A Beacon of Titanic Proportions

March 26, 2013 6:57 pm

Imagine if you will, plummeting down into the inky depths of liquid space, confined into a small space only fit for three people, switches and electronic paneling covering the walls, and no real sound except for the occasional sound of water rushing past.

I am of course referring to the Ocean, specifically the Atlantic, which is part of the worlds oceans that cover some 71% of our planet in 2-3, even 5-7 miles of water.  As you move deeper into this vast realm over the course of three hours, the darker it gets, the colder it gets, and the more pressure is placed upon you to not only survive, but make it back to the surface.  The pressure is not only mental but physical: as you descend, the pressure outside is amplified, until, once at the bottom, you have the weight of a van bearing down on every square inch of space.  That’s right…every square inch of space.


To survive in this environment, which is perhaps one of the most hostile not only on this world but others in our Solar System, you have to use specialized equipment, and many deep-sea submersibles exist to accomplish the task of exploring these uncharted waters.  These vehicles utilize spherical compartments to house the human operators and explorers on board, as sphere’s are the strongest structural shape we know of, and can withstand immense pressure quite easily.  These are then encased within the larger sub vehicle, which also contains life-support apparatus and ballast systems that enable the craft to rise and fall in underwater space.  There’s also the propulsion systems, consisting of propellers which can navigate the ship very precisely from point to point, a necessity when navigating underwater shipwrecks, such as the Titanic for example.

The Titanic itself has been a beacon for underwater exploration ever since it was first found on September 1st, 1985, by one of the foremost underwater explorers, Dr Robert Ballard, and many expeditions have been launched to the wreck to uncover its secrets and expose the mysteries therein for the world to see.

Existing at a depth of approximately 2.5 miles under the vast Atlantic Ocean, the Titanic sits in perpetual darkness and near freezing cold, as does everything that calls this part of the Earth its home.  It is a completely alien world to you or I, and is inhabited by the most adapted of life-forms that can exist without sunlight, or the need for warmth.  These life-forms are often alien in appearance to us, given they can live as all sea-creatures do, in a world that isn’t bound by two dimensions.  That is to say, much like space, you can navigate freely through three-dimensional space, a luxury that is only perhaps afforded in a more limited form by birds on land, who are themselves, dependent upon staying in the air through structural adaptions.

Under the ocean, however, life forms are supported by the denseness of the environment around them, and can subsequently grow to enormous sizes not possible on land – the Blue Whale being perhaps the ultimate example of this.  A creature has never existed on Earth’s history as large as this, and many other life-forms in the Ocean also dwarf their land counterparts. This makes the Ocean not only a vast, almost alien world, but also a world of giants, and perhaps one of the truest experiences we have right now to exploring an alien world.  An alien world that is truly on our doorstep, and one which is ironically one of the key life-support systems of our world.  It regulates the temperature of the world by absorbing up to 20 percent of the Sun’s heat, which would otherwise make life very uncomfortable, perhaps impossible, for the rest of life on land, and generates almost half of the oxygen in the world.  This is produced by some of the smallest creatures in the Ocean, Plankton, which generate oxygen via photosynthesis, and these then ironically provide the food for the largest creatures in the Ocean: the Whale.

This cycle is sustainable of course, and keeps everything in balance including the weather systems which are regulated by the Oceans currents. Without these, our weather simply wouldn’t exist as we know it.  Water is evaporated from the Oceans to form clouds, which in turn water the land, which in turn create the rivers, which in turn feed the lakes and other ecosystems on land, these are crucial for life as we know it.

Water was also a key component of the industrial revolution, without which we might not have developed the technology that permeates our modern world allowing me to communicate to you via this medium.  It is also what fostered the birth of the Titanic, a vast ship designed to transport the very wealthiest and poorest people in the world safely over nature’s most turbulent realm, and exist in a kind of opulence reserved for royalty (at least for some on board).

