National Geographic : 2012 Apr
brought to life by layering optical data onto the sonar image. He zooms in, and in, and in again. Now we can see the Titanic's bow in gritty clar- ity, a gaping black hole where its forward funnel once sprouted, an ejected hatch cover resting in the mud a few hundred feet to the north. e image is rich in detail: In one frame we can even make out a white crab clawing at a railing. Here, in the sweep of a computer mouse, is the entire wreck of the Titanic--- every bollard, every davit, every boiler. What was once a largely in- decipherable mess has become a high-resolution crash scene photograph, with clear patterns emerging from the murk. "Now we know where everything is," Lange says. "A er a hundred years, the lights are nally on." Bill Lange is the head of WHOI's Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, a kind of high-tech photographic studio of the deep. A few blocks from Woods Hole's picturesque harbor, on the southwestern elbow of Cape Cod, the laboratory is an acoustic-tiled cave crammed with high-de nition television monitors and banks of humming computers. Lange was part of the original Ballard expedition that found the wreck, and he's been training ever more sophis- ticated cameras on the site ever since. This imagery, the result of an ambitious multimillion-dollar expedition undertaken in August-September 2010, was captured by three state-of-the-art robotic vehicles that flew at various altitudes above the abyssal plain in long, preprogrammed swaths. Bristling with side- scan and multibeam sonar as well as high- de nition optical cameras snapping hundreds of images a second, the robots systematically "mowed the lawn," as the technique is called, working back and forth across a three-by- ve- mile target area of the ocean oor. ese ribbons of data have now been digitally stitched together to assemble a massive high-de nition picture in which everything has been precisely gridded and geo-referenced. " is is a game-changer," says National Oce- anic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) archaeologist James Delgado, the expedition's chief scientist. "In the past, trying to understand Titanic was like trying to understand Manhattan at midnight in a rainstorm---with a ashlight. Now we have a site that can be understood and measured, with de nite things to tell us. In years to come this historic map may give voice to those people who were silenced, seemingly forever, when the cold water closed over them." W about the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic? Why, a century later, do people still lavish so much brainpower and tech- nological ingenuity upon this graveyard of metal more than two miles beneath the ocean surface? Why, like Pearl Harbor, ground zero, and only a few other hallowed disaster zones, does it exert such a magnetic pull on our imagination? For some the sheer extravagance of Titanic' s demise lies at the heart of its attraction. is has always been a story of superlatives: A ship so strong and so grand, sinking in water so cold and so deep. For others the Titanic's fascination begins and ends with the people on board. It took two hours and 40 minutes for the Titanic to sink, just long enough for 2,208 tragic-epic performances to unfold, with the ship's lights blazing. One coward is said to have made for the lifeboats dressed in women's clothing, but most people were honorable, many heroic. e captain stayed at the bridge, the band played on, the Marconi wireless radio operators continued sending their distress signals until the very end. e passengers, for the most part, kept to their Edwardian stations. How they lived their nal moments is the stu of universal interest, a danse macabre that never ends. Hampton Sides, who wrote about explorer Fridtjof Nansen in the January 2009 issue, is at work on a book about the Arctic voyage of the U.S.S. Jeannette.