On the 32nd anniversary of the discovery of the wreckage of the Titanic, Conor Kane talks to an underwater explorer, the first Irishman to set eyes on the doomed ship on the bottom of the ocean floor.
You’re in a thick-walled, 18-tonne, submersible craft in a space spanning less than 3m in diameter with barely room for three people.
It’s hot at first, then you venture for two-and-a-half hours from the surface of the ocean to its depths, two-and-a-half miles from sea level, and by now it’s very cold.
It’s dark and quiet and the pressure of the ocean water against the outside of your sub is such that if anything “went wrong”, you wouldn’t even know about it, you’d already be dead.
You reach the bottom, a level of the ocean so deep that fewer people have been at these depths than have been in outer space.
Lights come on from the sub but at first all you can see is a vast expanse of mud, then some of the organisms that are able to live in these extreme conditions. It will be almost 10 hours before you return to the surface of the ocean.
Then, eventually, you see it. “A great wall of steel rivets ” which ordinarily would have no business being in this part of our earth.
“And that’s when you get the realisation that you’re looking at one of the world’s most famous wrecks, something only a few people have seen,” says Rory Golden, remembering the expedition in 2000 which led to him becoming the first Irishman to set eyes on the wreckage of the Titanic.
For various reasons, the Titanic and its maiden voyage and tragic fate still cling to the imaginations of people across the world, so much so that Titanic Belfast, the visitor centre on the site where the giant liner was built back in the early years of the last century, has already recorded almost 4m visits since it opened in 2012.
Visitors get the chance to relive the history of the ship and its construction before the journey to Southampton and the departure on its voyage across the Atlantic, stopping off at Cobh along the way.
Following its sinking in 1912, with the loss of over 1,500 lives, the Titanic lay unseen at the bottom of the Atlantic until the wreckage was discovered in 1985 by an expedition led by Dr Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel and which included National Geographic cameraman Ralph White.
In 1988 a number of underwater exploration enthusiasts brought White to Dublin to give a talk — interest was such that he ended up giving two before returning many times in the following years — and he became a firm friend of Golden, a link which helped secure the latter a place on the 2000 expedition.
Footage taken during Dr Ballard’s 1985 journey to the Titanic can be seen at Titanic Belfast, under a glass floor which gives a bird’s eye view of the wreckage and where it lies.
“That’s the nearest people will get to seeing it,” says Golden, from Dublin.
Today is the 32nd anniversary of that discovery of the wreckage.
Golden, already an experienced diver by the time he encountered the Titanic on the ocean floor, 650km off the Newfoundland coast, recalls the various emotions which swept through him at that moment in 2000: the “awe-inspiring” vista prompted feelings of excitement, joy, and also sadness.
Five years later, he was there again. “We were filming for a BBC Northern Ireland documentary [A Journey to Remember] and you’re looking around and you see the decay of the wreckage and its collapse. In the five-year gap, I saw a huge amount of deterioration. The ship is collapsing and the rate will accelerate and it’s all because of a type of micro-organism that is eating the steel.
“Eventually, in time, it will just collapse on itself and the bow piece might be the only recognisable piece. You’re very struck by the decay around you and thinking about what this great ship was like. Remember, it was on its maiden voyage, it was brand new. Now it’s a time capsule.”
During his 2000 expedition, Golden spotted a cylindrical object sticking out of a pile of debris in the wreckage.
“I had a pretty good hunch of what it was.”
Following the object’s recovery using a robotic arm, that hunch was confirmed.
“It was actually the remains of the wheel of the Titanic.”
It was so well-built, and well-preserved, that three stumps of the wheel’s spokes were still discernible from the central brass hub.
This was one of two wheels on board the ship and the expedition brought the piece back to the surface, before convention was followed, allowing those on board the sub who found the artefact to be the first to hold it. “Ralph [White] said, ‘Rory you spotted, you hold it’. I was the first person to touch the wheel of the Titanic since it went down. It was just one of those buzzy moments.” Made all the more poignant by the thought that the last person to touch that wheel before Golden was probably Captain Edward Smith himself.
Of course, some may think that such objects should be left where they fell, to rot with the rest of the ship. But, as Golden points out, the history would then be more easily forgotten.
“The whole artefact recovery issue is something people have strong opinions on. My view is that the artefacts — which can never be sold individually — are part of a global exhibition. It’s what draws people in. They are artefacts of a great tragedy; the ship area itself is a monument to a great tragedy.”
That tragedy, with its huge human legacy, is commemorated by a plaque which Golden brought from Cobh and left with the wreck in 2000, and two plaques brought from Belfast, and the former Harland & Wolff shipyard where the Titanic was built, in 2005.
“To be able to go back and see a plaque I had placed five years previously, on the bridge, was quite something.” Indeed, it was that plaque from Cobh which helped eventually secure Golden a place on the MIR submersible which ventured from the surface of the ocean. With dozens on the mothership, “there was no guarantee of a dive”.
By 2000 Golden had been venturing underwater for over two decades, both as an instructor and commercial diver, and a member of the Irish Underwater Council. Not to mention his 15 years as managing director of Virgin Records Ireland, a position he left in 1999 when changes were sweeping across the music industry, before he founded his Flagship Scubadiving Company.
Would he venture back a third time to the site?
“I’ll put it to you like this: The first time I went I never thought I’d go back, and I did. After the second time I went, there have been no manned dives since. There may be manned dives next year, but the reality is that nothing has happened since then. Never say never, but I really don’t know.”
These days, Golden still has his company and retains his love of the seas, heading off last weekend, for example, for some recreational diving around Inishbofin.
“I love going underwater. It’s another world and the world of underwater exploration has brought me to places I’d otherwise never have seen, encountering the deepest part of the ocean where the Titanic lies in its grave.”
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