The salvage expedition to the Titanic was intended to have a dive by each of the MIR Submersibles daily for about 3 weeks. Unfortunately, a hurricane in the area significantly limited dives to a total of 10 so I was extremely fortunate to join one of them. More people have flown in space than have gone to the Titanic.
The pre-dive briefing with the MIR pilots reviewed responsibilities of the three-man crew and objectives of our 12-hour mission. The most experienced Russian sub pilot was at the helm for my descent and I was selected as co-pilot with duties to help log and videotape each artifact in three dimensions at discovery and submit them for identification and preservation to the curator and chief marine archaeologist aboard the mother ship research vessel, the AM Keldysh.
The submersibles are engineering marvels, reconfigured Russian Soyuz space capsules with three 8-inch thick acrylic portholes to peer through the sub's 1.5-inch reinforced titanium hull. The retractable, facile robotic arms could move in any direction and retrieve either heavy pieces or very delicate artifacts.
Sub deployment requires extensive coordination to guide it from its protective berth on deck into the water. Once in the turbulent water, a crewmember had to jump onto the sub, disconnect the heavy top cable and attach a smaller one to its nose, then tow it 500 meters before descent.
During the short tow from the Keldysh, the pilot tested the controls while a Russian sailor rode the sub like a water skier and then jumped off as we dove underwater. For nearly three hours we slowly spiraled down at a rate of 25 meters a minute to the ocean floor nearly 2.5 miles from the surface. Light sources, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, communications, and other critical functions were tested every 500 meters. Inside the cramped cabin, the temperature started at a steamy 85 degrees but dropped 50 degrees by the time we hit ocean bottom.
Visibility was quite good for the first 150 meters, though we saw no aquatic life. The water was opaque below a few hundred feet but was surprisingly clear when we switched on the lights. From that point throughout our slow, twirling descent we saw an amazing spectrum of marine life. What looked like silt was actually masses of tiny unidentified creatures paddling frantically while bright red shrimp and intricate jellyfish, one with a bright red internal globe like a Christmas ornament, cruised by the sub. Large rattail fish proved quite inquisitive. Several lobster species ranged in color from bright red to opalescent. Ghostly starfish and various marine invertebrates were everywhere.
Finally, we landed on the white sand of the ocean floor 1000 meters from the wreck. As we navigated toward the wreckage, we began to see large pieces of Titanic debris.
And then suddenly, there it was! The gigantic ghostly bow of the 883 foot longTitanic was more awesome than I imagined and looked just like the famous photos. Slowly, we cruised along the bow, passing Captain James Smith's berth with his porcelain bathtub still intact. Damage from the iceberg was still apparent on the hull. We inspected the large rift where the rupture separated the stern from the bow (well depicted in the movie).
We then glided on to the large debris field that surrounds the stern, separated by 600 meters from the bow. The ocean floor here is littered with evidence of the tragedy which spilled from the sinking ship: 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 suitcase contained the suits, shoes, jeweler's loop, penknife and other personal items of William Allen III, who did not survive the trip. It was poignant to see his engraved lighter, his London omnibus tickets, and the toy pistol gift for his son.
We came upon a man's derby on the ocean floor, still intact after all these years, and retrieved it with the robotic arm. A large cannister turned out to be a tea service for this British ship. One of the most significant artifacts we retrieved was the telegraph that connected the engine room to the bridge. Its lever would have been pushed to change course and speed when the iceberg was sighted. Nowhere were there any human remains; at 6000 lbs/in2 pressure in slightly acidic water due to the calcium carbonate, those remains were long since pulverized and dissolved.
My greatest thrill occurred when the subpilot allowed me the rarely afforded honor to pilot the submersible on the ocean floor and use the robotic arms to retrieve artifacts. Using the dual control joysticks, this fascinating tactile experience was remarkably similar to laparoscopic and robotic surgery that I had performed.
After six hours on the ocean floor we reluctantly began the process for ascent. But first, the subpilot produced a picnic basket replete with sandwiches and a good champagne, which we consumed with gusto. After surfacing, the MIR bobbed in the swells of the North Atlantic and 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 and the artifacts submitted to the curator for preservation.
I remain grateful for such a fantastic experience which remains vivid to this day!
Michael J. Manyak, MD
VP National Eagle Scout Association
Author, Lizard Bites and Street Riots, Travel Emergencies and Your Health, Safety, and Security
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 the subpilot 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. This fascinating tactile experience reminded me of the laparoscopic 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, the subpilot 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 the first 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.