Has the Time Come to Let Titanic Rest In Peace?
It is arguably history's most famous shipwreck, but irrespective of the continuing fascination in Titanic, is it now time to leave the tragic ship alone?
JULY 26th, 2021
here has always been a unique enchantment surrounding the Titanic. For over a century the iconic ship’s tragic fable has fascinated the masses leading to countless explorations of it’s rusting wreck. Stories and conspiracies have spiraled amongst the history books and experts as they’ve strived to uncover what really happened on the night the ocean liner, deemed unsinkable, struck an iceberg and sank on the morning of April 15th, 1912. With dozens of deep sea dives to the ocean floor of the North Atlantic by scientists and explorers, Titanic has revealed some of her secrets, but not all of them.
But with the last visit to the wreck taking place in 2019 - the first in fourteen years - showing the once glamourous ship had disintegrated much more than expected, is it now time for Titanic to be left alone to its inevitable fate?
Titanic sank upon her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. She was - at the time - the grandest ship ever made. The sister for two identical ships - Olympic and Britannic - owned by the White Star Line company, Titanic’s stature was one of opulence, size and speed. With such excitement and spectacle surrounding her departure from Southampton, the press prophetically dubbed her “unsinkable”.
Days into her maiden voyage, and as she struck an iceberg in the freezing waters of the Atlantic, the world would come to discover that Titanic was not “unsinkable”, and the cost of such a statement was unimaginable.
There were 2,224 passengers aboard Titanic when she sank, 1,500 sadly perished in the tragedy, and most of those lost went down with the ship. The sinking was, and remains, one of the greatest singular losses of life in a man-made accident. Due to both human error and flawed design, Titanic’s sinking still intrigues and horrifies. The lack of lifeboats - 20 in all for over two-thousand passengers; the order to speed up when the risk of icebergs was noted beforehand, and the ship’s rudder being too small resulting in Titanic’s inability to swerve the iceberg all contributed to her foundering.
But away from the mechanics, the fable of the ship’s sinking lies with the acts of the passengers and crew, as well as the coincidences which have shadowed Titanic to present day. Take for example the fact that Titanic was never christened - deemed a bad omen amongst sailors. Edward. J. Smith, the ship’s captain - who elected to stay behind and go down with the ship, was set to retire after Titanic’s maiden voyage. The first class band played as the ship sank, with the final music piece noted as “Nearer, My God, To Thee”, and the claim that passengers spotted another ship on the horizon as the Titanic began to take on water. Each myth and legend surrounding the ship has only added to its intrigue, and for nearly eight decades Titanic evaded discovery, enabling these myths to take on a life of their own.
However, that all ended in 1985 when the wreck of Titanic was discovered by a French-American Expedition headed by Jean-Louis Michel and Robert Ballard. Resting at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean at a depth of around 12,500ft, the secrets of the famous ship were revealed. And one such secret, which had been debated since her sinking, was seemingly confirmed upon the discovery of the wreck. Titanic had broken apart in the final moments of her sinking. The bow, whilst mostly intact due to flooding with water before she plummeted to the seabed, could be explored; the stern was almost completely obliterated thanks to air pockets exploding under the immense pressure of the ocean depth as it descended.
Since the wreck’s discovery there have been many missions to salvage artifacts from the wreck. Plates, passenger trunks, clothes, cabinets, even a large section of the ship’s hull have all been returned to the surface. In total over 4,000 artefacts now sit in museums dedicated to the story of Titanic’s tragically short life.
While some felt - and continue to feel, that these operations are in the interest of both science and history, others are left feeling differently. Even those who embarked on the first salvage expedition no longer feel it is appropriate to take items from the confines of the wreck. Their reason is one that is both simple and sobering.
It isn’t easy to see Titanic as anything other than a man-made relic of a bygone era. The rusting skeleton of a grand ship disintegrating before our eyes until it is gone forever. With this outlook comes the overwhelming sense to capture as much of Titanic’s tormented magic as possible before it runs out, before the ocean claims back its greatest victim. Yet in reality, Titanic is much more than a shipwreck, or an historic artefact - it is ultimately a mass gravesite.
Dotted around the site of the wreck, including the bow, stern and debris field, there are neverending signs that Titanic once harboured precious life, that of men, women and children. Glasses, hats, coats, trousers, shirts and shoes lay scattered across the sea bed. The flesh and bones of those who wore them eventually washed away. These solemn heirlooms are the lasting footprint of the thousands of passengers who never made it to New York, lying where their owner’s bodies solemnly came to rest.
The last visit to the shipwreck was in 2019, not for salvaging purposes, but to track and identify the rate of decay of the ship’s hull. Due to microorganisms feasting on the ship’s iron, Titanic’s wreck is disintegrating piece by piece. Thankfully, the results from the expeditions discovered that the initial prediction of rapid decay was flawed and Titanic isn’t expected to completely vanish within the next twenty years. However, in the fourteen years since a living human being looked upon the wreck, much has changed. The mast, holding the crowsnest where the iceberg was first spotted, became further damaged, with the crowsnest completely vanishing. The iconic bathtub belonging to the ship’s captain has since fallen through into the bowels of the ship, and the hull's iron walls have begun to fold away from the inner decks leaving new areas of the wreck left open to exposure from the microorganisms. Titanic is slowly dismantling, and although it is slower than predicted, a day will come when she will be no more.
For those who have visited the wreck in person, being faced with such identifiable loss of existence both aesthetically and humanly has left them in tears, and planted questions in their heads of the morality of taking artifacts from Titanic. For filmmaker James Cameron, who’s movie Titanic in 1997 became one of the biggest and most successful movies ever made, it is a thought process he has conducted with every dive he’s made to the famous ship.
“It’s so easy to get lost in the excitement of seeing Titanic,” he said in an interview in 2019. “Whether it’s your first time seeing her or the tenth, the magic is still the same; it’s still powerful.
“But for me, I always stop and make everyone aware of what happened on that ship, why we are here at the ocean seafloor looking upon one of the grandest ships ever made. I think of the tragedy, loss of life and acts of heroic bravery. It’s then, when you start to see Titanic through the lens of humanity that you stop seeing just a shipwreck, but a poignant and solemn tomb that really should be left alone.”
The calls to do just that - leave Titanic alone - have swiftly risen in recent years. Many historians and Titanic experts are now actively questioning whether it is both morally responsible and necessary to retrieve any more artifacts from the ship. Can we really learn anything new from the relics strewn throughout Titanic? Or should we now accept that there are some secrets that this grand ship will never reveal?
Perhaps the latter’s time has now come.
Titanic was a majestic wonder, forever instilled into hearts and minds, as well as history, due to the tragic circumstance that placed her at the bottom of the ocean. But whilst the fascination in the sinking will never abate, and the story of the “unsinkable” Titanic will continue to the end of days, after a century surely now we should allow Titanic to see out hers in peace, and away from the prying eyes of the living.
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