Encyclopedia Titanica

The ocean is my whole life!

Interview with the legendary Mir Submersible Commander Anatoly Sagalevich

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First of a two-part interview with Anatoly Sagalevich. In part one he describes his early career, the development of the Mir submersible and the exploration of the Titanic.

Anatoly Sagalevich has devoted more than 40 years of his life to the ocean and so it is rare to find him at home.  He continues to lead scientific expeditions on the edge of the world; to explore the most hidden corners of the world's oceans.   Perhaps, he is better oriented in the ocean depths than in the vast city of Moscow.

Hero of Russia, Technical Sciences Ph.D., Head of the Laboratory of Deep-Sea Manned Submersibles (the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences), Professor Anatoly Mikhaylovich Sagalevich granted me rare interview.

He is the only Russian to have won the 2002 Underwater Oscar at the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences at Hall of Fame in the Florida, USA, for his many years of underwater research. While for diving to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole, the Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded him by the Gold Star medal of the Hero of Russia.

Awards
Anatoly Sagalevich with one of his international awards for exceptional lifetime contributions to deep ocean exploration in manned submersibles at his office at P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Russia.

How did you become an explorer of the seas and oceans?

My childhood was at wartime, and we could not dream of distant wanderings.  Later I read Jules Verne's novels.  One of my favorite pieces was The Amphibian Man by Alexander Belyaev and The Abyss by Conan Doyle. 

Having received my education, my first place of work was the Institute of Automation and Telemechanics of Academy of Sciences of the USSR. I was immediately assigned to develop marine measuring and hydro-acoustic devices, including fulfilling orders from the Soviet Defence Ministry.  At the Institute I made my first scuba diving and first expeditions and in 1965 I transferred to the Institute of Oceanology.  There I developed measuring devices for the study of oceanic sedimentary strata.

In 1971, I went to Canada to observe the manufacturing process of the Pisces apparatus with a working depth of 2000 meters, which was being built by order of the Institute and the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. This was a start and a good school since International Hydrodynamics Ltd. in Vancouver was one of the largest firms in the world making modern underwater manned vehicles.  At that time, we made also underwater manned submersibles in the Fishery Ministry and in the Soviet Navy but the Canadian Pisces with a submersion depth of 2000 meters weighed 11 tons, while our similar Sever-2 weighed 45 tons.  Small, maneuverable submersibles are easier to operate.  We received two Pisces submersibles in 1975 and 1976.  One "Pisces" was on the board of the research vessel Akademik Kurchatov in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and another was on the board of the Dmitry Mendeleev in the Pacific Ocean.

We conducted a large, complex series in the rift zones of the ocean (the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the East Pacific Rise, on the seamounts of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans).  We used the Pisces manned submersibles  over a long period and gained vast experience in their operation, noting both their advantages and disadvantages. We used this experience when creating the new Mir submersibles.

Yuri and Anatoli
Anatoly Sagalevich and author Yury Plutenko near model of Russian Mir deep manned submersible.

Tell me, how the Mir submersibles were created.

We lacked depth.  98% of the ocean floor is within a depth of 6,000 meters.  The invention of a syntactic (a solid, floating, high pressure-resistant composite made of glass microspheres connected with a plastic epoxy resin) had made it possible to dramatically reduce the weight and size of the submersibles so envisaged building submersibles with a working depth of 6,000 meters.  Now our submersibles are able to reach 98% of the bottom of the world ocean.  Only 2% of the ocean floor is deeper than 6,000 meters: basically, the oceanic trenches and troughs filled with sediment. The most interesting places in the ocean are at depths of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 thousand meters, where there are hydrothermal fields.

Initially we looked for foreign companies that could make such submersibles but there were political difficulties, since at that time all deep-sea equipment made in capitalist countrie was prohibited for sale to the Soviet Union and other socialist countries.  But we found the Finnish company Rauma Repola and they, in conjunction with our scientific and technical engineering project, built the two Mir deep-sea manned submersibles using modern Western technologies.  The Soviet industry, of course, could have built a deep-sea manned submersibles with similar characteristics but it would require more financial investment than buying abroad.  The two Mir submersibles cost $40 million.  They were named in common with the Mir Soviet space station; the word Mir means Peace in the Russian language.

