How did a state-of the-art ship sink so quickly? Subhadra Devan finds out how History Channel producers solved the mystery
IT has taken experts 100 years to develop the technology that can fully explore the Titanic wreck at site of the sinking. And that has solved the “fatal flaw” question.
“It’s the first time we’ve been able to look at all the pieces of the ship, over a 38.8-sq km patch of ocean floor,” says Carl Lindahl, executive producer of programming for History Channel which will air Titanic: Mystery Solved tomorrow night.
“That includes utensils, dolls, other artefacts,” he adds in a phone call from New York.
Titanic: Mystery Solved director-producer Rushmore Denooyer, who is with the Lone Wolf Documentary Group, explains: “It clears away all unsolved questions. You must remember that the ship sank in the 19th Century. People didn’t know how or what happened. Radio had just been invented. All they knew was that the ship left and never arrived. With the technology today, oceans are open to view. The technology we used is a paradigm shift in studying shipwrecks, and mapping floorbeds.”
The wreck of the Titanic was discovered off the coast of Newfoundland in 1985. But nearly half of the wreck site remained completely unexplored until, arguably, the recent History Channel’s expedition.
Lindahl says: “Planning for the expedition started in 2009, but the team went to the site only in August 2010. The expedition involved scientists, engineers, archaeologists and imaging experts.”
Also onboard was the RMS Titanic, Inc. the salvor in possession of the wreck site, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the largest private, non-profit such institution. The latter’s Advanced Imaging & Visualisation Laboratory, a world leader in underwater imaging, developed special 3-D and 2-D cameras for the mission that delivered high-quality footage of extreme clarity.
The Waitt Institute for Discovery supplied self-controlled robots known as AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles), capable of independently surveying the site with high-resolution side-scan sonar. These devices worked in tandem with an ROV (remote operated vehicle).
Denooyer adds that other important American players included the NOAA — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — an agency that keeps US citizens informed of the changing environment around them, the National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Centre and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University.
Lindahl explains that the team used AUVs to create the first comprehensive, multi-dimensional map of the Titanic wreck site.
“These robotic vehicles had sonar sensors, so we could do a sonar map of the wreck. Regular cameras can’t do that. There’s no light so deep in the water. Later, the images were stitched together.”
Denooyer adds; “And then, the ROVs were sent out after looking at the sonar map, to get digital data of the wreck. So, a 3-D image could be made of the ship.”
Applying the techniques of a space shuttle or aircraft accident investigation (mapping the site and reassembling the pieces in a hangar), the team of experts created a virtual holographic reconstruction of the wreck site in a virtual hangar.
Two hurricanes kept the team busy during this expedition. Says Denooyer: “The hurricanes were so severe we had to return to Newfoundland in Canada.”
For Denooyer, “what the technology does is to open up the oceans for study. It’s a paradigm shift in underwater archaeology”. “The sonar map looks like a photo. It’s stunning. It creates the impression the water is not there!”
WAS THE SHIP CURSED?
Denooyer: “The tragedy always struck me as ironic and dramatic. It was the first time man claimed a ship was unsinkable, and it sank.”
For Lindahl: “The theme is human hubris. While we are impressed with technology, never underestimate the power of nature. We’ve had various reminders over time. But today, very few cruise passengers believe a ship will sink like the Titanic!”
IN A NUTSHELL
Lindahl explains the Titanic was state-of-the-art then. “With this, you begin to understand how violently the ship tore itself apart when it went down.
“Yes, we look into fatal flaws in shipbuilding, engineering. And, we found it.”
Solve the mystery
TO find out how the Titanic broke in two and sank off Newfoundland, Canada 100 years ago on April 15, 1912, tune in to Titanic: Mystery Solved tomorrow night (8pm) on History Channel (Astro channel 555).