French and American researchers announce they've found the wreck of the RMS Titanic on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. Jaws drop.
The most famous shipwreck of all time, the purportedly unsinkable Titanic
hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage on a cold, starry night in April 1912. The ship sank to the bottom within hours, killing more than 1,500 passengers and crew. A scant 700 or so escaped in the insufficient lifeboats.
As time passed, the glamour of the Titanic -- its roster of rich and famous First Class passengers, its luxurious decor, its speed, its vaunted bulwarks against the perils of the sea, its very hubris -- inspired countless retellings, from best-selling nonfiction books
to glossy, romantic film fictions
Treasure hunters, historians and explorers yearned to know what secrets might lie in the Titanic's wreck. The ship had sent radio distress messages, so its last known surface position was no secret. But the Atlantic is more than two miles deep in that area, and diving technology was insufficient to the task for many decades. What finally worked was a little help from their friends ... in the Navy.
The French research vessel Le Suroit, in the course of testing a new sonar system early in the summer of 1985, searched for the wreck in a 150-square-mile sea-floor search area. Aboard that cruise was Robert Ballard, leader of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
's Deep Submergence Laboratory and another Woods Hole colleague. Before turning back Aug. 6
, the sonar eliminated large swaths of ocean floor as possible locations for the Titanic.
A few weeks later, three French scientists set out from the Azores with their American counterparts aboard the Woods Hole research vessel Knorr. Looking only where Le Suroit had not, this voyage had an advantage. It also had Argo, Woods Hole's new robotic, deep-towed sonar and videocam system.
Just after 6 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time on Sept. 1, Argo spotted one of the ship's boilers and other debris about 230 miles south of Nova Scotia. The first humans to see the Titanic in more than seven decades included four Woods Hole crew members, two French scientists and a U.S. Navy officer.
The Navy, you say? What was the Navy's interest in a sunken ocean liner, however famous? You're right. The Navy was not interested in the Titanic, but it was interested in finding sunken ships.
Sunken submarines, to be specific. It was only this year that the story has surfaced. The Navy wanted to use Woods Hole's fancy new submersible equipment to locate the wrecks of two nuclear submarines that had sunk in the area, USS Thresher and USS Scorpion
. The Navy wanted to know if the Soviets had sunk the Scorpion, and the Pentagon also wanted to know if the ships' reactors were leaking any radioactive material. (If not, perhaps it would be safe, they thought, to dispose of other nuclear waste undersea.)
The probable grave of the Titanic lay between the positions where the subs had gone to the bottom. Ballard wanted funding from the Navy. The Navy wanted to check out its lost subs. It was a match made in Davy Jones' Locker.
The Navy didn't give Ballard explicit permission to search for theTitanic, but merely told him that once the sub wrecks were found and explored, he could use mission time as he saw fit.
Ballard and associates announced the find
in a ship-to-shore interview Sept. 2. They spent the last four days of the voyage shooting more video of the debris field and 35mm shots with a second towed vehicle, called Angus, or the Acoustically Navigated Geological Underwater Survey.
Ballard estimated in 2004 that 8,000 to 9,000 pieces of jewelry, porcelain, glasses and other relics had been removed by a legal salvage operation. The location of the Titanic is no longer a secret, and Ballard said submarines have bumped into it and landed on it, destroying its mainmast
and damaging large areas of the deck. He railed at the tourist subs he said both cause damage and leave litter. One American couple even held a shipwreck wedding
in a submersible perched on the Titanic's deck.
Source: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, National Geographic Society
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