The HMS Titanic is arguably the most famous shipwreck of all time. Following its discovery in 1985 at an astonishing depth of 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) below sea level in the North Atlantic Ocean, visitors have flocked from all over the globe to see even a small fragment of the hull, like that currently sitting in the Luxor Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas. Exhibitions across the decades have put visitors in the shoes of passengers to get a glimpse of what it was like on the Titanic, and it is clear that fascination for the tragic voyage will continue for many more years.
It’s no surprise, then, that people have been desperately trying to raise the wreck from the depths – some for noble ambitions of historical research, others for money.
Luckily, the wreck is now protected by the UNESCO convention, so it should remain in its final resting place undisturbed, but that hasn’t stopped some absolutely wild suggestions as to how the Titanic could be raised. So, let’s have some fun and go through the worst.
How are shipwrecks raised?
Before we get to the Titanic, let’s first understand how people typically recover a shipwreck in easier conditions. The short answer is: they generally don’t.
Shipwreck salvage can be big business, with the salvage value legally belonging to the salvor, but ships are often just too heavy (and that’s before counting the water that will come with them) to feasibly raise from the sea floor, unless they sank in extremely shallow waters. There also comes a question of age – new wrecks are still structurally sound, but over time, nature wears away at the wreck until it crumbles under any stress, making moving it almost impossible.
However, there are options. For light vessels, buoyancy bags can be fitted underneath and inflated, raising the wreck to the surface. In cases of old and brittle ships, such as the Mary Rose, a cage is fastened around the ship and then lifted, lessening the stress on the structure. Finally, salvors can cut the wreck into pieces that are then individually recovered, and the ship could then be rebuilt.
Being at a depth of almost 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) and weighing in at a hefty 52,300 tons, though, probably makes the Titanic a bit big for buoyancy aids and cages, and dismantling it would be risky due to its age and simply not worth the huge cost. So, scientists got a little crazy.
Could the Titanic be raised?
After Fox News' absolutely inspired idea of simply putting balloons into the wreck – because, after all, "if people care so much about the wreck of the Titanic, why not just raise it?" – we thought this was a great question. Let's see some of the best proposals.
One of the first ideas (it’s hard to tell if they were serious) is to raise the wreck using ping pong balls. The plan falls apart with the knowledge that the wreck of the Titanic is in two pieces instead of one; but assuming it was one piece, people have worked out how many ping pong balls would be needed to make the structure buoyant, if inserted into the hull. YouTuber Tom Rocks Maths does a great rundown, but the short answer is around 1.5 billion. Sadly, the pressure of 3.8 kilometers (2.4 miles) of water would render the balls flat and useless, but it has been tossed around even in physics textbooks, so some clearly believe the plan has merit.
The next idea comes from a Stamford, Connecticut engineer in 1985, shortly after the Titanic was discovered, when scientists were throwing around every idea they could think of to recover the wreck. Written about in the book The Night Lives On, the idea was to place polyester bags into the hull and then pump Vaseline into them, which would become hard and buoyant; the bags would then somehow raise the wreck to the surface in one piece.
Once again, someone did the math, and found that 180,000 tons of Vaseline would be needed to give enough buoyancy to lift the massive structure. That’s a serious amount of Vaseline – the largest cargo ship in the world can carry around 120,000 tons, so we’re going to need one and a half of those, filled to the brim with petroleum jelly.
Ignoring the logistics of somehow pumping that sheer amount of Vaseline so far down under the sea, the bags would likely just rip the top off of the decaying metal, or just pop out of the exposed side once the structure began to lift. Still, it’s a fun thought.
Finally, we arrive at by far the best and most ironic idea of them all – an iceberg sunk the Titanic, why not use an iceberg to raise it?
Before the wreck was even discovered, a man named Arthur Hickey appointed himself head of the Titanic Salvage Company in the hopes of claiming the riches buried with the Titanic (at the time valued at up to £1 billion, which is now equivalent to almost £5 billion or $6 billion). He had a dream that inspired him to inquire about the price of liquid nitrogen, which was to be used to create an iceberg around the wreck that would then float to the surface.
Hickey approached the BOC group, an industrial gases company, to make his dream a reality. It was actually checked by the scientists and they came up with a figure of around half a million tons of liquid nitrogen that would be needed. This would’ve meant creating an entire liquid nitrogen liquefaction plant above the wreck and pumping it downwards, which – shockingly – the company decided against doing.
The list is endless of ways people have tried to raise the Titanic, but these are some of the best out there. Sadly, recent surveys have shown the wreck will probably disappear forever soon, so the remains may not even survive resting on the ocean floor, much less being transported to the surface. Maybe we should start stocking up on ping pong balls before it’s gone for good.