Robert Ballard's Titanic

Bookshelf: Robert Ballard’s Titanic

Robert Ballard’s Titanic: Exploring the Greatest of All Lost Ships – Robert D. Ballard

Robert Ballard's Titanic
Robert Ballard’s Titanic

The Titanic sank in the early hours 15 April 1912, just four days into her maiden voyage. She was a state of the art vessel for her time, of colossal dimensions, outfitted in the utmost luxury (for the first class passengers, at least), and carrying over 2,200 passengers and crew. Over 1,500 people died when she sank – mainly men, as the lifeboats (which were only sufficient to save about 1,200 people, and many of which departed half empty) were filled with women and children first.

There’s something totally fascinating about shipwrecks. There is a thrill to exploring something as massive as a ship, rendered immobile on the sea floor. The Titanic lay undisturbed until 1985, when she was located after a joint search by the French IFREMER and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in the USA. Others had searched, and even claimed to have found the ship, but the Woods Hole expedition was the first one to bring back photographic evidence.

The expedition was jointly led by Robert Ballard of WHOI, and Jean-Louis Michel of IFREMER. They used what was then up to the minute submersible technology, both manned and unmanned. Part of the fascination of reading Ballard’s account is to realise to what degree imaging systems have improved in the last quarter century, and what an achievement it was to document the ship given the available technology and the inhospitable environment (pitch dark, 4 kilometres under the ocean in a howling current) it lies in. He speaks of the floor of the submersible being “littered with spent video cassettes” after a successful dive. Video cassettes? I haven’t seen one of those for years!

The book is illustrated with many photos taken during the search and exploration of the wreck, as well as gorgeous artist’s renderings of the entire superstructure (it’s broken into two pieces) with corresponding plans of what goes where. It’s a fascinating read, and also quite eery. Ballard approaches the wreck with great respect and strong awareness that it is the grave of over a thousand souls, and the darkness and quiet of the undersea world that it rests in adds an air of solemnity to the images and descriptions.

The detail about what has decayed (all the wood except for hard woods like teak, and all human remains except for leather shoes, for example) and what has remained and in what condition, is fascinating. Iron-eating bacteria have polished and thinned parts of the hull, which is covered in rusticles comprising oxidised iron intermingled with colonies of these bacteria.

Thousands of artefacts have been retrieved from the wreck site over the years by subsequent visitors, including a 17 ton section of the hull. Ballard states that in his view, however, the wreck has no archaeological value. Unlike a 2,000 year old Phoenician shipwreck in the Mediterranean, we know exactly who and what was on RMS Titanic. We have the blueprints of the ship, and photographs taken of her and on her. What’s more, relatives of those who perished on board are still alive, and we are within a generation of actual memories of the survivors and casualties.

Woods Hole is currently participating in another expedition to document and explore the wreck site – there is a really cool website for Expedition Titanic.

The book is available here. It’s a fairly large-format paperback with several fold-out pages of diagrams and paintings.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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