Still majestic looking, in spite of the increasing rusticles on her, Titanic is there in front of us. With superb piloting, Anatoly holds the sub in position, despite the strong current…
The first Irish diver to explore the Titanic recalls his surface-breaking adventures descending on the 1912 wreck in a diving submersible – with an outside water pressure of 400 bar!
In August 2005, Rory Golden returned for a second trip to the wreck of the Titanic, playing a major role in a BBC Northern Ireland documentary, “A Journey to Remember”, the title of which recalled the 1958 Titanic film, “A Night to Remember”. He had two memorial plaques for placing on the wreck, one from Belfast City Council and the other from Harland and Wolff, the firm in Belfast that built the ship. These two plaques were placed alongside one from Cobh that he had placed on the bridge five years previously.
His dive was made with Mike McKimm, from Belfast, the cameraman, producer and director of the documentary and who is also the environment correspondent for BBC Northern Ireland.
Rory’s adventures with the Titanic began, in June 2000, when it was announced that a new international discovery and salvage expedition would return to the site of RMS Titanic in the north Atlantic Ocean in July and August of that year.
The Dive Safety Operations job was awarded to Rory Golden’s company, Flagship Scubadiving Ltd, Dublin. TRMS Titanic Inc., the salvor-in-possession of Titanic, chartered the world’s biggest scientific research vessel, Akademik Mstislav Keldysh, from the P.P.Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Keldysh is the mother ship to two of the world’s deepest diving submersibles, MIR 1 and MIR 2. These submersibles have an operating depth of 6,000m.
“Expedition Titanic 2000” retrieved nearly 800 historic artefacts from the wreck site. Golden’s multi-faceted role included overseeing the safe retrieval of artefacts from recovery baskets and from the Russian MIR submersibles. Before embarking on the voyage, he was presented with a memorial plaque by Michael Martin – creator of the Titanic Trail in Cobh (Queenstown), the last port of call of Titanic – for placing on the bridge of the ship in memory of those who died in 1912. He made his dive on August 11th 2000, becoming the first Irish diver to do so. His companion on that dive was the late Ralph White, his friend of 20 years. Ralph was a veteran of 13 Titanic expeditions, having been on the original one which discovered the wreck in 1985 and continuing to the last manned expedition in August 2005.
On that first dive, Golden spotted the remains of the ship’s wheel protruding from a pile of debris on the officer’s deck. This was recovered, and brought to the surface, a very historic find.
11th August 2000
Thirteen hours in a six-foot diameter sphere. No way to stand up or lie down properly. Condensation running down the sides, and dripping from the top. Extremes of humidity at the surface and cold on the bottom. Two-and-a-half hours to descend and three hours to ascend. Bladder making its presence felt.
I would do it all over again.
I probably never will.
5th August 2005
After the standard pre-dive photo call and nearly five years to the day, I find myself once again climbing up the ladder to the hatch on MIR 2. Shoes removed at the top and dropping down into the confined space, the memories come flooding back. Mike quickly joins me followed by Anatoly. The business of stowing gear, setting up cameras, pre-dive checks, lying down, standing up and taking off clothing as the heat increases soon puts a stop to any thoughts, and before we realise it we are being slung up and over the side of the Keldysh. I watch as the water levels increase, gradually covering the ports until we were bobbing gently just below the surface.
In half an hour we are at 1,000 metres
We start our two-and-a-half hour descent to the bottom. There is no sensation of dropping to the ocean floor. The pressure inside the sub remains constant. There are two indicators that tell you that you are descending. One is the digital depth gauge, and the other is the gradually fading light outside. Within ten minutes, it’s pitch black outside and all you have is the gauge. In 15 minutes we’re at 250 metres. The humidity and heat are still intense. In half an hour we are at 1,000 metres.
One of the most popular questions I get asked is how do you spend your time while descending to such depths. The reality is that the time goes quite fast as you become so preoccupied with getting your gear sorted and looking out into the great blackness outside, seeking deep mid-water signs of life. Bio-luminescent creatures of the deep drift past the window, but there is time to chat and think, make notes, and write postcards with special stamps to mark your dive. And listen to a few tunes on the CD player. On my first dive in 2000 at this depth I played “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” to mark the occasion. We still have nearly 3,000 metres to go.
I start counting off the depth to the bottom from one of the displays: “30 metres, 20 metres, 15 metres”
After two hours and 15 minutes, the communications from the surface control burst in to life. Anatoly Sagalavitch is our pilot. He is the head of the deep sea manned submersible laboratory at the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences and co-designer of the MIR submersibles. He has been piloting the MIRs for over 20 years. A renowned academic and author, he has a great passion for jazz music and strums a mean guitar in his leisure moments. We have been listening to some jazz music on our descent this time. He starts throwing switches, turning on the outside lights, pumping ballast tanks and generally getting ready for our imminent landing on the seabed. I start counting off the depth to the bottom from one of the displays: “30 metres, 20 metres, 15 metres”.
Welcome to the bottom of the ocean, you’ve now joined a unique club.”
A quick glance out the view port and the muddy bottom comes into sight. “10 metres, 5, 4 3, 2, 1.” Touchdown. It is two hours and 25 minutes since we left the surface. We are at 3,875m. The outside pressure is 400 bar. We are still at atmospheric pressure inside. No pressure then… I turn to Mike and say: “Welcome to the bottom of the ocean, you’ve now joined a unique club.”
A sonar monitor shows the outline of the bow literally within viewing distance. We lift off towards the ship and within minutes see the shape looming through the dark. As we start to rise upwards, the great bow becomes more focussed on the monitors inside and through the view port. Still majestic looking, in spite of the increasing rusticles on her, Titanic is there in front of us. With superb piloting, Anatoly holds the sub in position, despite the strong current.
