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Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Personal Story of Diving to the Titanic Wreck Site

Charles Haas is the world’s foremost authority on the Titanic. He has written five books on the subject and is the co-founder of the Titanic International Society. In 1994 he co-authored the best-selling book “Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy” with Jack Eaton. It is considered the most complete text ever written about The titanic.
On two occasions he has had an opportunity to participate as an observer on dives to the wreckage of the ship, lying 12,600 feet below the surface. The trips were aboard the submersible “Nautile” operated by the French Institute of Research for the Exploartion of the Sea in conjunction with several of the Titanic expeditions between 1987 and 2004. The story that follows was written by Charles. It gives us a first hand account of the mystery and beauty of diving to the bottom of the sea and exploring the remains of the Titanic. 
 “Inside Nautile there is a feeling of movement as the craft is lifted perhaps 20 feet by the crane and lowered into the sea; then there is a rolling motion as the waves pitch around in a somewhat circular fashion. There is a sensation of the sea ‘taking command’, although this probably passes with experience. The pilot, seated upright, radios final checks to the mother ship as co-pilot and observer lie on their stomachs looking through the 4 inch heavy Plexiglas viewports.
“After a muffled conference via radio with Nadir (the mother ship) that all appears in order, there is a new feeling, one of stability, as the submersible descends beneath the waves’ reach on its downward journey. The water’s surface slips past the portholes; the water becomes a bright blue-green streaked with yellow, which quickly vanishes as color changes from emerald to forest green to deepest blue. Then there is only a hint of color, grey, perhaps. At 30 feet the waves’ motion ceases. At 300 feet it is pitch black outside. It is dark inside the cabin’s cramped confines, too, to conserve battery power and minimize physical encounters with large denizens of the deep.
“The rate of descent is about 100 feet a minute but there is no sensation of depth or motion. One must turn to the digital fathometer to see the Nautile is moving as quickly as a skyscraper’s lift. The submersible’s inside pressure is the same as that on the surface, secured by a tightly fitting hatch whose surfaces are pushed ever closer together by the increasing depth pressure.
“For the pilot and co-pilot there is little rest during the dive’s first phase: gauges, instruments and electronic devices must be carefully and constantly checked to make certain there are no problem evolving in the vehicle’s systems. But for the observer, time passes slowly. There is no frame of reference, merely the pilot’s occasional report to the surface and quiet conversation. Interior lights are dimmed and shaded so they do not interfere with outside observations.
“The cabin develops a chill; water at Titanic’s wreck quickly cools the unheated sphere’s interior. Layers of clothing prove a godsend. Water droplets - condensed moisture from the men’s breath - begins to create a ‘private drizzle.’ By the dive’s end, more than three gallons of accumulated moisture will fill a sump under the co-pilot and observer.
“Suddenly there is a gentle hum and whatever sense of drifting might have been present ceases with the realization that Nautile’s electric motors have been turned on, sending her on a controlled course. A click, implied rather than felt, and the exterior lights are on. The observer presses against the portholes and peers out into the void.
“An off-white, sandy bottom, gently rolling as a rural landscape appearing as though covered with snow; some long, sinuous sea fauna that appear to be beckoning ‘Down . . . Down.’ The water is very clear. There are long, thin fish swimming by, their bodies totally white, their immense purple eyes apparently blind, oblivious to Nautile’s lights. A White starfish is discerned.
“Closer now, to the bottom. At an altitude of what seems to be 20 feet, the vehicle begins to move horizontally, cautiously forward, with each meter carefully watched. There is almost total disorientation as to distance, location, and time. But all the while, every move is being carefully choreographed by Nadir’s control room personnel and Nautile’s crew working in concert. Each minute, an onboard plotter electronically queries Nautile’s depth and location and marks the result on the dive chart kept for the mission.
“The sand’s peaceful look is shattered by pieces of wreckage: a large flanged pipe, chunks of twisted metal, other odds and ends, most are unrecognizable for what they were. Ahead, suddenly, the landscape seems to stop. Immediate reaction is that the submersible has reached a place where the bottom drops abruptly into a even deeper chasm. But a closer approach reveals a great black wall, stretching upward beyond sight.
