Five years ago, Dr. Joe Maclnnis, a worldrenowned expert on deepsea diving, became the first Canadian to reach the Titanic, which sank 80 years ago. In the summer of 1991, he returned as co-leader of a unique expedition to film, with Canadian-developed IMAX technology, the ship’s wreckage on the ocean floor 375 miles southeast of Newfoundland. As editors near completion of a documentary on the expedition, Maclnnis recalls the thrill of visiting the eerie undersea graveyard. His report:
On the last dive, we parked on the deck of the Titanic, 2½ miles beneath the Atlantic Ocean. On April 15, 1912, the luxury liner sank in the frigid waters, killing 1,523 of the 2,224 passengers and crew. During our dive, I shared a tiny compartment in a 25-foot-long Russian-built submarine with two other members of the joint Canadian, U.S. and Soviet expedition. Sitting nearby was a second submarine. At our depth, the ocean is normally coal black. But the Titanic was illuminated by eight powerful lights mounted on booms attached to both submarines.
The lights, the most powerful ever used beneath the sea, represent the dawn of a new age in deep-ocean exploration. Constructed at a cost of $300,000, the four lights on each submarine were equivalent to more than 500 car headlights. We shot 40,000 feet of film, two hours’ worth. On special giant IMAX screens, parts of the Titanic will appear almost life-size.
This was the third manned mission to the Titanic since French and U.S. scientists discovered its location in 1985, but may well prove to be the most scientifically important. The Geological Survey of Canada and the P. P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Moscow collaborated on the science program. Steve Blasco, a Canadian marine geologist and the chief scientist on the expedition, said that he has already substantially revised his ideas about the deep ocean.
Blasco used to believe that the abyssal depths were isolated and inert. “Looking at the data and seeing the Titanic up close changed all that,” Blasco said. “We see pulsing currents and mobile sand ripples. The bow section is deeply embedded in an ancient submarine landslide. The Titanic is forcing us to re-think the consequences of deep-ocean dumping.”
For artists and thinkers, the ocean has always been an environment of revelation. The submarines took us to the least accessible parts of the wreck. We captured brilliant images of the entire bow and stern sections and the half-mile field of debris between them. For all of us, those sue weeks of diving to a shipwreck lying in the foothills of Canada’s Grand Banks was one of the great moments in undersea exploration.
(Clockwise from top left) One of the Titanic's screws; a view of the first-class deck; a lone shoe lies among other debris on the ocean floor; one of the Russian-built mini-submarines used for the expedition; the ship's bow: the expedition may clear up enduring questions about why the Titanic split in two just as it sank. As the vast ship was going down, the bow sank first, lifting the stern completely out of the water. Most experts have concluded that extraordinary stress tore the frame apart. But preliminary results of an analysis of the ship's steel hull plates indicate that the metal may have been too brittle, causing it to repture, rather than to bend and buckle.
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