Mystery of sonar flash near Titanic solved after 26 years
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The wreck of the Titanic lies in two parts at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean, slowly sinking nearly 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) below the surface, but it is not alone. Sonar discovered some 26 years ago has now revealed that there is much more to this underwater area than previously thought.
PH Nargeolet, a veteran Nautilus submarine and Titanic diver, originally picked up the flash about the echo sounding equipment in 1996, but its origins remained unknown.
On an expedition to the wreck of the Titanic earlier this year, Nargeolet and four other researchers went to the previously recorded location of the blip to search for the mysterious object it represented. Due to the size of the blip, Nargeolet believed he was looking for another shipwreck – instead he found a rocky reef, composed of various volcanic formations, and rich in lobsters, deep-sea fish, sponges and several types of coral that could be thousands of years old.
“It’s biologically fascinating. The animals that live there are very different from the animals that normally live in the abyssal ocean,” said Murray Roberts, professor of applied biology and marine ecology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and one of the researchers on the expedition. “(Nargeolet) has done really important scientific work. He thought it was a shipwreck, and it turned out, in my mind, even more incredible than a shipwreck.”
The abyssal plain is a term used to describe the ocean floor at a water depth of 3,000 to 4,000 meters (about 12,000 feet), which makes up 60% of the Earth’s surface, according to Roberts. It is thought to be a featureless muddy seabed without much structure. Divers have spotted rock formations on the plain on several occasions. Since the recent discovery near the Titanic, Roberts now believes that such features may be more common than previously thought.
The rocky areas may also help explain the distances that sponges and corals travel across the ocean floor, which has always been a mystery to scientists. In the muddy environment where they are usually observed, there are few hard surfaces that these species can attach to in order to grow and reproduce.
“Sometimes they show up in places where we think, ‘Well, how did they get there? They don’t live long enough to get there,” Roberts said. “But if there are more of these rocky places, these steps, than we ever thought, I think it could help us understand the distribution of these species across the ocean.”
The researchers are currently working on analyzing the images and videos taken on the reef during their dive and intend to share their findings to improve the scientific community’s collective knowledge of life in the deep sea. Roberts also hopes to link the discovery to a broader Atlantic Ocean ecosystem project he is leading iAtlantic, which will enable further study and protection of the fragile ecosystem within the reef.
There is another sonar blip near the Titanic that Nargeolet hopes to identify on a future expedition. It was recorded in the same survey he conducted years ago, between the wreck of the Titanic and the newly discovered ridge – now named Nargeolet-Fanning Ridge after him and 2022 expedition mission specialist Oisín Fanning. Nargeolet expects that whatever is larger than of this ridge.
OceanGate Expeditions and their foundation — which, along with Fanning, provided financial support for Nargeolet’s dive this year — will continue its longitudinal research work on the Titanic and surrounding areas in 2023.
“The marine life… was so beautiful. It was really amazing, because I didn’t expect to see that in my life,” said Nargeolet. “I will be very happy to continue watching Titanic.”
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