The diver who has spent more time than any other at the wreck of the RMS Titanic, Paul Henri Nargeolet, tells Ellie O’Byrne about the joys and controversies of diving at the site, as he prepares to host a talk about his work in Cork, where his family lives. Ticket details for the Cork talk follow below.
Paul Henri Nargeolet is matter-of-fact - nay even jolly - when discussing the risks associated with his work.
“If you are 11m or 11km down, if something bad happens, the result is the same,” the 73-year-old former French Naval Captain says, chuckling merrily. “When you’re in very deep water, you’re dead before you realise that something is happening, so it’s just not a problem.”
Paul Henri’s mirth comes from a question that may seem silly to him, but which is completely normal for those of us unused to exploring the deepest parts of the planet’s oceans: Isn’t he ever scared down there? The answer, obviously, is no. But that doesn’t mean he’s never moved by what he sees.
The Frenchman, who specialises in deep-diving and piloting submersibles, has had a varied and interesting career since leaving the Navy, from exploring a possible site for the mythical city of Atlantis to last summer’s participation in the Five Deeps expedition, exploring the deepest parts of all five of the earth’s oceans, breaking the record for deepest submersible dive, at a breath-taking 10,928m below surface.
But for the most part, his career has revolved around the great, ghostly hulk of the wreck of the Titanic. Paul Henri has been on many dives to the dark seabed where the ill-fated liner lies at a depth of 3,810m.
But he still remembers the first time he laid eyes on the ship’s bow, the most intact part of the vessel whose sinking proved fatal to 1,500 men, women and children.
"I was imagining the people on the deck, and all the things I already knew about the Titanic were going through my mind."
It’s a fittingly sombre response to the site, which has been subject to speculation as to the potential presence of human remains since oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the wreck in 1985.
Following the maritime disaster in April 1912, just 340 bodies were recovered from the icy North Atlantic, leaving around 1,160 souls lost at sea. Paul Henri says he’s frequently asked about the possibility of bodies trapped in the wreckage, but that reports of visible remains in the so-called “debris field” - a 5.2sq km area surrounding the ship’s resting place - are inaccurate.
“First of all, it’s important to remember that during the tragedy, very few went down with the ship,” he says.
“The passengers would have almost all made their way on deck. We haven’t found bodies; I saw a stupid website that said bodies have been found outside the ship but that’s not possible. The sediment on the ocean floor around the ship is very acidic, around pH4. That means any organic material at all, including bone, would dissolve very fast.
“We never see bodies in the debris field. Inside the ship, I don’t know. There could be people trapped in a room. Especially close to engine room, because the engineers were unbelievable; that’s a story in itself. The engineers stayed in the engine room till the last minute and gave their life to try to save the passengers, so if anyone was trapped, it could have been them.”
Paul Henri lives in Connecticut, while his adult children live in Cork, where his grandson attends the city's Cork Educate Together National School.
He would very much like, he says, to arrange for a touring exhibition of artefacts to be shown at Cobh’s Titanic museum.
Some family members of those who died aboard the Titanic want the site left untouched in memory of the dead, while others take a more grounded approach: Paul Henri recounts the tale of being approached after a talk he gave by a woman who asked him, “my mother left her necklace on the sideboard in her cabin; can you get it for me?”
This is one controversy, which Paul Henri and the company he works for, RMS Titanic Inc, skirt by respecting the boundaries of the ship itself: they only salvage items from the debris field and not inside the wreck. But they do salvage.
Following the discovery of the ship’s remains a strange race for her salvage, dictated by antiquated Admiralty Law, unfolded, and RMS Titanic Inc, a subsidiary of a company called Premier Exhibitions which owns museum venues in locations around the US, won the race; they were deemed salvor-in-possession and were free to take what they saw fit from the ocean floor, but not inside the wreck.
“Under Admiralty Law, in the US, you take some salvage from the wreck and go to a judge and say, ‘your honour, I’ve recovered this salvage and I want to be in charge of this wreck,’ and the judge decides to give you this statute,” Paul Henri explains.
Again, some families have objected, as well as people who feel profiteering is inappropriate in what is arguably the public domain of historical knowledge.
In the year of the Titanic’s centenary, 5,000 artefacts from the ship, including personal possessions such as eyeglasses and jewellery as well as ship’s fittings including a cherub who once adorned the famed Grand Staircase, were auctioned by RMS Titanic in New York as a single lot, with a value of over $189 million.
Paul Henri remains pragmatic about the intersection of business interests, respect for the dead and public and scientific interest. His work has not only been in salvage, he says, but in helping to map the site, and chart the course of its deterioration.
“These expeditions have cost $50 million,” he says. “Of course, the company want some return. I was in Atlanta (the company’s base) a few days ago and there are 60 people working there on preserving the artefacts and preventing their degradation. That costs money.
“At the beginning we were scared to recover artefacts owned by passengers but then we realised we could learn a lot about the passengers. We are resurfacing the history of these families, and for me that’s a good thing.”
There’s a microscopic reason for preserving remains of the Titanic on land instead of leaving them at sea: the ticking time-bomb of an iron-eating bacterium called H Titanicae, which is munching on the remains at the astonishing rate of 500kg per day, according to Paul Henri.
“That might seem a lot, but the ship is 50,000 tonnes,” he says. “Still, I have seen the difference myself. It is deteriorating, step by step. The decks are starting to become sandwiched, compressed. Personally, I think we should save these objects .
“Or we can leave everything on the bottom in the darkness forever, to disappear.”
Paul Henri is hosting an ‘Exploring the Titanic’ talk in Cork as a fundraiser for Cork Educate Together National School, where his grandson Matthieu is a pupil.
The Grattan Street school’s two portable buildings, currently used for support classes, are condemned and need to be removed from the school yard.
As a result, the school urgently requires funding to produce a permanent solution: extending the school hall building to a second storey.
All proceeds from Paul Henri’s talk will go towards funding this work. A link on the Eventbrite booking form allows an optional extra donation to the project.
Where and when?
■ Friday, October 18 at 7.30pm in UCC’s Boole Lecture Theatre 4
■ Tickets, €15 per person