.

Artifact hunters and wreck site claimants however, would have a more difficult time with Titanic due to her depth and the necessary equipment and cost involved in reaching her. Other historic sites such as the CSS Hunley (Confederate submarine), the U.S.S. Monitor (Union Ironclad) and the recent coastal North Carolina discovery of Queen Anne's Revenge (the flagship of the pirate, Blackbeard) require twenty-four hour a day surveillance and underwater alarms to ward off potential artifact hunting divers while they await raising and restoration.

Dr. Ballard was able to justify a second visit to the site that could provide an excellent opportunity to test deep water research equipment. For various reasons, mainly financial, the IFREMER group was not able to join Ballard on this particular visit. This trip would be different. Rather than just photograph the site, the team would actually dive to the site in a three-man deep sea submersible named Alvin.


The deep sea submersible, Alvin, on it's 2-hour, 2 1/2 mile underwater decent to Titanic's resting place (photo credit: The Jason Project.)

Alvin, built in 1964, had made more than 1,700 previous dives and was specially modified to reach the necessary 13,000 feet where Titanic lay. It would carry a small tethered robot camera called Jason Jr.. Jason Jr. has its own propulsion system remotely controlled from within Alvin and is able to get into tight spots that would prove to be too dangerous for Alvin. Diving to this great a depth always carries with it a certain element of risk. Risk of implosion from the enormous outside pressure, risk of getting hung up in the wreckage, or general systems failure. Alvin is not tethered, and there are no rescue vehicles.


The remote controlled robot, Jason Jr., peers inside Titanic. (photo credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute)

On July 9, 1986, the Wood's Hole research vessel Atlantis II sailed for Titanic's resting place with the Ballard team. Upon reaching the site, transponders were placed around the ship to allow Alvin to navigate its position within feet. After a two-hour decent, Alvin reached the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean where the outside pressure is 6,500 pounds per square inch. After turning on its lights and engaging its electric motors, Alvin proceeded forward to the bow of Titanic. Ballard described the site as "a tremendous black wall of steel that seemed endless in all directions."

At risk of crashing through Titanic not knowing the integrity of her decks, Alvin gently set down on Titanic's boat deck behind the bridge, adding buoyancy into her ballast tanks to "ease off" some of Alvin's weight.


Alvin, focuses its forward lights on the crows nest still attached to Titanic's fallen forward mast. (Image credit: Ken Marschall, artist / Madison Press)

Once again, men were aboard Titanic. Never before had manned submersible wreck site exploration been conducted at this depth. The robot Jason Jr. was deployed, and sent down the remnants of Titanic's forward Grand Staircase. Photos were obtained of remaining light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, suspended by their wires. Although wood boring organisms had consumed much of Titanic's ornate woodwork, the beauty and nobility of the great liner was still evident. Several subsequent dives over the next few days were targeted to specific areas of interest to the team. A pass over the debris field revealed phenomenal amounts of passengers personal belongings, a sobering site that quickly reminded the team of the intense tragedy and loss of life that had taken place during the sinking. Fortunately, no human remains were found during the exploration as they had been long ago consumed by underwater organisms.

Due to Titanic's bow section having "bulldozed' her way over 40 feet into the sea floor at the time of her impact on the bottom, very little evidence of the damage caused by the iceberg was visible. What could be seen despite theories by 1912 experts, was not a continuous gash along the hull, but a series of punches, holes, popped rivets and bent hull plates. Enough damage obviously to allow the necessary water in to sink it.

After many dives, numerous photos, video, and leaving a memorial plaque on Titanic's deck, Atlantis II returned home on July 28 to a hero's welcome. News media from around the world greeted the ship, almost a replay of the scene that took place on April 16, 1912 with the press anxiously awaiting the arrival of Carpathia in New York City with it's pitiful group of 705 Titanic survivors. Ballard showed video and held press conferences, sparking an unbelievable renewed interest in Titanic. Ballard stated the he felt Titanic was safe from would-be salvage hunters due to it's difficult accessibility and it's fragile condition. "Titanic will protect itself" Ballard stated, "It's very fragile and any attempt to raise it would break it up."


A present day photo of Titanic's bow
(Photo credit: Imax)

The Salvage

During Ballard's visit to Titanic, a company was forming and making plans to visit Titanic itself. A Connecticut based, limited partnership that named itself "Titanic Ventures" combined with "Westgate Productions" and contracted with IFREMER for the purpose of artifact recovery. Since Ballard never officially claimed himself as "discoverer", he had no exclusive rights to the site. A Senate bill was passed in 1987 stating that no artifacts from Titanic could be imported into the U.S., a weak attempt at discouraging salvaging.

Beginning July 22, 1987, IFREMER's mother ship Nadir, successfully launched the deep sea submersible Nautile, on 32 consecutive dives to the wreck site. Using a remote controlled robot similar to Jason Jr. called Robin, Nautile recorded new photos and video never before seen.

1,800 artifacts were recovered for the purpose of preservation, which sparked a fever of controversy among both the scientific and Titanic enthusiast community. Many looked at this action as looting a grave site. Another independent expedition was preparing to take up chase and recover artifacts. Almost at the day of departure, "Titanic Ventures" took the group to court in Virginia, where a judge stopped the competing group and named "Titanic Ventures" now changing its name to "RMS Titanic Inc.," as legal salvers in possession. "RMS Titanic Inc." now had ownership and exclusive rights to the site.

Another legal claim against "RMS Titanic" came in 1994 by a British insurance company that stated it had paid out hundreds of claims against the White Star Line in 1912. The case was dismissed in court.

George Tulloch, president of "RMS Titanic Inc" claims that none of the artifacts will be sold to private interests. Although coal retrieved from the sea floor that had spilled from Titanic's coal bunkers is being sold to collectors as a means of financing further exploration of the site, according to Tulloch. Tulloch stated that Nautile's operating cost while exploring the site breaks down to five dollars per second. Titanic's artifacts have been displayed at various sites around the world drawing enormous crowds of visitors.

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