Hurricane Matthew which devastated Haiti and hit the eastern US coast bears witness that hurricane season can bring disaster to the best of plans. I am often asked to name my favorite expedition and my usual answer is “the next one”. But it is hard to top a very unique experience of some years ago when I was the medical officer for the Titanic salvage expedition. This entailed a 4 week expedition in the North Atlantic during which the submersibles you have seen in the movies were deployed to search for artifacts. Although very occasional high-priced tourist trips have visited the site, there have only been a couple of dives which retrieved artifacts.
The Titanic site is near the fishing grounds of Grand Banks, the site of the wreck of the Andrea Gail depicted in the movie The Perfect Storm. Hurricanes are relatively rare in that area but many people not involved expressed concern about another such storm….which I scoffed at. But as I waited in the quaint city of St. Johns in Newfoundland to take my 2 week turn at sea, we watched a tropical storm in the Caribbean roll up the US East Coast, waiting for it to make landfall. To the delight of the meteorologists and to my horror, it avoided land and headed right out to the North Atlantic. The seas are notoriously rough even on good days in that location with a swell that can be 10 to 15 feet, making transfer and resupply from the smaller vessels onto the large Russian marine research vessel A. M. Keldysh quite treacherous.
We had no word about the research ships for 3 days, but the Keldysh finally signaled their return to the site after going 250 miles to avoid the storm. It was only after debriefing my medical colleague that we learned how close the other smaller research vessel came to sinking. His stateroom was “upside down” and he had the now terrified scientists and crew put on life preservers and be prepared to go in the water. Fortunately, the captain came to his senses and evacuated.
This was only one of the unusual events from this expedition. We only had 5 days to dive the Titanic site with the 2 submersibles because that hurricane made an about-face and came roaring back so we had to leave. We weathered other problems as well. Five patients had medical problems, 3 of them with painful kidney stones, though none were obstructing necessitating a complicated emergency evacuation. There was an attempted suicide leaving a gap in the command structure. The 75 Russians who ran the program and research ship were consummate professionals and there were some great and very qualified individuals among the 50 expedition members, but there were also actors, investors, an unemployed rock band, and other assorted motley crew, many of whom I would not take to the deli let alone to the North Atlantic. A couple of them concealed serious medical conditions, jeopardizing their safety and the overall mission. The cook was not sober the entire time, terrifying me that he would start a fire in the galley, cut off his finger, or create an epidemic of bacterial diarrhea. On the return to Canada with the artifacts, the engines suddenly stopped and we learned that the Russians had not been paid so we were hostages in international waters without legal jurisdiction until that was corrected. As you can imagine, there are longer stories surrounding each of these events. We certainly welcomed the sight of the Newfoundland tower which received the SOS from the Titanic on that fateful day in 1912 that now signaled to us we were back home.
What was it was like to be on the ocean floor 2.5 miles below the surface collecting artifacts from the historic wreck? Stay tuned for Part 2.
Michael J. Manyak, MD
VP National Eagle Scout Association
Author, Lizard Bites and Street Riots, Travel Emergencies and Your Health, Safety, and Security