The wreck of the RMS Titanic is being “eaten by the ocean” but will likely survive as an artificial reef for centuries, Stockton Rush, the head of OceanGate Expeditions—a company that is conducting a multi-year study of the site—told Newsweek.
The Titanic sank after colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic, around 370 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia on April 15, 1912. The ship was four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City.
The sinking of the ship, which was considered to be the most advanced of its time, resulted in the deaths of over 1,500 people—more than two-thirds of the crew and passengers that were on board at the time. The story of the tragedy holds a special place in the popular imagination, having been the subject of exhibitions, documentaries and Hollywood blockbusters—including James Cameron’s 1997 Academy Award-winning drama.
OceanGate, founded by Rush in 2009, is a company of explorers, scientists and filmmakers dedicated to investigating the underwater world, including shipwrecks, deep-sea canyons and other features. To do this, the firm operates a 307-foot research vessel that is equipped with a deep-sea submersible called Titan that can carry five crew members.
The company has already conducted two expeditions to explore the Titanic—in 2021 and 2022—and will continue to return over the next few years. It aims to survey the wreck site using advanced sonar, laser-scanning, and other technology, while capturing high resolution imagery to document the condition of the ship, as well as the marine life living in what has become a “unique biodiverse ecosystem.”
OceanGate provides the opportunity for citizen explorers to join its expeditions—the fee for joining the 2022 Titanic trip, which included a submersible dive to the wreck itself, was $250,000—as part of a unique travel experience.
“After several years of running expeditions, it became quite clear that there was really one thing underwater that almost everyone on planet Earth knew, and that’s the Titanic—and every other shipwreck or artificial reef or other object we were going to look at was so far down the list,” Rush told Newsweek. “There was just this love of the Titanic, this need to see it.”
In 2021, the focus of the expedition was mainly on the archaeology of the wreck—to map and document the rate of decay as the Titanic slowly collapses in on itself. During this trip, the team managed to capture 8K video of the wreck—the highest quality footage of the Titanic to date.
“Why it’s interesting is there are estimated to be over a million shipwrecks of greater than 50 feet in the ocean,” Rush said. “And there are tens of thousands of ships that were sunk in World War I and World War II that aren’t dramatically different from the Titanic—they’re a little bit newer. So, understanding how these wrecks decay and fall apart in the deep ocean is going to be of value, particularly some that have toxic chemicals and things like that on board.”
The OceanGate team was also able to conduct marine biology research, examining specific areas of the Titanic wreck to assess coral growth and document the types and quantity of invertebrates and vertebrates living there. The idea is then to track this underwater ecosystem from year to year to monitor any changes.
Shipwrecks like the Titanic, which lies on a flat surface known as an abyssal plain—underwater sections of the ocean floor found at depths between around 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) and 6,000 meters (20,000 feet)—can become havens for life.
“In that abyssal plain, when you’re not at the shipwreck, it’s mostly mud with the occasional rock or boulder that gets dropped by the icebergs as they come south and they start to melt. Where there’s a flat, muddy surface, there’s life but it tends to be burrowing worms and things like that,” Rush said. “When you get to the wreck, all of a sudden, there’s a surface for the marine life to attach to and you see a whole bunch of it.”
For example, coral likes to grow on shipwrecks, leading to the creation of artificial reefs, which are frequented by a host of other creatures.
“As soon as you get structure where larger creatures can hide, they start to adapt,” Rush said. “Having structure down there it’s almost like irrigating the the San Joaquin Valley, it gives structure to life and then creates its own reef. There’s been a resurgence in the last couple of decades to understand that artificial reefs are probably a net positive in the deep ocean.”
“When you when you look at some of the images we have online, it is amazing the amount of critters you’ll see there—the shrimp, the squat lobsters, a lot of rattail fish, which are quite curious and cruise around the wreck.”
During their previous expeditions, the OceanGate team visited another site about 25 miles away from the Titanic, which was the location of a volcanic reef. There, scientists have been investigating how corals have grown on a structure that may be thousands of years old compared with the wreck of the Titanic, which is only around 110 years old.
“It’s going to be really exciting, as the Titanic transforms from a shipwreck into an artificial reef, seeing how these corals grow and which ones grow. The scientists are really excited comparing that to the natural environment,” Rush said.
“The whole idea is to be able to do this year after year. There are almost no sites in the deep ocean that get visited every year,” he said. “But because of the unique nature of the Titanic, we can afford to go back there every year and see the changes.”
The wreck of the Titanic, which split in two as it sank, is decaying because of the combined effects of water pressure, saltwater and microbes eating away at the steel hull. Exactly how long the wreck will survive is not clear, according to Rush, but life may persist at the site for some time.
“People always ask about how long is the wreck going to be around and all the talk is that it’s going to be gone in 20 years—they said that 20 years ago,” Rush said. “I think there’s general consensus that at some point the bow will collapse on itself, but the site itself is going to be an artificial reef for hundreds of years.”
One of the big questions in terms of the archaeology of the wreck is when some of the primary structure starts to disappear as it is gradually eroded by bacteria.
“It’s literally being eaten by the ocean,” Rush said. “And at some point, the structure will start to go. We’ve seen that on the promenade deck as it has collapsed down. But then there is the bow which is 60 feet into the mud and we really don’t know when that’s going to start to fall in. When it happens, the experts say it should happen relatively quickly, which probably is over the course of years. At this point, the bow looks similar to what it did 25 years ago.”
According to Rush, certain structures on the Titanic that are very thick, such as the boilers and the reciprocating engines, will likely survive for hundreds of years.
“But lighter structures like railings and some of the wood that’s down there, that stuff is is decaying and going away faster,” Rush said. “You see little changes year to year, and then all of a sudden, one year, you’ll find out that Captain Smith’s bathtub is now full of debris because the roof collapsed in on it, and you can barely tell it even exists, or the officers quarter door starts to go.”
“It’s always going to be a bit of a mystery when you get down there’s—someday we’ll go down and I’m sure the forward rail will be gone because it’s been eaten away for so long.”