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Titanic wreck: when & where was it finally discovered?

Finding the doomed ocean liner took years, but once Titanic was finally discovered, its wreck raised even more questions, speculation and interest

Robert Ballard with an image of Titanic’s upper deck
Published: April 19, 2022 at 7:38 am

There were talks about attempting to raise Titanic from its watery grave in the Atlantic almost as soon as the survivors had stepped safely onto dry land. However, it wouldn’t be for another 73 years that the wreck would finally be found.

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Many ideas, from the impossible to the ridiculous, were suggested as means to locate and raise the ship, including the use of electromagnets and helium balloons. One suggestion that didn’t come to pass was to use liquid nitrogen to freeze the water surrounding the wreck, causing it to float back up to the surface. It was estimated that this would have required half a million tonnes of nitrogen.

Pictured underwater, one of Titanic’s engines – four-storey structures that once powered the ship
One of Titanic’s engines – four-storey structures that once powered the ship. (Photo by Xavier DESMIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

In 1953, Southampton-based salvage company Risdon Beazley made the first serious, yet unsuccessful, attempt to locate the wreck. Further suggestions were put forward throughout the following decades but financial difficulties and disputing accounts of where the ship actually sank saw all of these fall through – even the Walt Disney Company considered launching an expedition. Between 1980 and 1983, Texan oilman Jack Grimm financed three expeditions, which all failed to find any conclusive sign of the wreck, though it is believed that one of his sonar devices may have passed near it but failed to detect it.

Dr Robert Ballard, an American oceanographer and marine geologist, made his first attempt to find the ship in 1977, but an equipment malfunction put an end to this. Over the next few years, he created new technology to aid in deep-sea exploration – a remote-controlled deep-sea vehicle with sonar and cameras named ‘Argo’, which could send live images, with a robot named ‘Jason’ attached to it, which could take close-up images and gather specimens from the sea floor.

In 1982, Ballard approached the US Navy with an offer of collaboration – they agreed to finance his search for Titanic and give him use of research vessel RV Knorr if he would first look for two missing navy submarines. After locating the second submarine and with only 12 days of his expedition window left, Ballard’s team began their search for the missing liner. Instead of looking for the hull of Titanic, Ballard’s strategy was to search for its debris field, which would be spread over a much larger area. This strategy worked, and just before 1am on 1 September 1985, debris was spotted littering the ocean floor; soon they came across a boiler and then the ship’s hull itself. Titanic’s final resting place had been discovered.

Where is the Titanic wreck?

The ship was lying 373 miles off the coast of Newfoundland and 3,800 metres deep. It lay in two main pieces, resting about 600 metres apart. For the first time in seven decades, new images of Titanic were seen in newspapers across the world. Many more explorations and dives followed. During the production
of his 1997 film Titanic, director James Cameron undertook explorations into the wreck, using the footage as inspiration, as well as incorporating some of it into the film. These expeditions revealed that much of the ship’s interiors were in remarkably good condition, and objects including clothes and jewellery had survived intact, having spent the intervening years shut in trunks and drawers.

Titanic was found 13 miles away from its distress location given at the time of the sinking, due to a one-minute error in transcribing their star sight timings into ships time. Titanic survivors were lucky that its actual sinking position was reached by Carpathia on its way to the incorrect distress position, but they were very unlucky that the nearby Californian, only about 12 miles away and within sight of the sinking ship, mistook Titanic and did not come to its aid, partly due to the peculiar atmospheric conditions that night.

Underwater, the bathtub of Captain Smith of the Titanic, in 1996
Captain Smith’s bathtub in 1996. Sadly, a survey of the wreck in 2019 reported that the bath had completely disappeared as the ship and its contents continue to deteriorate. (Photo by Xavier DESMIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Who owns the Titanic wreck?

Today the wreck is protected by a treaty between the British and American governments, as well as UNESCO. This allows control over entry to the wreck and the removal of artefacts. However, recent expeditions to Titanic have revealed that the ship is deteriorating at a rapid rate – metal-eating bacteria and salt corrosion are contributing to the loss – and it may soon completely vanish forever.

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This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Emma Slattery WilliamsStaff Writer, BBC History Revealed

Emma is BBC History Revealed’s staff writer, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirates queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiles HistoryExtra’s Victorians newsletter and can be heard interviewing historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.

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