The Unsinkable Titanic

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, we dug into our archives for this remarkable account of the disaster and its aftermath. Plus: Titanic video clips of the survivors, the wreckage, and more.

Also in Reader's Digest Magazine April 2012

Mud or Bones?

In Robert Ballard, there is something of the astronaut, Jules Verne, and Lewis and Clark wrapped into one. Tall and athletic, already well-known as a skilled diver and deep-sea explorer, he “watched from the sidelines” with mixed emotions as the Grimm expeditions continued. “Their effects convinced me that the key to discovering the Titanic lay in having sufficient time on target to conduct a thorough search of an area of 100 to 150 square miles.”

Thus Ballard turned to “an old friend—France,” in order to gain more time at sea searching for the elusive wreck. He was soon to join forces with Jean Jarry and Jean-Louis Michel of the French ocean-exploration organization IFREMER (Institut Francais de Recherche pour L’Exploitation de la Mer). “These were men of the deep, men I knew and greatly respected.” Michel and Ballard had first teamed up in 1973 on a research expedition to the mid-Atlantic ridge, a large underwater mountain range.

For Ballard, IFREMER, and the U.S. Navy, the Titanic was essentially a target to test prototype underwater vehicles that would give humans a “telepresence” on the ocean floor. Telepresence, a word coined by Ballard, means using video technology to project one’s mind to the seafloor without physically descending to it.

Trim and wiry, a veteran of the French navy’s submarine exploration squad, Jean-Louis Michel initiated a thorough study of all the logbooks and nautical records bearing on the Titanic’s sinking. “Based on these historical data,” Michel explained, “we drew on our charts the probable area where the Titanic should be, somewhere inside a square that was 12.5 miles on a side. By June of 1985, we were ready to go.”

Ballard and Michel were uncertain about the clarity of the water at the site of the wreck. “You have terrific bottom currents running along this area stirring things up,” explained Ballard. “We were concerned that our cameras would be of little use in an area of very poor visibility.”

They had closely researched a severe 1929 earthquake, which shook the whole Grand Banks area off Newfoundland where the Titanic sank. A huge landslide raced as fast as 35 miles per hour down the slope from the continental shelf to the abyssal plain thousands of feet below. “One of our questions,” Ballard said, “was whether this landslide had affected the wreck.” They wondered if their images would show “acres of mud or, if lucky, the bones of the Titanic.”

Michel and his team left Brest, France, aboard the French research vessel Le Suroit on July 1, 1985. “We got to the Titanic’s area eight days later. On July 11, we began ‘mowing the lawn.’ That’s the term used for the meticulous sweeping back and forth with the imaging and listening equipment to cover every square foot of the search area.”

At the end of thousands of meters of cable, Le Suroit towed a “train” of sensing devices. First came a five-meter-long acoustical-system vehicle, nicknamed Poisson (“Fish”) by the French. It contained side-scan and vertical sonar units. Then came a long cable trailing a magnetometer to detect anomalies. “With side-scan sonar,” Ballard explained, “you are searching for the main wreckage, which will show up as a large radar blip on the sonar. At the same time, the magnetometer tells you if what you are looking at is metallic.”

“It took us nearly two hours to get the whole apparatus into position,” Michel explained. “And every time we had to pull it in, it took another two. Strong currents forced us to retrieve Poisson after every ‘mowing,’ and then go back to the starting point and lower it again.”

Compounding the problem was the deteriorating weather, which developed into a 36-hour-long gale. When the search was resumed, Michel recalled, “We had searched an area three times the size of Paris, and we had christened the towed acoustical system successfully. Still, we were very disappointed.”

The last day assisting Le Suroit was August 7, and as she prepared to sail to the French island of St-Pierre off the coast of Newfoundland, Michel and Ballard saw a rainbow to the south. It seemed an omen of good luck.

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