Down, Down to the Titanic

Author: Michael Manyak. M.D., '73

In the event of an underseas accident in our submersible, we were told, a small leak at the depth at which the Titanic lies would shoot a stream so intense it would cut a person in half. But don’t worry, we were counseled. Before that could happen the capsule would implode with such force that our bodies would instantly incinerate before being crushed. Our fireproof jumpsuits were merely to allow identification of our charred remains.

Two summers ago I was asked to provide medical services for a salvage expedition to the wreck site of the RMS Titanic in the North Atlantic. In return I would receive a two-week ringside seat at the salvage operation, with the potential to visit the Titanic in the deep submersible. The invitation was irresistible. Since its discovery by noted marine geologist Robert Ballard in 1985, fewer than 100 people have viewed the Titanic shipwreck firsthand. On August 17, 2000, I became one of that select number.

Ninety years after its sinking, on April 15, 1912, the Titanic continues to be an object of public fascination. The 883-foot ocean liner went down in frigid waters within three hours of colliding with an iceberg 360 miles southeast of Saint John’s, Newfoundland, with a loss of 1,523 passengers and crew. The stern separated from the bow as it sank, strewing debris along 600 meters of the ocean floor two miles beneath the surface.

The base of operations for the salvage expedition was the AM Keldysh, which at 425 feet is said to be the largest research vessel in the world. The Russian ship served as the operating platform for the MIR submersible vehicles used for exploration and recovery. The Keldysh contained several laboratories and housed 40 scientists of varying disciplines plus curators from the United States who identified and categorized Titanic artifacts. Two other ships were part of the operation: the SV Explorer, a 150-foot salvage vessel out of London, and the MV Intervention, which housed two remotely operated vehicles used to recover artifacts identified by the manned MIR submersibles.

On the eve of my dive I attended a briefing with the MIR pilot and co-pilot to go over responsibilities of the three-man crew and review objectives of our 12-hour mission.

After the rather unsettling details about being crushed at such deep levels, I was pleased to learn that Evgeny Cherniev, the most experienced Russian sub pilot, was to be at the helm for my descent. He spoke English well, and I learned he had three children about the same age as my own. Knowing he had a family that he wanted to return to relieved some of my anxiety.

Nonetheless, I slept fitfully the night before the dive. I felt the same excited anticipation I do before performing a complicated major surgery and followed my habit of reviewing and re-reviewing the checklist of responsibilities. I didn’t need a wake-up call the next morning.

After breakfast my colleagues and I assembled on deck in our jumpsuits and received last-minute instructions. As we entered the sub’s hatch, we each gave the obligatory thumbs up for the photographers and settled into our cramped quarters. Since the MIR is pressurized with pure oxygen, we removed our deck shoes and passed them outside to eliminate the possibility of a flammable or corrosive residue contaminating the sub interior.

Each of us had an 8-inch thick acrylic porthole to observe the activity outside the sub’s one-and-a-half inch reinforced titanium hull. Inside the cramped cabin the temperature was a steamy 85 degrees. In two hours, however, at the ocean’s bottom, it would drop 50 degrees. In our jumpsuits and layers of clothing, we worked up a sweat merely sitting in the capsule, waiting to be hoisted from the deck into the ocean.

Sub deployment takes extensive coordination between the crane operator and crew. A cable was attached to the top of the submersible, which then was carefully guided from its protective berth on deck and gently lowered into the water. The crane whined as it strained to lift us off the deck. Whispering in the background was the constant hiss of the oxygen equipment and the scrubbers used to maintain exhaled carbon dioxide at a safe level. Once we were in the roiling water, a crew member jumped onto the sub. He disconnected the heavy top cable and attached a smaller one to the nose of the sub, which was towed 500 meters before descent.

During the short tow from the mother ship, we rocked moderately back and forth as the pilot tested his controls. Outside, the sailor rode the sub like a water skier. Without warning, he jumped off, and we were underwater. For the next two-and-one-half hours we plunged downward in a slow spiral at a rate of 25 meters (about 27 yards) per minute. Light sources, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, communications and other critical functions were tested every 500 meters.

Visibility was surprisingly good for the first 150 meters, but we saw no aquatic life. The water was opaque below a few hundred feet but became surprisingly clear when the lights were switched on. From that point throughout our slow, twirling descent we saw an amazing spectrum of marine life. Everything from tiny unidentified creatures paddling frantically to bright red shrimp and intricate jel1lyfish, one with a bright red internal globe like a Christmas ornament. The large aptly named rattail fish proved to be quite inquisitive. Several lobster species ranged in color from bright red to opalescent. Ghostly starfish and various coelenterates were everywhere.

