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Underwater frontiers still beckon

The Expedition Titanic crew pulled into port in Newfoundland today, ending their North Atlantic adventure earlier than planned. But this isn't the final chapter of the historic shipwreck's saga.

For one thing, there are mountains of data to go through — including HD video of the site in 3-D as well as sonar readings gathered by high-tech vehicles operating two and a half miles beneath the surface of the North Atlantic. The main aim of Expedition Titanic is to create the most comprehensive maps and visual record where the ship tragically came to rest 98 years ago. The Titanic was considered "unsinkable," but it struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and went down, taking 1,517 victims with it.

The RV Jean Charcot had to leave the site late Wednesday due to the approach of Hurricane Igor, a monstrous storm stretching across 1,000 miles of the Atlantic. But researchers say they were able to get what they came for despite the forced early exit.

"We certainly have all the data we talked about — the clues to what happened to the Titanic," Dave Gallo, expedition co-leader and a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, says in a video clip sent back from the ship. "What story can we tell from what we've seen? Are we going to change the story that exists, or are we going to come up with a new story? We haven't had the time — we've been collecting the data — to go back and look at it. ... Now we need to go back and start to look at all these things."

One of the tales to untangle has to do with the Titanic's largely intact bow, which has become the wreck's signature image. Why does the front of the ship seem to be in such good shape? Did the bow plow into the ocean bottom directly, or did a different area of the ship take the brunt of the impact, allowing the bow to settle in more gently?

The detailed imagery is likely to help researchers refine their models for the Titanic's breakup and descent. P.H. Nargeolet, expedition co-leader and director of underwater research for RMS Titanic Inc., talks about what is known and still not known in the must-see video displayed above. He also says time is running out. Corrosion in the form of "rusticles" is clearly taking its toll on some key sections of the shipwreck, but not so much on others.

"In a few years, all the deck will collapse. That's for sure," Nargeolet says. "There's no question about that. The hull itself will be here for a long time."

Gallo says the Titanic's impermanence makes this expedition critically important. "The techniques that we're using here can be applied to other shipwrecks, if we find other wrecks," he says. "But in terms of protection of this site, it's invaluable. How do you protect something if you don't know what's here?"

Here's another first-run video that features highlights from the bow section. Pay particularly close attention to these artifacts:

  • 00:00: The camera looks down at a cargo crane that is still largely intact.
  • 00:30: A space heater, especially designed for use in the Titanic's best suites, lies out of place where third-class passengers exercised and took the sea air.
  • 00:45: A door marks the entrance to third-class accommodations, not far from the crew's mess hall.
  • 00:55: The Titanic's chains look as strong as they were 98 years ago.
  • 01:10: One of the ship's anchors is encrusted with rusticles.
  • 01:25: Sections of the hull are torn apart.

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Will this be the last visit to the Titanic? Not on your life. Deep Ocean Expeditions is touting a 2011 trip that features visits to the site in Russian submersibles for $40,000 per person ($5,000 if you just want to stay on the ship). The next year marks the centennial of the Titanic's sinking, and cruise packages are already being set up for the 100th anniversary. The 2012 cruises will include topside memorial services and perhaps even virtual visits to the underwater site itself, thanks to remotely operated vehicles.

But you won't have to sail to the North Atlantic to get in on the Titanic treatment in 2012. James Cameron, the film director who turned the tragedy into an Oscar-winning movies, has said that "Titanic" will be re-released in 3-D just in time for the centennial. That's old hat for Cameron: He pioneered 3-D moviemaking techniques back in 2003 for his Titanic documentary, "Ghosts of the Abyss," and turned 3-D into box-office gold in "Avatar."

The Titanic shipwreck site isn't the only underwater frontier that's in Cameron's sights. This week Australia's NewsCore reported that the director was commissioning the construction of a deep-sea submersible to take him down the planet's deepest ocean trench, Challenger Deep. The idea would be to capture footage for use in his "Avatar" sequel, which is set in an alien world's ocean, or perhaps in two other deep-sea movies that Cameron has in mind.

Cameron said that the submersible was "about half-completed," and that he planned to begin preparations for the dive sometime this year. "Avatar 2" is expected to come out in 2014.

More on the Titanic and 3-D views:

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