Experts are still analyzing their newly made 3-D maps of the Titanic shipwreck site, but they can already see that the great ship’s breakup was messier than most folks, including "Titanic" film director James Cameron, may have thought. “It wasn’t quite the way Cameron showed it in his movie,” expedition co-leader Dave Gallo observed.
In a post-expedition interview, Gallo said the fates of the 1,517 people who died in the 1912 tragedy were never far from his mind — especially when a doll’s arm turned up on the HD video from the seafloor.
Gallo and his colleagues spent weeks sailing back and forth between the research vessel Jean Charcot's port in St. John's, Newfoundland, and the North Atlantic spot where the Titanic went down. The expedition was interrupted by two hurricanes, Danielle and Igor, leading to last week's earlier-than-expected end.
Gallo, a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, said he considered this the first purely scientific mission to the Titanic since the original survey of the site in the mid-1980s. Numerous voyages have been conducted in the intervening quarter-century, but "all of those have had science as a sidebar," Gallo told me.
"The primary mission of most of those was either recovery of artifacts, by RMS Titanic, or adventure tourism, with Deep Ocean Adventures," he observed. "Sure, they all came back with exciting images, but was that science? No."
Chris Davino, president of RMS Titanic Inc., said the past month's expedition was aimed at bringing together experts in deep-sea diving and salvaging with the scientific experts from Woods Hole, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and elsewhere. "It resonated more with me when I was out there that what we did will have real implications for deep-sea exploration and wreck-site archaeology," Davino told me. "The tools that these experts brought to bear are game-changing."
The expedition's primary aim was to use robotic vehicles equipped with cameras and sonar devices to create unprecedented maps of the Titanic. The survey covereed a 3-by-5-mile area — with high-resolution, 3-D mapping of the central 1-by-1.5-mile box. "We achieved our primary objective," Davino said.
So far, the biggest surprise has to do with how spread out the debris was. Gallo said he expected to see one or two well-defined debris trails, but "the breakup was a little more complicated than that." Unlike the largely intact (and iconic) bow section, the back section of the ship was "absolutely mangled by its trip to the bottom," he said.
"It's almost like you cracked it open and spilled everything out," Gallo said. "You see pieces of the engine, boilers ... where we thought there might be one or two big things, we found five. ... When we start to piece together how Titanic actually made its way to the bottom, those pieces will be key."
The maps now being created will precisely pinpoint all those big pieces, so that future researchers (including Gallo, if he has his way) will be able to gauge how the site has changed over time. Gallo noted that the wreck was constantly pounded by deep-ocean currents that were stronger than the experts expected. "I don't know if 'sandblasted' is the word, but it's certainly being buffeted," he said.
The 3-D survey mapped huge dunes of sediment as well as giant boulders that were "more than likely carried by icebergs," Gallo said. Could one of those boulders have come from the iceberg that Titanic ran into? There's no way of knowing.
Gallo thought the survey would turn up many more personal effects than it did — but there were still ample reminders of the tragedy that occurred 98 years ago on that "night to remember." Like that porcelain arm from a child's doll, or a bowler hat sitting by itself on the seafloor.
"Just when you feel like you're lulled into this quiet world, you get this jolt from Neptune that this is also the resting place of this wonderful ship. ... At bottom, it is a gravesite," Gallo said.
RMS Titanic Inc. has exclusive rights to salvage the Titanic, and it has incorporated thousands of recovered artifacts into traveling exhibitions to turn a profit — but not without controversy along the way. During this expedition, not a single artifact was brought up, although the more than 50 hours' worth of high-definition 3-D video will no doubt be used in commercial as well as scientific applications. "Just seeing the bow in 3-D provided new perspective," Davino told me. "You literally felt as if you were walking on the deck of the ship."
Davino said he and his colleagues haven't yet decided whether or not to retrieve artifacts during future expeditions.
"I'm open-minded to the possibilities on both sides," he told me. "It has to really start with an understanding of what the wreck site holds today — what its condition is likely to be over the course of time, how best to preserve Titanic's legacy. Should it remain in its current form, a sanctuary? Certain people — other than me, people from the government and other sectors that have been opposed to salvage operations generally — suggest that it might be appropriate to target the mailroom, or some personal effects, to bring up more about the passengers, to tell more about their stories if those items are going to be otherwise lost."
What do you think? Should the Titanic be left alone, to rust away into nothingness during the years and decades to come? Or should more of its remains be gathered up, in cooperation with scientists and historians? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
More about the Titanic:
- Postings about the Titanic expedition on Cosmic Log
- Reports from NBC News' Kerry Sanders on World Blog
- Expedition Titanic website
- RMS Titanic's Facebook page, Twitter feed, Flickr site, YouTube channel
- Blog postings from the Waitt Institute