In 1997, James Cameron’s epic love story Titanic became the highest-grossing film in history, and millions of viewers found themselves caught up in the tale of the world’s most famous maritime disaster. Thanks to the success of Cameron’s film, there are very few people who don’t know the story of how the supposedly unsinkable passenger liner disappeared beneath the waves of the North Atlantic after colliding with an iceberg late at night on April 14th, 1912. At the time, the sinking of the Titanic was one of the greatest human tragedies in modern history, although it was soon to be eclipsed by World War I. There were 2,224 souls aboard the Titanic on its fateful maiden voyage, of these, over 1,500 perished when the ship went down in the early hours of April 15th. The Titanic sank over 12,500 feet (3,800m) before eventually coming to rest in two parts on the ocean floor, and there it remained undisturbed for another 73 years. While the Titanic tragedy has been immortalized on the silver screen, far less is known about the race to rediscover the liner thereafter, a race that began almost as soon as the ship went down.
Two major obstacles defined the search for the wreckage: first, the Titanic’s final distress call gave an inaccurate estimate of its position, and as such its exact whereabouts were something of a mystery. The second obstacle was the depth of the water in which it came to rest. As divers, we are better acquainted than most with the effects of pressure at depth, and the Titanic’s location on the bottom of the Atlantic features a surrounding pressure of 6,000 psi/410 bar. Those who hoped to rediscover the Titanic would therefore need first to pinpoint the wreck site, and then to find a way to venture into one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. The first attempt to find Titanic was launched in the days immediately following the disaster by the families of those wealthy passengers who went down with the ship, including the Guggenheims and the Astors. They hired a wrecking company to locate and raise the Titanic, but efforts were soon abandoned when it became clear that there was no way of using human divers to find the wreckage. Over the next two years, several alternative plans were suggested for recovering both the ship and the bodies of its passengers, and although inventive, none were especially practical. These ideas including using electromagnets attached via winches to a fleet of ships on the surface to raise the wreck, or attaching balloons to the ship’s hull to achieve the same goal. Neither of these ideas progressed beyond the planning stage, due to cost and the fact that the precise location of the Titanic remained unknown.
Shortly thereafter, history intervened to put the attempts to rediscover the Titanic on hold. The Great Depression followed closely on the heels of the World War I, and for several decades the world had neither the manpower nor the money to continue the search. It was not until after the end of World War II that humanity had the time to focus once more upon the lost “Ship of Dreams.” In 1953, Southampton salvage company Risdon Beazley Ltd. revived the race to rediscover the Titanic, with an expedition that ultimately failed to locate the wreck’s whereabouts. By the 1970s, Titanic fever was truly rekindled, and yet, the schemes put forward for finding the ship were no less harebrained than they had been six decades before. Two of the more fantastical suggestions included injecting the Titanic with molten wax, which would cause it to float towards the surface and freezing the water around the wreck using liquid nitrogen, effectively turning it into a positively buoyant synthetic iceberg. While the latter proposal would certainly have been ironic, it would have required half a million tons of liquid nitrogen, assuming that the wreck could even be found in the first place. The first realistic attempt to find the Titanic came in 1977, when Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution used a deep-sea salvage vessel named Seaprobe to look for the wreck. Seaprobe used sonar equipment and cameras attached to the end of a drilling pipe to survey the ocean floor for telltale anomalies, but unfortunately, Ballard was forced to conclude his expedition when the drill pipe broke, sending his equipment spiraling into the depths.
In the early 1980s, wealthy Texan Jack Grimm sponsored a series of expeditions to find the Titanic using two separate sonar devices. The expeditions were all haunted by bad weather, and although the sonar devices detected 14 possible wreck sites on the seabed, each one proved upon closer inspection to be of natural origin. Despite this, Grimm maintained that he had found the Titanic’s propeller, and at the end of his second expedition he claimed that the ship had finally been rediscovered. However, no proof of the propeller was ever produced, and Grimm’s claims were never validated. Meanwhile, Robert Ballard had not yet relinquished his dream of finding the Titanic, and spent the early 80s developing a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that could be towed behind an expedition ship while taking sonar and photographic images. This ROV, named Argo, was equipped with its own robot, Jason, which could capture close-up images that could be viewed from the tow ship in real time. These two innovative ROVs were hugely expensive, so Ballard accepted sponsorship from the U.S. Navy to facilitate production. In return, Ballard used his machines on naval missions to map the wrecks of military vessels in the North Atlantic, with the understanding that he would be given time to look for the Titanic simultaneously. In 1985, Ballard used the Argo to assist with the mapping of the navy submarine, USS Scorpion; afterwards, he embarked upon an expedition in conjunction with a French national oceanographic agency named IFREMER to search once more for the Titanic.
Having realized that previous attempts to find the wreck using sonar had all been unsuccessful, Ballard made two crucial changes to his search tactics. Instead of attempting to find the Titanic itself, the expedition would focus on picking up the debris field created when the ship sank, consisting of scattered items from the ship, ranging from parts of its splintered superstructure to the personal effects of its stricken passengers. Most importantly, this field would span an area measuring over 1 mile (1.5km) in length, whereas the Titanic offered a target just 90 feet (27m) wide. The second change Ballard made was to use camera footage rather than sonar to find the debris. The Argo was put to work traversing the area in which Ballard believed the ship to have gone down, all the time relaying a stream of images that the crew could scan for signs of human debris. Just after midnight on September 1st, 1985, Ballard’s theory paid off, as debris began to appear on the topside screens. The team followed the trail of wreckage until eventually, the unmistakable shape of the Titanic itself appeared in the Argo’s headlights. Incredibly, after 73 years of searching, the final resting place of the world’s most famous ship had been discovered, 13 miles (21km) from the position cited in its last distress call. It was found in two parts, the twisted hulk of its stern lying 0.3 miles (0.6 km) from its surprisingly intact bow section.
Since its resurrection in 1985, the Titanic has been visited many more times. In 1986, Ballard and his team returned to its silent decks, this time in person, via the deep-diving submersible DSV Alvin. Over the years, independent salvage companies have controversially stripped the Titanic of countless artifacts, including a section of the outer hull that was raised from the deep in 1998 and which is now on display in a Las Vegas hotel. In 1995, James Cameron made 12 separate dives to the Titanic to obtain footage that would eventually be used in his 1997 blockbuster. Entranced by its ghostly beauty, Cameron made several further trips to the wreck until announcing, in 2005, that he no longer had the heart, on account of its severe deterioration since his first trip in 1995. For a time, the Titanic was an extreme holiday destination for wealthy tourists, who could purchase a glimpse of the famous wreck for the tidy sum of $59,000 per person. In 2001, an American couple even tied the knot aboard a submersible perched on the ship’s bow, in a reenactment of the fictional Titanic love story immortalized by Cameron. After a series of final voyages to mark the centenary of the liner’s sinking in April 2012, it was announced that tourists would no longer be permitted to visit the Titanic, in an effort to slow its deterioration. By then, 140 individuals, some of whom were directly related to members of the ship’s passengers and crew, had visited its final resting place.
After years of searching for the Titanic, it is now accepted that it will never again see the light of day. The ravages of a century spent at the bottom of the ocean have compounded the damage caused by its initial sinking, and the wreck is far too fragile to survive being raised from the depths. Instead, it will remain at peace, alone with its ghosts in a watery grave, two miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.