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National Geographic - THE TITANIC

Unseen Titanic - FREE Feature Download

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At 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912, the "unsinkable" R.M.S. Titanic disappeared beneath the waves, taking with her 1,500 souls. One hundred years later, new technologies have revealed the most complete – and most intimate–images of the famous wreck.

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By Hampton Sides
Photograph by Walden Media
Issue: April 2012

The wreck sleeps in darkness, a puzzlement of corroded steel strewn across a thousand acres of the North Atlantic seabed. Fungi feed on it. Weird colorless life-forms, unfazed by the crushing pressure, prowl its jagged ramparts. From time to time, beginning with the discovery of the wreck in 1985 by Explorer-in-Residence Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel, a robot or a manned submersible has swept over Titanic’s gloomy facets, pinged a sonar beam in its direction, taken some images–and left.

In recent years explorers like James Cameron and Paul-Henry Nargeolet have brought back increasingly vivid pictures of the wreck. Yet we’ve mainly glimpsed the site as though through a keyhole, our view limited by the dreck suspended in the water and the ambit of a submersible’s lights. Never have we been able to grasp the relationships between all the disparate pieces of wreckage. Never have we taken the full measure of what’s down there.

Until now. In a tricked-out trailer on a back lot of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), William Lange stands over a blown-up sonar survey map of the Titanic site–a meticulously stitched-together mosaic that has taken months to construct. At first look the ghostly image resembles the surface of the moon, with innumerable striations in the seabed, as well as craters caused by boulders dropped over millennia from melting icebergs.

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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.