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The Titanic Comes to South Florida

Stephen Brown

You’ve seen the movie, you've probably even read one of the hundreds of books written about the ill-fated luxury liner. It is a ship that defines the folly of human hubris. The RMS Titanic. The name alone conjures awe and fear, retrospect and trepidation.

RMS Titanic leaving port in Belfast, Ireland - South Florida Science Center and Aquarium

At the time of its christening, the Titanic was the largest ship ever built. It was also one of maritime history’s most poignant tragedies. More than a century after it struck that infamous iceberg on April 15, 1912, dooming it and more than 1,500 lives to the depths of the frigid North Atlantic, the Titanic has yet to drift from public consciousness, inciting the imagination as well as deep-ocean exploration. Perhaps because it sunk on it’s maiden voyage — despite having been advertised as unsinkable — or because of some of the names aboard (Guggenheims, Astors and Wideners), the tragedy gave the world pause, a reflection on the course of modern technology and the increasingly industrialized world, which quickly, and inevitably, led to the First World War.

Rendering of the RMS Titanic as Dr. Ballard examines the bow section in the submersible Alvin.

Rendering of the RMS Titanic as Dr. Ballard examines the bow section in the submersible DSV Alvin.

The South Florida Science Center and Aquarium aims to dive into the history of the ship and its fate with Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition. On display in SFSCA’s traveling exhibit hall from November 16, 2013 to April 20, 2014, the exhibit, sponsored by the Quantum Foundation, retells the fascinating story of the doomed luxury liner, from construction to destruction, its subsequent discovery by Dr. Robert Ballard and artifact recovery by RMS Titanic, Inc., while giving visitors a glimpse of what it was like to be a passenger on the once grand ship.

 

Upon entry, each visitor is handed a replica-boarding pass, a memento of the past that will come in handy at the end of the exhibit. First it is on to construction, which took more than 10,000 men nearly three years to complete in Belfast, Ireland. Then on to life aboard the ship, with a replica of First Class accommodations, which cost a staggering $4,500 ($90,000 today when adjusted for inflation), as well as a replica of the Third Class quarters, which cost $40 ($900 in today’s money). Also on display are nearly 100 artifacts recovered from the wreckage of the Titanic that were strewn across the Atlantic seabed in a debris field spanning nearly 2,000 feet between the ship’s hull sections. On display at SFSCA are some of the day-to-day items that were aboard the ship, including a perfumer’s samples, china etched with the logo of the White Star Line (the shipping company behind the Titanic), and personal effects like a cigar holder, toothpaste jar and calling cards. These items help tell the interrupted stories of the 1,523 who perished and the 705 who survived that fateful night, bringing a human element to a moment that has mostly been relegated to history and lore.

Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition - South Florida Science Center and Aqaurium - Boarding Pass
A child examines his Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition boarding pass. A replica of actual boarding passes from the ship's maiden voyage, guests can visit the Memorial Gallery to discover if their boarding pass belonged to one of the lucky 705 survivors or one of the 1,523 who perished.

Also part of the tour, an “iceberg” for visitors to touch and a Memorial Gallery, where ticket holders use their boarding passes to see whether their passenger and travelling companions survived the harrowing night or perished in the icy waters.

 

Dr. Robert Ballard aboard the Knorr - Woods Hole Oceanographic InstituteBut behind this story lies another of discovery and technological achievement that, ironically, stems from the industrial might that berthed ships like this Olympic class liner. The search for the wreckage of the Titanic began in earnest when Jack Grimm, an eccentric oilman from Texas who was almost as famous for his search for Sasquatch and Noah’s Ark, threw his wealth behind the quest in 1981. His three expeditions came up empty-handed. But, in 1985, Kansas-born oceanographer, Dr. Robert Ballard (right) struck pay dirt, discovering the bow and stern of the ship, hull snapped in two, and debris strewn between the two on the seabed 13,000 feet below the surface. Aboard the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute research vessel Knorr and using the logbook of the SS California, a ship infamous for its lack of aid during the sinking of the Titanic, Ballard surmised the wreckage site was at least 10 miles from where previously believed (turned out to be 13.2 miles). Using an innovative system of submersible robots, a boiler was spotted at 12:48 a.m. on September 1, 1985. The following day, as the submersible Argo illuminated the seabed with artificial light, the main hull sections filled the video screens aboard the Kroll close to 2 a.m., eerily close to the time the Titanic sunk at 2:20 a.m.  

 

“While scientific important discoveries are made every day,” said Lew Crampton, CEO and President of SFSCA, “there are few as stirring and dramatic as those researched and recovered from Titanic.”

Bow of the RMS Titanic as it sits 12,500 feet below the surface

The bow of the RMS Titanic as it sits 12,500 below the surface. Covered in "rusticles," stalactite structures formed by a bacteria that feeds on iron, the famed shipwreck is slowly degrading due to pressure the equivalent of 380 atmospheres, salt and acid, and salvation and deep-sea tourism.

A notion seconded by oceanic explored, Robert Ballard, whom I spoke with in 2012 about his deep-sea adventures: “There is more history in the deep seas then all the museums of the world. People think that it is just a dark place and nothing is going on, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

 

Following the discovery, RMS Titanic, Inc. led eight research and recovery expeditions between 1987 and 2010, recovering some 5,500 artifacts from the wreckage. This recovery is something Ballard vehemently opposes, likening the shipwreck to a gravesite or historic battlefield like Gettysburg. The efforts have, in fact, accelerated the Titanic’s destruction in some places. Controversy continues to roil about the ethics of removing artifacts from the site, with some saying it is little more than grave robbing. Wherever you may stand in the protection vs. conservation vs. salvage fight, the artifacts reclaimed and preserved in the exhibition are an invaluable asset in completing the story of one of maritime history’s most infamous maiden voyages.

  • Experience part of the history when Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition comes to SFSCA from November 16 to April 20, 2014.
  • Admission to SFSCA is $15 for adults (free for members), $11.50 for kids.
  • For more information, visit sfsciencecenter.org.

Titanic propellors in dry dock 2

A shot of the Titanic's propeller in Dry Dock 2 in Belfast, Ireland.

 

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