“A thrilling rush of realization is confirmed by the co-pilot’s soft voice, “There’s your ship.”
“About 10 feet away from the wall we start our slow upward journey. The pilot must know this particular part of Titanic’s bow section quite well, as there are regions of the wreck where overhanging beams and other debris would endanger the submersible and her human cargo. “Up . . . Slowly upward, past demarcations of immense steel plating, rivets still firmly in place, remnants of black paint covering all, through corrosion now coats every surface heavily. Upwards, past portholes, glass still intact, some closed, some tilted upwards, until the forward well deck appears beneath our lights; for the first time we can see identifiable portions and detail of the great sunken vessel, bathed in a very pale, bluish-green glow as seawater tints Nautile’s powerful lights. Then, through the neat order of the well deck, one looks for people to populate the scene. One connects 1912 events and Titanic survivors met over the years to the passing tableau.
“The realization of utter silence is next, external, on the deck; internal in an only-now comprehending vision. Silence: complete, unbroken, final. As one continues to gaze in awe at the scene, colors change. The wreck is not a monotonous wash of monochrome: red, orange, brown, tan, grey . . . a profusion of hues and tints. The wreck is alive with color!
“But the silence prevails.
“Our pilot takes us across the well deck. Yes - there are the wenches, the bollards, the yawning hatch openings offering an incredible cutaway view through multiple decks, all heavily covered in red-orange, rust, much heavier than that photographed in 1986 and 1987.
“Robin (the Nautile’s remote camera) is dispatched down the bunker hatch and the numbers one and two cargo holds, seeking evidence of the iceberg’s damage and paths further into the ship. But the robot is blocked by a tangle of debris, broken beams and timbers, and in number one hatch, by mud. Even maneuvering the tiny vehicle through an almost irretrievable pathway through the obstructions, no opening can be found.
“Robin’s small electric propellers occasionally disturb the ever-present rust, creating a red cloud which demands cessation of all movement until visibility and safety return. Nautile remains perfectly balance over the hatch rail, poised within feet of the forward mast, now canted against the ship’s superstructure.
“Soon it’s down to the forward starboard side, to the great opening in the hull that extends from the well deck to G deck. We can look inside and see a portion of the mail sorting room and what appears to be mail sacks stacked inside. Slightly aft is the ladder leading down to No.6 boiler room. We can look inside, we can actually see part of the ship’s interior. Moving upward again and aft along the starboard edge, we approach the forward entrance and its once grand staircase. Again Robin is sent twisting and turning delicately below. There are the chandeliers, just as in the pictures, but this time it’s not a picture! Pirouetting gracefully, its yellow and black tether streaming out behind and its lights barely visible, Robin is far below. The image it is sending back appears to be C deck. If so, can that bulkhead to port be the purser’s cabin?
“This is a long dive. We have about seven hours of bottom time. Departure looms. Robin is retrieved, then locked into position. The pilot wishes to take a final flying tour of the bow section. Forward and up - the wireless cabin’s roof, with its porcelain-clad antenna insulator. Along the starboard side, where the ship’s bandsmen so valiantly played their pathway to eternity. Forward along the starboard boat deck, past the captain’s sitting room. Minutes are fleeting now. We approach the bridge, slowly and from above. Lowering ata sharp angle we pass over the portion of the deckhouse where first officer Murdoch must have stood when he picked up the telephone and heard the fateful words, ‘Iceberg right ahead.’
“Still at an angle, we approach the pedestal of the ship’s wheel, so close that we seem separated from it by only the thickness of the port’s Plexiglass. How that wheel must have spun ‘hard-a-starboard’ under Quartermaster Hichen’s hands as Murdoch vainly tried to hard-a-port around the approaching berg. Nautile’s pilot holds Titanic’s wheel in tight view in what seems to be respect, almost reverence. Then, slowly upward, the wheel fades from view. One last sweep around the forward well deck at a 30 or 40 foot altitude, as though in salute. Then, away! Up! Up!
Currently, Charles is lecturing on the 100th Anniversary Titanic Memorial Cruise aboard the MS Balmoral. This weekend, April 14th and 15th, he will be at the site where the great ship went down.

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