Within this modern-day necropolis, we had finally risen to the peak of technical innovation and everything seemed possible.  Then the unthinkable happened…this marvel was swallowed by the foundation that supported it and had perhaps, been responsible for it in the first place bearing it’s weight like the mighty whales of the sea.  It plummeted down to the bottom of the Atlantic taking hundreds of lives with it, establishing one of the greatest and horrific tragedies known to man.  This tragedy resonated, and continues to resonate right through the ages and has led to us wanting to go back to this technological monolith, to not only understand it’s fate, but also to learn from it, perhaps reconnecting us with a past that seems as alien to us now, as the Ocean depths themselves.

Journeying deeper into those depths now, with darkness surrounding the sub, we follow into the footsteps of other expeditions that have journeyed to this wreck, and certainly one of the most prolific have been those of the film director James Cameron, director of films I won’t mention, but which you’ll most likely know.  He first got the bug after hearing of Dr Ballards first expedition to the wreck, and then used the making of the movie as an excuse to go down there and take a look for himself.

He has subsequently been on hundreds of dives, using the profits from his film on the subject to continue his exploration of the wreck, and spend more time down there than the original people on board the ship did, painting a picture that has been incredibly detailed and evocative.  Using manned and unmanned vehicles, he and his teams, operating from Russian Oceanography Science Research Ships, have charted the wreck and journeyed into areas not previously seen by human eyes; the ships Turkish Baths being one of the most spectacular instances of this, complete with intact and opulent furnishings – a living glimpse into the past.

Journeying into these places has been a turbulent journey in itself, and as detailed in one of the documentaries Cameron made on the subject, they had several instances of almost losing equipment, a risky and costly proposition given the depths and pressures involved.  Cameron is nothing but a  risk-taker though. Spending close to a day at a time in these subs is an astonishing example of dedication to a subject. It has clearly been dear to this man’s heart, and has propelled him to not only invest his energy into a huge film, but to also bring back footage of the interior of the wreck.

The documentaries which Cameron has produced on this subject, are in my view, really compelling, and I would recommend them to anyone looking to get an introduction to this subject, which is by no means closed. Expeditions aside from Cameron’s have peered into this murky underworld to glimpse more of this ship from a past era.  It draws people back to it continually, and I would suggest that these expeditions are the key link back to this wreck for the general public, who may not have a chance to see this ship for themselves given the rate of decay.

Iron-eating bacteria that live at the huge depths of the Titanic are slowly eating away at it, and it’s estimated that in less than twenty years there will be nothing left of the ship but rust piles. The documentation and objects are key, and our only way of really glimpsing back at this important history lesson.  I say history lesson, because the Titanic really stands as an example of what happens when mankind’s arrogance gets the better of us.  The Titanic was thought of as an unsinkable ship so the disaster served as a stark warning of the dangers of open ocean travel, and the regulations that needed to be put in place to help safeguard future passengers from these dangers.

Icebergs are now routinely monitored thanks to the disaster, and every ship that carries passengers is required, by law, to have enough lifeboats on it for the passengers and crew on board, along with lifeboat drills and inspections.  These examples are key reminders of why the Titanic disaster and it’s legacy are so important and still fascinating. I think if the Titanic serves as anything, it’s an example of not only mankind’s breathtaking ambition in building something larger than life, but also of what happens when we try to do too much not taking nature into account.

In the meantime, as the submersible touches down on the ocean floor and the grand bow of that mighty ship gradually comes into ghostly view for the first time, we must ask ourselves whether we are headed for the same fate. Ploughing ahead, as James Cameron suggested, into a collision course with our own proverbial iceberg, that of environmental and resource issues.

As the sub traverses around the giant monolith on the sea floor, it’s inhabitants now long gone, let us hope we won’t share their fate, and that this, our own giant undersea creature, will not be the only evidence of our journey’s into the abyss.  That as we progress, we can make positive advances into this area; coexisting as we do with nature’s own giants, who call this alien world, home.

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