At Coffee Obsession in Woods Hole on Wednesday morning, Dr. David Gallo, director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), thumbed through the pictures on his iPad. But they weren’t of family members or far-flung vacations. Instead he pulled up a high-resolution photo mosaic he took of the RMS Titanic, settled in its lonely repose at the bottom of the Atlantic.
Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking during its maiden voyage that claimed 1,514 lives. Media outlets around the world have been taking note of the sad centennial.
“Here’s the bow, of course, the anchor chains are here, hatch #1 right there, the mast with the crow’s nest, cargo holds, cranes, the bridge would be in here, the Marconi room, there’s a crab sitting there on the bow,” he said. “It’s been rusting away for 100 years at the bottom of the ocean. We don’t know if it’s going to be around another 10, 50, 100 years, 1,000 years. No one knows.”
In 2010, Mr. Gallo led the institution’s latest expedition to the wreck, which was discovered by WHOI scientists led by oceanographer Robert Ballard in 1985. Mr. Gallo’s team mapped the site in unprecedented resolution and scale. Another flick of the iPad and Mr. Gallo pulls up a three-by-five-mile side-scan sonar image of the entire wreck and debris field, a moonscape flanked by sand dunes larger than the Titanic itself. In this image the ship is no more than two specks, with the bow separated from the stern by a vast expanse of sand, torn like a lobster tail during its descent. Massive 16-foot boilers scattered around the ship appear as grains of sand, making the wreck’s original discovery in the vast expanse seem even more unlikely that it was.
As Mr. Gallo sat in the coffee shop in Woods Hole, the pictures transported him far away.
“You know, it bothers me a little bit that I know out there, 1,000 miles from here, two miles deep in the darkness right now is that ship with all those secrets still inside,” he said. Mr. Gallo bristles at the cottage industry of bombastically-titled Titanic documentaries with phrases like ‘The Last Secret of the Titanic’ or ‘The Last Mystery Revealed’.
“That’s garbage. We’re just beginning to understand that ship and what’s there. Even as I sit here I’m thinking, out there in the dark there’s a jeweled Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam somewhere on board the ship,” he said referring to the collection of Persian poetry, a copy of which was lost in the wreck. “I got a letter from the archivist at Tabasco company that said ‘We had bottles of Tabasco sauce on board that ship. Here’s what they looked like, have you seen any?’ They’re there somewhere.”
Seven months after his expedition to the Titanic Mr. Gallo took almost entirely the same crew, technology and techniques south, to search for the wreckage of Air France 447, which crashed on a transatlantic flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009. The echoes of the Titanic in that grim expedition reshaped his philosophy on the efforts to salvage sunken artifacts.
“It’s starting to bother me more,” he said, pausing. “Because I’m thinking that in the case of Air France — which is the modern way of traveling across the Atlantic Ocean — it’s at the same depth as Titanic and the sea floor is now littered with the personal effects of the passengers and the parts of the plane. When does it begin to be okay to go to that site and recover pieces and put them on exhibit — someone’s shoes or someone’s iPad or iPhone or glasses? And I’m thinking the answer is never. I just don’t see that as ever being okay to do. It’s sacred ground. It’s a gravesite, a resting place.”
Months before that, floating miles above the Titanic, surveying the rusting hulk with robotic submarines, similar moments of solemnity seeped into the professional scientific and engineering pretext of the mission.
“When we were out at sea almost everyone had their moments where either the whole lab went quiet, or someone just went quiet because something struck them about something on the screen. It could be a doll, a pair of shoes, a spot on the ship next to the life boats where you know people said their goodbyes to their husbands and wives and sons and daughters and friends. Those moments — there’s nothing about science that prepares you for those moments. It’s pure emotion. And it’s okay. I get choked up thinking about it.”
He continued, saying “2,200 stories were told that night. Some people survived, some people perished and no one was ever the same again. We all hear the stories of the Guggenheims, the Astors, the Strauss families — these were the elite one per centers. But there were real people that were in third-class. These people weren’t going across the Atlantic to do business, they were coming here to start a new life, and they lost everything. They lost their families and they lost their lives. How can that not get to you? Even though it was 100 years ago, it gets to you. It’s not that long ago.”
While the romance of the Titanic will always fire the imagination of the general public, Mr. Gallo hopes to parlay that fascination to an appreciation of the mystery of the ocean as a whole, only five per cent of which has ever been explored.
“Titanic is one of the greatest stories ever told, but it’s not the only story,” he said. “We find mountains beneath the sea, we find rivers beneath the sea, we even find lakes beneath the sea — super salty lakes — and waterfalls. We find more life beneath the sea, in some cases, than in the tropical rainforest. And it’s all in that five per cent we’ve explored. We find clues to the past and keys to the future. We understand the oceans control the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink — the oceans control those things and yet we don’t really understand them at all.”