In early August, crews aboard Triton submarine’s two-man submersible Limiting Factor, descended into the North Atlantic to visit the wreck of the Titanic resting on the seabed two miles down. What they found is that the mass of metal is quickly deteriorating due to rust, salt, colonies of sea creatures and the constant flow of ocean currents.
The team made five dives over the course of eight days under the watch of a NOAA representative. According to a press release, the sub was equipped with special cameras to capture the wreck for the first time in 4K for a documentary being produced by London-based Atlantic Productions. Besides film footage, the sub also captured images that will allow researchers to create detailed 3D models of the wreck, including virtual reality visualizations.
Since the last time the ship was surveyed by people some 14 years ago, many recognizable features have disappeared into the abyss. The officer’s quarters, including the captain's rooms, have vanished and the hull is beginning to collapse, taking the state rooms with it. William J. Broad at the New York Times reports that the crow's nest, where a lookout put out the famous warning “Iceberg right ahead!,” is gone, as well as the poop deck.
According to Titanic historian Parks Stephenson, one of the leaders of the expedition, “The most shocking area of deterioration was the starboard side of the officer’s quarters, where the captain’s quarters were.” Another part of the ship that’s disappeared? “Captain’s bath tub is a favorite image among the Titanic enthusiasts, and that’s now gone,” Stephenson adds in the press release. “That whole deck hole on that side is collapsing taking with it the staterooms, and the deterioration is going to continue advancing.”
There’s nothing conservators can do to stop the decay, which is a natural process. Expedition scientist Clare Fitzsimmons of Newcastle University tells Rebecca Morelle at the BBC that metal munching microbes are responsible for much of the decay. “There are microbes on the shipwreck that are eating away the iron of the wreck itself, creating ‘rusticle’ structures, which is a much weaker form of the metal,” she explains.
If these rusticles, which are, essentially, stalactites of rust attached to the wreck, are disturbed, they simply crumble into dust. At first, Brynn Holland at History.com reports, researchers projected that the ship might last for a very long time since it wasn’t believed organisms couldn't live at the crushing depths where the ship is located. But in 2010, researchers confirmed the rusticles were created by a new extremophile bacteria, Halomonas titanicae, which is gobbling up the hull. Mollusks, meanwhile, are eating away most of the wood left in the wreck.
Researchers will use the new images to assess how quickly the different types of metal used to build the ship erode to better understand how long it will take for the wreck to completely crumble. In a BBC story last year, Lori Johnston, a microbial ecologist and a six-time visitor of the wreck, estimated that at the current rate of decay, the Titanic has 20 to 50 years left before it becomes unrecognizable.
As National Geographic reports, the ocean liner struck an iceberg close to midnight on April 14, 1912. Just two hours later, the ship cracked in half and sunk to the bottom of the sea, leaving 1,500 people who could not find refuge in a lifeboat to die of hypothermia.
Despite decades of looking, the wreck was not located until an expedition led by the famed oceanographer Robert Ballard identified it in 1985. Since then, dozens of expeditions by explorers, artifact salvagers, tourists and unmanned vehicles have visited the ship. Some of those visits, Ballard tells National Geographic, may be hastening its demise by bumping the ship and making holes. In 2012, Ballard proposed painting the wreck with an anti-fouling paint to preserve it as long as possible, but that project has not come to pass.
Robert Blyth from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich told Morelle of the BBC that, though it’s a little depressing to watch the historic icon and grave slowly disappear, such surveys are important. “The wreck itself is the only witness we’ve now got of the Titanic disaster,” he says. “All of the survivors have now passed away, so I think it’s important to use the wreck whilst the wreck still has something to say.”