Titanic wreck still inspires awe for explorer, 30 dives on
French explorer Paul-Henry Nargeolet was part of the first expedition to reach the wreck of the "unsinkable" Titanic in 1987, and 30 dives later he says the magic still remains.
The remains of the transatlantic liner hold no secrets for Nargeolet, a retired French Navy captain who is now director of underwater research for RMS Titanic, Inc., the official custodian of the vessel.
He has led six of the eight official expeditions to the site of the epic maritime disaster some 12,400 feet (3,780 meters) down at the bottom of the North Atlantic.
Among the 5,000 artefacts his teams have recovered is a 20-ton section of the ship's prow.
"It's the most beautiful piece, with its anchor chains, its still shining hoist, as clean as if they were polished that very morning," Nargeolet said.
He is just as passionate about the debris field trailing away from the wreck which contains thousands of objects, and the steady deterioration of the wreck he has visited over the last quarter century. His last expedition was in 2010.
No light penetrates so far down in the ocean's depths, and the remains of the ship are shrouded in "complete darkness," Nargeolet said, explaining divers use huge projectors to light their way.
"But they are a bit like dipped headlights, they don't shine too far," he said.
"The water is extremely cold ― at near-freezing temperatures ― and there is a current which is quite strong," Nargeolet added.
"On some days, it looks like it's snowing on the wreckage due to particles falling down from the Gulf Stream," a powerful Atlantic ocean current.
His most memorable encounter remains that fateful day 25 years ago when he discovered the legendary ship for the first time.
"There were three of us in the submarine. Not a word was spoken for 10 minutes. Usually we talk a lot in a submarine, but we were very emotional. It was breathtaking," Nargeolet recalled.
"We were lucky to come upon it at the front section ― the most beautiful part. We went back up along the hull. We knew this was the Titanic for sure and then we reached the stern."
The Titanic split in at least two major sections as it sank after hitting an iceberg four days into its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York in the early hours of April 15, 1912. More than 1,500 people lost their lives.
The after part broke up and everything that was in that section "is in a pile of debris, to the east of the ship's stern," according to Nargeolet.
"You can see dishes, pieces of machinery, boilers, a lot of coal. We found a little bit of everything ― very beautiful objects, vases, but also pieces from the boat that had been completely twisted and bent, showing the very intense stress on the hull when it broke," he said.
Over the course of the expeditions, the longest of which lasted eight or nine weeks, Nargeolet and other divers hauled back to the surface thousands of items, including dishes, clothing, documents, personal belongings from the passengers and pieces of the ship now shown in exhibitions.
"We have not recovered anything from inside the ship," Nargeolet said, adding that all the items were recorded, along with the place they were found and the owner's name, if known.
Emotions ran high at times, like when the explorer read a French musician's score left in an open leather trunk.
Saturated but nearly intact, the sheet of music was later treated and preserved.
"We also salvaged some handwritten letters that can still be read today," Nargeolet said.
Of all the objects brought back to shore ― and Nargeolet says thousands more still lay on the ocean floor ― he has his favorites such as a small watering can and a cherub that used to stand at the bottom of the rear staircase.
The century-old wreck is continuing to deteriorate, with "increasingly visible" results, he said.
The damage is making its way to the front of the ship, which had been in better shape than the rest, and is now reaching the grand staircase, while the decks are falling apart.
But Nargeolet remains fascinated by the site.
"I love wreck sites, whatever they may be," he explained. "I like to find them, pull on a line and bring back a piece of history."
Nargeolet, who led an expedition in the Atlantic to search for the wreck and black boxes of a 2009 Air France crash that killed 228 people, is now working with several researchers to map out the entire Titanic site.
That project is nearly complete.(AFP)