It’s 100 years this month since the Titanic hit that deadly iceberg. If you have £40,000 or so to spare you might hitch a ride down to see the wreck – failing that, Titanic veteran RORY GOLDEN is equipped to provide the ultimate Wreck Tour. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
IN THE SUMMER OF 2000 an international discovery and salvage expedition headed for the site of RMS Titanic in the North Atlantic. RMS Titanic Inc, salvor-in-possession of the wreck, had chartered the world’s biggest scientific research vessel, Akademik Mstislav Keldysh, from Russia’s PP Shirshov Institute of Oceanology.
Keldysh is the mothership to MIR 1 and MIR 2, two of the world’s deepest-diving submersibles. Each has an operating depth of 6000m, and with their help Expedition Titanic 2000 retrieved almost 800 historic artefacts from the wreck site.
I run Flagship Scubadiving of Dublin, and my job on this occasion was to supervise dive-safety operations. This multi-faceted role included overseeing the safe retrieval of artefacts from recovery baskets and from the submersibles.
Before the expedition, I had been given a memorial plaque by Michael Martin, creator of the Titanic Trail in Cobh, in Ireland. Cobh was Titanic’s last port of call, and I had been asked to place the plaque on the bridge in memory of those who died in 1912.
When I descended to Titanic on 12 August, I became the first Irish diver to do so. My companion on that dive was the late Ralph White, my friend of 20 years.
He was logging his 30th dive to the site. Ralph was a veteran of 13 Titanic expeditions, from the one that discovered the wreck in 1985 right through to the most recent in 2005.
Towards the end of our 2000 dive, we had spotted the remains of the ship’s wheel protruding from a pile of debris on the officers’ deck. This was brought to the surface, a very historic find.
On the August 2005 expedition, I returned to the wreck in the company of Mike McKimm, environment correspondent for BBC Northern Ireland and cameraman, producer and director of the documentary A Journey to Remember.
DIVING THE TITANIC
11 August, 2000
Thirteen hours in a 6ft-diameter sphere.
No way to stand up or lie down properly. Condensation running down the sides, and dripping from the top. Extremes of humidity at the surface and cold on the bottom. Two and a half hours to descend and three hours to ascend. Bladder making its presence felt.
I would do it all over again.
I know that I probably never will.
5 August, 2005
How wrong I was. Almost five years to the day, I am once again climbing the ladder to MIR 2’s hatch. Removing my shoes at the top, and dropping down into the confined space, memories come flooding back.
Mike McKimm quickly joins me, followed by our pilot, Anatoly Sagalevich. The business of stowing gear, setting up cameras, pre-dive checks, lying down, standing up and taking off clothing as the heat increases soon banishes any thoughts.
Before we realise it, we are being slung up and over the side of the Keldysh. I watch as the water rises, covering the ports until we are bobbing gently just below the surface.
We start our 150-minute descent. There is no sensation of dropping to the ocean floor. The pressure inside the sub remains constant. Two indicators tell you that you are descending – the digital depth gauge and the gradually fading light outside.
Within 10 minutes it’s pitch-black outside, and all you have is the gauge.
In 15 minutes we’re at 250m. The humidity and heat is still intense. In half an hour we are at 1000m.
I am often asked how you spend your time while descending to such depths.
The reality is that the time goes quite fast, because you become so preoccupied with getting your gear sorted and looking out into the great blackness outside, seeking deep midwater signs of life.
Bioluminescent creatures of the deep drift past. But there is time to chat and think, make notes or write postcards with special stamps to mark your dive – and listen to a few tunes on the CD player. In 2000 I played Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life at this depth to mark the occasion. We still have nearly 3000m to go.
After two hours and 15 minutes, communications from the surface control burst into life. Anatoly is head of the Deep Sea manned submersible laboratory at the PP Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and co-designer of the MIR submersibles. He has been diving the MIRs for more than 20 years.
A renowned academic and author, Anatoly has a great passion for jazz, and strums a mean guitar in his leisure moments. We’ve been listening to jazz on this descent.
He starts throwing switches, turning on the outside lights, pumping ballast tanks and generally getting ready to land on the seabed. I start counting off the depth to the bottom from one of the displays: “30m, 20m, 15m…” A quick glance through the view port, and the muddy bottom comes into sight. “10m, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.” Touchdown.
It’s 145 minutes since we left the surface, and we are at 3875m. Outside pressure is 400 bar but we are still at atmospheric pressure inside. No pressure then.
