We are never going to stop being fascinated with the Titanic. Want proof? There are three different documentaries about the famous ship (and shipwreck) on SBS alone right now.
While 10 Mistakes That Sank the Titanic is exactly what it says on the tin (and be super quick, it leaves SBS On Demand on 13 October), mapping out the series of errors and accidents that led to the ship’s sinking on April 15, 1912, Titanic: The New Evidence investigates the possibility that an underreported fire in one of the ship’s massive coal bunkers may’ve sounded the death knell.
However, for me the most interesting of the bunch is Back to the Titanic, which follows the most recent expedition to dive and photograph the wreck – the first such expedition in almost 15 years.
You might think we know everything there is to know about the Titanic, but that just isn’t so. The story of the ship, its maiden voyage and its disastrous sinking is one that is still being told. As Titanic expert Parks Stephenson tells us in the documentary, “Everyone finds something different in this disaster; it’s so varied and all-encompassing.”
Indeed, in a very real way, the story of the Titanic is still unfolding. It doesn’t lie still in its grave; sitting under 3.8 kilometres of water some 600 kilometres off Newfoundland, the broken ship is subject to both immense pressure and strong currents of up to two knots. Add to that rust, decay and the aggregation of deep-sea life, and it becomes clear that the Titanic is a dynamic environment, slowly but constantly changing. Thus, we need to revisit it from time to time.
For this mission, that means a crew aboard the exploratory vessel DSSV Pressure Drop acting as support for five solo dives in the DSV Limiting Factor by Victor Vescovo – the first solo dives ever of the wreck. This is also the first time the Titanic is filmed in 4K – take that, James Cameron. The custom camera rig is also used to create incredibly detailed 3D models of the ship.
The heart of the ocean
And like Cameron’s film, this expedition also involves searching for a lost treasure of sorts. Mining millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim famously went down with the ship in his finest eveningwear while sipping brandy and smoking a cigar. However, his staterooms were torn free of the main body of the ship as she sank to the ocean floor and have never been found. One of the goals of this expedition is to locate them.
Guggenheim’s descendant, Sindbad Rumney-Guggenheim, is on hand to see if his illustrious ancestor’s old rooms are in any way intact. As a civilian, Rumney-Guggenheim acts as a sort of audience surrogate at times; although he has a familial connection to the Titanic, he’s seeing it and reacting to it much as we would, and his sense of wonder is palpable.
Watch with awe
Vescovo, an accomplished explorer and former naval officer with a pronounced Donald Sutherland vibe, is clearly excited at the prospect of diving the wreck, as are the rest of crew, Titanic veterans all. And yet a certain sombreness underpins the expedition. The wreck is, of course, the final resting place of 1517 souls, and that carries with it some weight and a demand for respect from any visitors who delve that deep (which has not always been accorded – in 2001 a couple got married in a submersible that settled on the bow in order to mimic a scene from Cameron’s film).
Add to that the inherent danger of the undertaking. Everyone involved in the expedition is a complete professional and the equipment being deployed is absolutely cutting-edge. Nonetheless, any diving carries with it a degree of risk, and going to this depth in less than optimal weather to catalogue a wreck in an unknown condition is closer in nature to a moon mission than a recreational dip. This is extremely hazardous duty.
And yet, when the encrusted bow of the Titanic looms out of the silty deep in the glow of Pressure Drop’s spotlights, it’s a genuinely awe-inspiring moment, chilling and enthralling in equal measure. Back to the Titanic is a thoroughly engrossing account of the latest Titanic expedition, but it won’t be the last.
Back to the Titanic airs at 8.30pm, Thursday 14 October on SBS. Stream it at SBS On Demand after it goes to air.