New Titanic Expedition Sets Sail Today From Boston

National Geographic Channel
May 27, 2004

Join the National Geographic
Channel and Robert Ballard, the man who found Titanic, on a
return expedition to the wreck and witness a live underwater telecast
from the watery grave, over 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) under the
Atlantic Ocean. The one-hour special Return to Titanic airs on
Monday, June 7, at 9 p.m. ET/PT only on the National Geographic

In what has been described as a "look-but-don't-touch mission," Robert Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic and professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, is returning to the famed wreck to examine how the ship has withstood the impact of natural forces and human activity in the 19 years since he found it.

The mission, funded primarily by the Washington, D.C.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will be conducted from the NOAA research vessel the Ronald H. Brown, which departs from Boston Harbor today, en route for the North Atlantic. The wreck lies 325 miles (523 kilometers) off the coast of Newfoundland.

"Our goal is to document the ship as it is today in a dimension that has never been done before," Ballard said. He compares the technology used to discover the Titanic and the technology available to map the wreck site today "almost like comparing a satellite phone and two cans and a string … it was so primitive."

Since its discovery, salvage operations, film crews, and tourists have all visited the Titanic; one couple actually got married on the bow. There have also been rumors of rogue operations that plundered and damaged the ship. What cumulative damage all this activity caused should be revealed during this expedition.

The photo mosaic of the Titanic published in National Geographic magazine in 1986 will serve as a baseline to determine how much deterioration has occurred since then. "We can see what was natural change … and what has been caused by human activities," Ballard said.

Remotely Operated Robots Will Examine Wreck

The expedition partners include NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration, the National Geographic Society, the University of Rhode Island's Institute for Archaeological Oceanography, Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration (MAIFE), and the JASON Foundation for Education.

The R.M.S. Titanic was on its maiden voyage en route from Southampton, England to New York when it hit an iceberg just before midnight on April 14th, 1912. Less than three hours later the ship sank 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) to its final resting place on April 15: Of the 2,228 passengers and crew on board, 1,523 died.

Ballard, President of the Institute for Exploration at Connecticut Mystic Aquarium and National Geographic explorer-in-residence, discovered the shipwreck at 1:05 a.m. on September 1, 1985.

On this expedition, Ballard and his colleagues will use submersible robots, named Hercules, Argus, and Little Hercules, to examine the ship. Argus and Little Hercules work together as a team. Argus is a tow sled that hangs on the end of a cable tethered to the Ronald H. Brown some 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) above.

Argus is maneuvered by cranking the cables on the ship above and by activating thrusters that allow it to aim its massive spotlights and camera on the points of interest and on its companion Little Hercules.

Little Hercules is a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). It is tethered to Argus via a 100-foot (30-meter) cable that allows the scientists onboard the ship to pilot the vehicle and operate Little Herc's high-definition video camera, as if they were sitting right next to it on the ocean floor. Little Herc's purpose is to gather high-quality images of the ship and artifacts.

Hercules is also an ROV, and armed with high-definition cameras and thrusters just like its cousin Little Herc. But Hercules is specially designed for excavation—digging and recovering artifacts. It has mechanical arms that can grab and dig as well as water jets and suction pipes to gently clear away mud and sand.

Natural Forces Eat Away at Wreck

Part of the NOAA mission will focus on deterioration due to natural causes. For instance, tiny microbes feed on the ship's iron, weakening her structure, and generating byproducts called rusticles. These formations, which are poorly understood, cling to the ship and resemble rusty icicles.

Understanding how quickly these structures form could reveal how long the Titanic will last.

Also at work are Toredo worms, actually mollusks, which have been munching away on all the ship's woodwork.

Hercules has probes and sensors to measure the water currents, temperature, and oxygen levels around the ship—these factors also alter the rates at which the ship and its many artifacts degrade.

Another purpose of this mission is to establish a set of guidelines for visiting sites like the Titanic. "We want to encourage visitation, just as we encourage people to go to the Arizona in Pearl Harbor, or go to Gettysburg," Ballard said.

"There really is only one Titanic, and as the Titanic goes, so will likely go all the rest of the world's historic shipwrecks," said Capt. Craig McLean, director of NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration. "If we can understand the best way to manage the Titanic and share that information, I think we'll be very successful."

First Virtual Underwater Museum

Ballard envisions that the Titanic site may become the first underwater museum, outfitted with lights and high-definition cameras and remotely operated robots that run on preprogrammed electronic highways, allowing even children to explore the ship in real time via the Internet from the safety of their home.

An expedition to Titanic, including a ship to take you out there and a submersible to take you down to the wreck, costs upward of about U.S. $30,000. Even then the visibility is limited to a view out of a very tiny porthole. But virtual tours are like watching football games on television, Ballard said.

"The better view's at home, because you have all those camera angles, you're got all those high-in-the-sky cameras, you're in the huddle, you hear things, you see things, you've got commentators," Ballard said. "So electronic travel and the electronic visitation of sites, I think, is going to be in many ways better than being there."

If Ballard gets his way, the Titanic underwater museum will be the first of many of these shipwreck museums around the world. After all, Titanic's story is well known, but there are countless, lesser-known wrecks that have had at least as great an impact on society.

"Who were the Phoenicians? Who were the Minoans? Who were the sea people? [of the Black Sea] We haven't been able to answer those questions based upon what we find on land, but we know [the answers are] out there," Ballard said. "We know that there are a lot of pieces of human history, chapters of human history that have been lost in the ocean but not lost forever. We can find them."

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