“Welcome to the bottom of the ocean,” I say to Mike. “You’ve now joined a unique club.”
A sonar monitor shows the outline of the bow within viewing distance. We lift off towards the wreck, and within minutes see the shape looming through the dark.
As we rise, the great bow of the ship (1) becomes more focused on the monitors inside and through the view port. Titanic still looks majestic, despite the increasing rusticles on it.
With superb piloting, Anatoly holds the sub in position in the strong current. The starboard anchor (2) is just above the seabed, showing to what extent the ship is embedded in the mud.
We move up and over the bow, seeing the great bower anchor (3) in its well, the crane-hoist (4) above.
Moving past the bronze capstans (5), we head aft beside the anchor-chains (6), peering down into number one hold (7).
The main foremast (8) comes into view.
It toppled in the sinking, the great steam winches (9) alongside its base. I’m shocked. It has collapsed since I last saw it, buckling under its weight, the integrity of the steel gone. It’s a very sad image, a precursor of more to come.
We move towards the bridge (10) and hover over number two hold (11), its electric cranes (12) permanently folded in position like two sentinels beside it.
As we approach the bridge, I see the Cobh plaque (13) from five years ago, still looking bright under the lights.
It is just forward and to the right of the telemotor (14), all that that is left of the mechanism on the bridge. The rest was swept away, probably by the funnel stays during the sinking. This once held the ship’s wheel, the one recovered in the 2000 expedition on my first dive.
Anatoly carefully positions the sub and, after several attempts, manages to place two new plaques, one from Belfast City Council and the other from the ship’s builder Harland & Wolff, either side of the one from Cobh. It’s a symbolic moment, and a circle completed.
WE SKIRT THE STARBOARD WING bridge area (15) and pass the number one lifeboat davit (16) on the officer’s deck.
Travelling along the deck, the windows are all open (17), probably because of orders being shouted and messages relayed. This is the deck where Ralph White and I found the main ship’s wheel (18).
As we hover over the Marconi radio-room (19) there is increasing evidence of accelerated deterioration. Several holes have appeared in the roof (20), and the aperture where the skylight was (21) has grown bigger. The inside of the radio-room is becoming more exposed, and in danger of being lost under its own debris.
As we lift, a sudden surge of current catches us unawares and the sub starts to rotate. Anatoly quickly gets us back under control, but he is disorientated for a moment, and takes several minutes to relocate the wreck as he ascends out of danger. It’s a brief scary moment, but it won’t be the only one.
As we move along the boat-deck (22), the sides of the structure look as if someone has peppered them with artillery fire. Almost the entire deck alongside the gymnasium has collapsed (23).
We gingerly move over the top, passing the void that held number one funnel (24), the air intake (25) for the lifts (26), and the number two funnel void (27).
We settle over the great space that was the Grand Staircase (28).
Looking downwards, it’s difficult among the chaos to imagine the beauty that was once here. Below the boat-deck, as we move alongside A deck (29), the window screens are all falling down (30), pulling the brass window-frames with them. We hover here for a while, filming away.
Dropping down, the side of the ship looms alongside us like a great wall, the lights of the sub reflecting back from the glass in the ports (31). First-class, second-class areas, all are meaningless now in this great depth.
A few more passes and we are back over the upper section of the bow, again and again seeing vast areas of decay. Steel-eating organisms are weakening the integrity of the ship, causing the lighter sections to collapse under their own weight (32).
Where once you had to strain your head to see inside Captain Smith’s cabin and his bath, now you can look straight in at it and its fittings (33).
Moving aft, we drop lower to peer at the boilers (34) peeking out from the sheered-off section of the ship, where she broke in two at the surface. The floor levels are draped downwards (35). One of these boilers fell to the seabed in the sinking, and was the first item spotted on 1 September, 1985, when the wreck was discovered.
Travelling across the area between bow and stern, a distance of 600m, we come across debris and coal (36). This area is known as Hell’s Kitchen.
Yet, in the midst of all this chaos, we witness life. Soft fan corals, starfish, crabs and rat-tail fish flourish here.
Approaching the stern section, we see great areas of tangled steel – no recognisable form, just a jumble. The aft section is facing us.
Anatoly carefully picks his way around this area and guides MIR to the other side. The huge engines loom out of the dark, more than 10m high (37).
Titanic’s engines were the biggest steam reciprocating engines in the world. The pistons alone are 2.5m across. Moving from the first to a second one, we bump into something.
THIS IS A SCARY PLACE TO BE. When the ship split in two at the surface, the stern section plummeted into the seabed, the stern itself facing the ripped opening of the bow section.
