EXPLORING THE WRECK
With a big grin, Robert Ballard turned around and gave the "thumbs up" sign for good luck to the crew standing on the deck of their new research ship, Atlantis II. Then he proceeded to climb down the ladder into the tiny cockpit of their newly designed Alvin. It was July 13, 1986, almost a year after their French-American expedition had found the Titanic, and Roberts team was determined to explore the legendary ship.
The first goal was to dive two and a half miles into the pitch-black freezing depths to where the Titanic lay. Then they would attempt to land Alvin on her decks, and if everything goes well, they would be the first humans in seventy-fours years to sea the Titanic at close range.
After Robert, his assistant, and the pilot were situated, Alvin was hoisted up and positioned over the water by the Atlantis II. They were lowered slowly into the water, and then the lift line was released. The submarine was quickly swarmed with divers, checking out everything, including Jason Junior (JJ). JJ was a remote controlled underwater robot. <Link to site about JJ with pictures and diagram>
As the sub descending into the depths of the ocean, the daylight faded until the only light left was that of the sub. The pilot then quickly shut off all external lights to conserve energy. The only light left was a few small LEDs that illuminated from the control panels. Alvin finally reached its maximum descent speed of 100 feet per minute. At that rate it would take them nearly two and a half hours to reach the bottom. The crew was very quiet as the watched their depth increase, the only noise was soft music being played on the subs stereo.
At around 1,200 feet they began to notice some technical problems. First, Alvins sonar stopped working. Sonar <Definition: sonar> used electronic sound waves to determine where things were, and without the crew could not see more than a couple of feet. They were forced to navigate by the sonar aboard the Atlantis II by communicating with the surface navigator via their sub-to-ship telephone.
As they passed 6,000 feet the pilot noticed the instrument panel was showing a salt-water leak into the battery banks. Their time on the bottom of the ocean would have to be cut awfully short that day. At almost the same time, the surface navigators sonar stopped working, which meant they were basically blind.
Their lights pierced the blackness as the ocean bottom slowly emerged from the dark-green gloom below us. Then Alvin gently set down in the soft mud on the bottom. They had arrived. The only problem was they did not know where they were. All they could see through the portholes was their own shadow cast by Alvins lights, and some gently rolling ground covered with mud.
The ship lays somewhere near them, probably fewer than 400 feet away. But without sonar a few hundred feet might as well be a thousand miles. "I cant believe it. Ive waited thirteen long years for this moment, and now, a stones throw away from my dream, and I am trapped inside a sardine can on my hands and knees staring at nothing but mud" Robert said as the frustration built.
Suddenly, a head-splitting alarm pierced the silence inside the tiny sub. The leak in the battery bank was getting to the critical point. They had to very little time left before they had to return to the surface so they wouldnt damage Alvin. Quickly, they decided to guess where the Titanic was and blindly go there. About 5 minutes later, the surface navigator called on the telephone with good news, his sonar was working again. He directed them 50 yards west to where he believed the Titanic was.
Then, directly in front of them, there it was: an endless slab of rusted steel rising out of the bottom The massive hull of the Titanic. Unfortunately, one look at the fabulous wreck was all the crew got. The pilot quickly dropped Alvins weights, clicked off annoying alarm, and went hurtling toward the surface. After six hours of work, all they had to show was a brief glimpse of the Titanic.
Atlantis team of experts worked throughout the night repairing the damage sub. Fortunately, when Roberts team awoke the next morning, anxious to continue their exploration, the sub was functioning correctly. They quickly prepared the sub for the deep dive, and then began their long decent. The goal was to examine various places on the Titanic and try to find a landing spot.
As they glided across the ocean bottom, the razors edge of the bow loomed out of the darkness. The great ship towered above. As they gently brought the sub closer, they could see the bow more clearly. Both of her huge anchors were still in place. But the bow was buried more than sixty feet in the mud. It looked as though the metal hull was slowly melting away. What seemed like frozen rivers of rust covered the ships side and spread out over the ocean bottom.
As Alvin rose slowly up the ghostly side of the ship, the crew could see their lights reflecting off the still unbroken glass of Titanics portholes. As they rose further and began to move across the mighty forward deck, they were amazed at the sheer size of everything: giant bollards, shiny bronze capstans (that were used for winding ropes and cables), and huge links of the anchor chains. The crew strained to get a good look at the decks wood planking, just four feet below them. "Its gone!" Robert muttered. Most of Titanics wooden deck had been eaten away. The captain navigated the sub to make their first landing on the metal supports below the destroyed wooden deck. Their first landing site was on the forward deck just next to the fallen mast. After the made the successful touch-down they lifted up and proceeded to landing spot two, and then three. Each site was susceptible landing spot for them to land the sub and use JJ to explore the wreck.
The next day they landed on the deck next to Grande Staircase, which had once been covered by an elegant glass dome. The glass dome did not survive the plunge but the staircase shaft had. They used JJ to explore the staircase. Slowly JJ went inching down into the blackness. More and more cable was released as he dropped deeper and deeper. After two hours of exploring with JJ, they had to return to the surface.
For the next few weeks they explored various parts of the Titanic. During the exploration they took some of the most breathtaking pictures of the inside that have ever been shot. Some that have become famous include pictures of a porcelain doll owned by a first-class child, pictures of a first-class safe, a miscellaneous pictures of first-class staterooms.
On their final dive Robert made sure to complete a personal mission. He placed a memorial plaque on the twisted and tangled wreckage of the stern, in memory of all those lost in the Titanic. Those who had died had gathered on the stern as the ship had titled and plummeted to the bottom of the ocean. As they lifted off and began their climb to the surface, their camera kept the plaque in view as long as possible. As they rose, it grew smaller and smaller, until finally it was swallowed in the gloom.