The sinking of the passenger liner Titanic in 1912 has mesmerized generations. It was so intriguing to NOAA maritime archaeologist James Delgado, he eventually led the hunt in 2010 to get answers about what happened when the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank a century ago.
Using 21st century technology, Delgado, 56, was the chief scientist on the ship that monitored robots diving, photographing and collecting data at the bottom of the sea with high-tech tools to develop an electronic archaeological site map that will be completed by next year.
Preliminary results were released last month, which were featured in a History channel documentary and April cover story in National Geographic magazine. The story includes a popular iPad app that allows visitors to tour the site.
“When you first see the Titanic, it’s huge,” said Delgado, who rode a small submarine that went 2.5 miles under water to inspect the wreckage in 2000. “It fills your vision through the porthole. The water, despite the depth and dark, is lit up by submarine lights and very clear. It’s an almost gut-wrenching feeling, the emotional impact of realizing you are there at the Titanic.”
The 2010 expedition produced the first comprehensive survey map of the Titanic, including imaging the bow and stern sections and the entire artifact debris field in high resolution sonar and 3D optical imagery of 10 square nautical miles. It produced detailed photo mosaics of a number of features in the artifact scattered across the Ocean floor and a forensic reconstruction of how Titanic broke apart and sank that had not been done before.
It also photographed some heart-wrenching images of pairs of shoes laced up and clothing on the floor of the ocean that clearly had been on the bodies of some of the victims, according to Delgado, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program.
The expedition used highly sophisticated robotic systems, detailed sonar and 3-D high resolution to record detailed pictures of the entire Titanic wreck and the surrounding environment. The data from AUV and ROV dives were stored in hard drives that carried terabytes of data back to shore. Terabytes of data are still being processed for the release of the electronic map due out in 2013.
The $5 million expedition didn’t cost the federal government a dime except the salaries of two government employees for time spent on the project, Delgado said.
RMS Titanic, Inc., committed to preserving the legacy of the Titanic and its artifacts as the ship’s steward, paid for the expedition.
NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) located and provided historical observations and original logbooks, currently not in digital format and unavailable to climate databases, for research dealing with the sinking of the Titanic, according to NFDC’s Eric Freeman.
NCDC’s work is a road map for every federal agency that may house historic documents in their archives that could be used today to explain the past.
“The potential uses for historical data are endless, and cannot be fully realized until they are easily accessible. You never know what the data you hold will be used for,” Freeman said.
Many original records from 1912 from ships in the vicinity of the Titanic wreck as well as additional ships traveling through the wreck area in the days prior to and after the sinking have been located in the NCDC archives and provided to researchers to recreate the atmospheric conditions around the event, according to Freeman.
Some may wonder why the federal government is involved with the Titanic a century after the disaster. But there are many reasons for the U.S. to be part of preserving history, Delgado said.
The ship, owned by an American company, was discovered by a joint U.S.-French exploration; Americans were the second largest group to perish in the disaster after British citizens; a large number of foreigners on the ship were immigrating to the U.S. and thousands of Americans can trace their ancestry to people who were passengers on the Titanic.
Delgado compares the effort to preserving historic sites such as Pearl Harbor, Gettysburg’s Civil War battle or Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where 100 passenger ships sunk in the 1800s.
Since the wreck of the Titanic was discovered in 1987, hundreds of modern items and garbage have been dropped to its location, including a beer can, a plastic cup and a clear container with the ashes of Florida treasure hunter Mel Fisher, now resting on the bridge of the ship.
NOAA has worked with the Coast Guard and the National Park Service to create a voluntary exclusion zone for dumping, discharge and disposal around the Titanic site.
The expedition was the best kind of partnership between the private sector and the federal government, combining technology and expertise from the private and public sectors, Delgado said.
“It also provides a detailed, never-before achieved level of documentation for a shipwreck whose story, a century after it sank, fascinates and inspires commemoration and respect for all those who died on April 15, 1912, when the Titanic sank,” he added.