After several attempts manages to place both the Belfast City Council and Harland & Wolff plaques on either side of where the ship’s wheel used to be
The starboard anchor is just above the seabed, showing how much the ship is embedded in the mud. We move up and over the bow, seeing the great bower anchor in its well, the crane hoist above. We move past the bronze capstans, making our way aft beside the anchor chains, peering down in to Number One hold. The main foremast comes into view, toppled in the sinking, the great steam winches alongside its base. I am shocked. It has collapsed, since I last saw it, buckling under its weight, the integrity of the steel gone. It is a very sad image, a precursor of more to come. We move towards the bridge, hovering over Number 2 hold, the electric cranes permanently folded in position like two sentinels beside it.
As we approach the bridge, I see the plaque from Cobh from five years ago, still looking bright under the lights. It is just forward and to the right of the telemotor, all that that is left of the mechanism on the bridge, the rest having being swept away in the sinking. This once held the ship’s wheel. Anatoly carefully positions the sub and after several attempts manages to place both the Belfast City Council and Harland & Wolff plaques on either side of it.
This is a symbolic moment, and a circle is completed. We move on to continue our visit, skirting the starboard wing bridge area. We pass the Number One lifeboat davit on the officer’s deck. Travelling along the deck, the windows are all in the open position, possibly from orders being shouted and messages being relayed. This is the deck where Ralph White and I found the main ship’s wheel as we made a final sweep along it in August 2000. As we hover over the Marconi radio room, there is more and more evidence of accelerated deterioration. Several holes have appeared in the roof, and in fact the aperture where the skylight was has grown bigger. The inside of the radio room is becoming more exposed and is in danger of being lost under its own debris.
As we lift, a sudden surge of current catches us unawares and the sub starts to rotate. Anatoly quickly gets us back under control, but he is momentarily disorientated, and it takes several minutes to relocate the wreck as he ascends out of danger. A brief scary moment, but it won’t be the only one. As we move along the boat deck, the sides of the structure look like someone has peppered it with artillery fire, and almost the entire deck alongside the gymnasium has collapsed. We gingerly move over the top, passing the void that held Number 1 funnel, the air intake for the lifts, and the void that held Number 2 funnel. We settle over the great space that was the grand staircase.
In the midst of all this chaos, we witness life at this great depth, soft fan corals, starfish, crabs, rat-tail fish…
Looking downwards, it is hard to imagine the beauty that once was here in the middle of the chaos. Below the boat deck, as we move alongside “A” deck, the window screens are all falling downwards, pulling the brass window frames with them. We hover here for a while, filming away. Dropping down, the port side of the ship looms alongside us like a great wall, the lights of the sub reflecting back from the glass in the ports. First, Second, Third Class areas are meaningless now in the great depth.
A few more passes and we are back over the upper section of the bow, again and again seeing vast areas of decay. The steel eating organisms are weakening the integrity of the ship, and this is causing the lighter sections to collapse under their own weight. Once you had to twist your head to see inside Captain Smith’s cabin and his bath, now you can look straight in.
Moving aft, we drop lower to peer at the boilers, at the sheered-off section of the ship, where she broke in two at the surface. The floor levels are draped downwards. Several of these boilers had fallen to the seabed in the sinking, and were the first items spotted on the 1st September 1985, when the wreck was discovered for the first time.
Travelling across the area between the bow and the stern, a distance of 600 metres, we come across debris and coal. This area is known as Hell’s Kitchen. Yet, in the midst of all this chaos, we witness life at this great depth. Soft fan corals, starfish, crabs, rat-tail fish…life is flourishing down here. As we approach the stern section, we see great areas of tangled steel, no recognisable form, just a jumble. The aft section is facing towards us. Anatoly carefully picks his way around this area, and guides the MIR to the other side. The huge engines loom out of the dark, over ten metres high.
It’s hard to make out shapes, but the stern itself is recognisable as the last place where victims clung to the ship.
Titanic’s engines were the biggest steam reciprocating engines in the world. The diameters of the pistons are eight feet across. As we examine one, and move to the second, we bump in to something on the way. This is a scary place to be. When the ship split in two at the surface, the stern section plummeted into the seabed, her stern facing towards the ripped opening of the bow section. The impact caused the decks to collapse on each other, and the steel deck ripped away like a can being opened, folding back on itself. It’s hard to make out shapes, but the stern itself is recognisable as the last place where victims clung to the ship. Underneath, the port and starboard propellers have been forced upwards by the impact, the centre propeller long buried in the mud. One of the stern cranes is visible, poking out from the wreckage.
Our time is coming to an end; we have been on the bottom for nearly six hours. We move away to begin our ascent. Our last image of Titanic as we slowly rise is of an upturned section of the hull, a water intake grid showing. Darkness takes over, and we wind down for the damp and cold journey back.
Titanic’s artefacts travel the world, giving great insight to all that see them.
Two hours later we break the surface, get hoisted on board, and meet the welcoming committee. We have been underwater for ten hours. I get some great new images, yet we all realise that Titanic is in a sad state. It is estimated by scientists that within 20 to 30 years, her main form will have disappeared. The world has learnt a lot about deep ocean exploration thanks to expeditions such as these, and scientists continue to make new discoveries. Titanic’s artefacts travel the world, giving great insight to all that see them. And I have memories to last me a lifetime that I can share with many.
Two plaques from Harland & Wolff actually went to Titanic. One came back with us, and is now on display in Belfast City Hall. It reads: “In memory of all those who lost their lives on RMS Titanic. From Harland & Wolff and the people of Belfast”. Currently, it is the only object from the city to join Titanic since she sailed from Belfast in April 1912, and is also the first artifact to be brought from the ship back home to her native city.
Will I ever go back?
I probably will never know the answer to that.
I was wrong once before.