At about 500 meters below the surface, the cabin temperature cooled to a comfortable level and condensation began to form on the hull interior. Later, as we worked on the archaeological registration of artifacts, condensation drip would become a major annoyance. Frequent sonar checks verified that we were on course to land 1,000 meters from the Titanic.

Finally, our lights illuminated the white sand of the ocean floor. It was dead calm. Sporadic coral species did not waver until the mild turbulence from the sub displaced them. As we followed our heading toward the wreckage, we began to see Titanic debris, including large pieces of machinery.

Suddenly, there it was: the gigantic ghostly bow of the Titanic, looking exactly as you have seen it on documentaries and in Hollywood films. The sight was more awesome than I had imagined. Slowly, we cruised along the bow, passing Captain James Smith’s berth with his porcelain bathtub still intact.

We hovered over the gaping hole, prevented from entering by a last-minute court order resulting from the then-unresolved dispute over ownership of the artifacts. That didn’t upset me, because I knew the most likely source of technical troubles or damage to the sub would be in those confined spaces. We inspected the large rift in the midship area where the rupture occurred that separated the stern from the bow. Ninety years later what appears to be damage from the iceberg still is apparent on the hull.

After cruising above the ship we moved on to the large debris field that surrounds the stern, which is located 600 meters from the bow. The ocean floor here is littered with evidence of the tragedy: dishes with the White Star Line logo, pieces of furniture, personal items, chandeliers, portholes, candelabra. The occasional suitcase is a treasure trove because the tanning process of the leather preserved many otherwise perishable items. The organisms that usually metabolize cloth, paper and other perishables do not like the chemicals used in the tanning process.

One such suitcase we had seen topside contained the suits, shoes, jeweler’s loop, penknife and other personal items of one William Allen, who did not survive the trip. It was poignant to see his engraved lighter, his London omnibus tickets and the toy pistol he had carried as a gift for his son.

Our eeriest experience was seeing a man’s derby on the ocean floor. We were able to retrieve it with the robotic arm. What appeared to be a large cannister turned out to be a tea service. Of the 17 artifacts we recovered during our dive, the most significant was the telegraph that connected the engine room to the bridge. This contained the lever that would have been pushed on the bridge to change course and speed when the iceberg was sighted. Nowhere, however, did we or any of the other dive missions discover human remains, dispelling the myth that biological material is still present on site.

No opponent of salvage could criticize the care taken in our artifact recovery. The location of each item was carefully logged in three dimensions at discovery, videotaped in situ, and submitted for identification and preservation by the curator and chief marine archaeologist upon return to the Keldysh.

Among the 853 artifacts recovered during the entire expedition were the captain’s wheel, which Captain Smith is said to have held onto while going down with the ship, the base of the cherub statue from the grand staircase and the watertight seal of the door that, had it been able to be closed, would have prevented the ship from sinking before the Carpathia came to the rescue.

At one point Cherniev allowed me to pilot the submersible on the ocean floor and use the robotic arms to retrieve an artifact and place it in our recovery basket. The tactile experience reminded me of the laproscopic surgery that I have performed.

After six hours on the ocean floor we reluctantly began the process for ascent. As we were about to begin our journey to the surface, Cherniev had a surprise. He produced a picnic basket replete with sandwiches and a good champagne, which we consumed with gusto.

I had been totally fascinated by the dive experience, but now certain needs reasserted themselves. Portable urinals are available on the sub, but the pilots never seem to use them. Later, I discovered the reason: They have a standing bet whereby any pilot who succumbs to the temptation must contribute a bottle of scotch to be consumed by the others. Although I cannot professionally condone such a practice, the constraints of the sub interior make me sympathetic. Nearly three hours after beginning our ascent we were gratified to hear the voice from the bridge of the Keldysh signaling that we were near the surface.

As the MIR bobbed in the swells of the North Atlantic I thought this must be how the astronauts felt as they awaited recovery in their space capsule after splashdown. Soon we were towed back to the mother ship and hoisted on deck. We were giddy with exaltation as we clambered out the hatch to the cheers of the crew. Now, when I think back, some of the exhilaration returns. And I am grateful.

Michael Manyak is the chair of the Department of Urologic Surgical Oncology at the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., a director of Adventurecare, Inc., which provides medical services in remote locations, and a director of The Explorers Club, an international professional society dedicated to the advancement of scientific exploration and field research.