In 2000 I was asked to provide medical services for a salvage expedition to the wreck site of the RMS Titanic in the North Atlantic. In exchange I would have a two-week ringside seat at the salvage operation, with the potential to visit the Titanic in the deep submersible. It was an irresistible titanic1invitation. Since its discovery by marine geologist Robert Ballard in 1985, approximately about 150 people have seen the Titanic shipwreck with their own eyes. On August 17, 2000, I became one of that select number.

On the eve of my dive I attended a briefing with the MIR pilot and co-pilot to review responsibilities of the three-man crew, and objectives of our 12-hour mission. One of the most amazing things we went over was the reality that in the event of a breach of the hull of our submersible, 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, our bodies would instantly incinerate before we could be crushed. Our fireproof jumpsuits would merely allow identification of our charred remains. Although this was hard to accept from a scientific standpoint, it made a great point about the tremendous pressures at that depth.

titanic2After these rather unsettling details, I was pleased to learn that the most experienced Russian sub pilot would be at the helm for my descent. He spoke good English, and he had three children about the same age as my own. Knowing he had a family 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 I followed my habit of reviewing and re-reviewing my 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 for our last-minute instructions. As we ducked into the sub’s hatch, we each gave the obligatory thumbs up for the photographers and settled into our cramped quarters. MIR is pressurized to the same atmosphere as sea level with pure oxygen and, we took off our deck shoes and passed them outside to eliminate the possibility of a flammable or corrosive residue contaminating the sub’s interior or the oxygen supply tubes.

Each of us had an 8-inch thick acrylic porthole to watch the activity outside the sub’s 1.5-inch reinforced titanium hull. Inside the cramped cabin, the temperature lingered at a steamy 85 degrees. But in two hours, once we reached the ocean’s bottom, it would drop 50 degrees. In our jumpsuits and layers of clothing, we worked up a sweat just 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 was then 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 crewmember jumped onto the sub, disconnected the heavy top cable, and attached a smaller one to the nose of the sub, which was then towed 500 meters before descent.

During the short tow from the mother ship, we rocked gently 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 dove underwater. For nearly three hours we slowly spiraled down, at a rate of 25 meters a 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 we switched on the lights. From that point throughout our slow, twirling descent we saw an amazing spectrum of marine life. Everything from tiny unidentified creatures paddling frantically in the regatta of life to bright red shrimp and intricate jellyfish, one with a bright red internal globe like a Christmas ornament. The large, aptly named rattail fish proved 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, cabin temperature cooled to a comfortable level and condensation formed 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 we were on course to land 1,000 meters from the Titanic.

Finally, our lights illuminated the white sand of the ocean floor. In the dead calm, coral species nevertitanic3 wavered 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 it does in documentaries and Hollywood films. But the sight was more awesome than I could have imagined. Slowly, we cruised along the bow, passing Captain James Smith’s berth with his porcelain bathtub still intact.

We hovered over the gaping hold, 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 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, 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.

Each of us had an 8-inch thick acrylic porthole to watch the activity outside the sub’s 1.5-inch reinforced titanium hull. Inside the cramped cabin, the temperature lingered at a steamy 85 degrees. But in two hours, once we reached the ocean’s bottom, it would drop 50 degrees. In our jumpsuits and layers of clothing, we worked up a sweat just sitting in the capsule, waiting to be hoisted from the deck into the ocean.

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 titanic4robotic 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 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.

titanic5After 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 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.

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