The impact caused the decks to collapse on each other (38), and the steel deck ripped away like a can being opened, folding back on itself (39).
It’s hard to make out shapes, but the stern is recognisable (40), the last place where victims clung to the ship.
Underneath, the port and starboard propellers (41) were forced upwards by the impact, the centre propeller long buried in the mud. One of the stern cranes is visible (42), poking from the wreckage.
We have been at the bottom for nearly six hours, and move away to begin our ascent. Our last image of Titanic is of an upturned section of the hull, a water-intake grid showing (43).
Darkness takes over, and we wind down for the damp and cold journey back.
Two hours later, after 10 hours under water, we break the surface, get hoisted on board and meet the welcoming committee.
I have some great new images, yet we all realise that Titanic is in a sad state. Scientists estimate that within 20-30 years her main form will have disappeared.
The world has learnt a lot about deep ocean exploration thanks to expeditions such as these, and scientists continue to make new discoveries.
Titanic’s artefacts travel the world, giving great insight to all who see them. I have memories to last me a lifetime and can share them with many people.
Two plaques from Harland & Wolff actually went to Titanic, and one came back with us. Now on display in Belfast City Hall, it reads: “In memory of all those who lost their lives on RMS Titanic. From Harland & Wolff and the people of Belfast”.
It’s the only object from the city to join Titanic since she sailed from Belfast in April 1912, and the first artefact to be brought from the ship back to her native city.
This summer, Deep Ocean Expeditions is returning to Titanic with the MIRs. These tourist trips, costing around US $60,000 for one dive, will be the first manned trips since ours in 2005. It will be interesting to see how the world’s most famous shipwreck has fared.
Will I ever go back?
I probably will never know the answer to that. I was wrong once before.
THE NIGHT TO REMEMBER
RMS TITANIC, transatlantic liner. built 1911, SUNK 1912
CAN THERE BE ANYONE who doesn’t know what happened to RMS Titanic? This 46,000-ton ocean liner was built for the White Star line by Harland & Wolff in Belfast at a cost of £1.5 million. She was 882ft long with a 92ft beam and stood 175ft high.
Titanic was powered by two triple-expansion engines plus a turbine engine, giving a top speed of 22.5 knots. And her 16 watertight compartments were claimed to make her “practically unsinkable”. No-one seems to have considered the damage a large iceberg could do, however.
Titanic was built to carry 2500 passengers and had 860 crew. But to save deck space she had only 16 standard and four collapsible lifeboats, giving a capacity of under 1200 people.
Her maiden transatlantic voyage from Southampton, heading for New York, was big news worldwide. It started on 10 April, 1912, with a near-miss as her 23.5ft propellers sucked a smaller ship into her wake. She took on more passengers in Queenstown, Ireland.
All was going well until the liner’s Captain Edward Smith decided to ignore warnings of frozen water ahead. When an iceberg loomed south of Newfoundland shortly before midnight on 14 April, the crew were unable to turn the ship in time to avoid it. The ‘berg ripped a gash across the hull, causing the vessel to start taking on water at once, and the ensuing evacuation was chaotic.
By the time the liner Carpathia arrived, responding to a distress call, all it found were the remaining lifeboats, which the hapless captain had allowed to leave the vessel partially filled, adding further to the death toll.
Only 705 of the 2228 passengers and crew survived, Smith being one of the casualties.
GETTING THERE: Titanic lies some 380 miles south-east of the coast of Newfoundland in Canada. Deep Ocean Expeditions trips depart from St Johns from 1 July.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 41 43.55N 49 56 45W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The stern section lies some 600m from the bow, and has turned 180°, so it now faces the gap where it detached from the bow.
TIDES: Slack water is very much hit and miss, as there are multiple layers in these depths.
DIVING MIR 1 or 2. Further information from Rob McCallum, Deep Ocean Expeditions.
LAUNCHING From the starboard side of the Keldysh.
QUALIFICATIONS: The 3875m depth of the Titanic means that the MIRs are the only way that you’re going to get there. Forget it if you’re claustrophobic.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty charts, hundreds of books on the subject and about 136 million results on Google.
PROS: A rare chance to dive the world’s most famous shipwreck. Great visibility. No messing around with hooking a shot in. No deco stops. Being able to bring your Suunto computer to that depth without it getting bent.
CONS: Expect to be rather “bent” after 10 hours in the cramped conditions – though it’s all worth it.
Appeared in DIVER April 2012