The Mirs were built very quickly: in May 1985, we signed the contract, and in December 1987, both Mir submersibles conducted deep-sea tests in the Atlantic Ocean.  We tested the Mir-1 submersible at a depth of 6170 meters, and the Mir-2 submersible at a depth of 6120 meters.  Both Mir submersibles were equipped with modern photo and video equipment for underwater shooting. Today, a long-range locator can detect objects on the bottom from a distance of 1,500 meters.  There was not a single case that we did not find objects, knowing the coordinates with an accuracy of 1-2 kilometers Two manipulators allow selection and lifting from the bottom of objects from fragile to heavy - weighing up to 80 kilograms.

How many countries have submersibles like the Mir?

There are only four submersibles in the world today that can dive to a depth of 6,000 meters, as follows - Nautile in France, Shinkai-650 in Japan and two Mir submersibles in our country Russia.  In the United States, there is the Alvin submersible with a maximum immersion depth of 4500 meters.

Jacques Piccard, who reached the Mariana Trench, who was staying with me, called the Mir submersibles of the 21st century.  The "Mir" submersibles are the most modern and perfect deep-sea manned vehicles and our ship The Akademik Keldysh is the most popular in the world: during calls to ports, hundreds of people come to look at the ship and the Mir submersibles.

There were reports that the Mir submersibles are able to reach 7 500 meters?

Yes, they can.  The Mir submersibles are unique.  The spheres are made with a large margin of safety, at a depth of 5000 meters overboard, the pressure is 500 atmospheres, that is, a force of more than 160 tons acts on the window, which is equal to the weight of 4 tanks.  The porthole is made of acrylic glass.  I once dived 3000 meters with ex Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. He was overwhelmed by our Mir submersible's technology

Which expeditions do you consider as the most significant?

Among them are our researches of hydrothermal fields on the bottom of the ocean, special technical work on the Komsomolets Soviet nuclear submarine, filming on the Titanic, filming the German battleship Bismarck, the Japanese submarine I-52 and other objects.

The most interesting places in the ocean are at depths from 2 to 6 thousand meters.  These are mid-ocean ridges, hydrothermal fields, which are the most active zones at the bottom of the world's oceans, where black smokes literally rage, fluids that are carried out from the bowels of the oceanic crust under high pressure and at temperatures from 300 to 400 degrees Celsius at the mouth of the "smoker".  The hydrothermal field is just a small oasis of life on a huge area of ​​the bottom and it is very difficult to find it.  At these depths there is an exuberant biodiversity: white anemones, eels, crabs, whole swarms of hydrothermal rimikaris shrimp.  The impression is that you seem to be swimming in shrimp soup.  In our expeditions, we discovered several new species of shrimp for science.

This biodiversity gives the impression of a real oasis against the backdrop of rare fish, starfish, sponges, corals, occasionally found at great depths away from hydrothermal fields. Several thousand species of new animals have been discovered there, which are born and live on different principles than all life on the Earth and in the upper layers of the ocean, where solar radiation still acts.  At great depths, these animals live by chemosynthesis.  Analysis of the bottom water and representatives of the fauna showed that chemosynthetic bacteria live at the bottom, which form the basis of the food webs of hydrothermal animals.  As a result of redox reactions, organic matter, protein, is born there.  This unique phenomenon was discovered in the ocean in 1977 on the Galapagos Rift.  The existence of chemosynthesis, discovered in laboratory conditions in 1889 by our Russian scientist S.N. Vinogradsky, was confirmed: the formation of organic matter in the complete absence of sunlight is carried out by bacteria from carbon dioxide not due to solar energy, as in photosynthesis, but due to the energy received during the oxidation of reduced inorganic compounds, which are carried out by hydrothermal fluid from the deep layers of the oceanic crust.

During our dives, we discovered a huge hydrothermal structure, the deposit of sulfide ores of which is 10 million tons.  Black smokers do not smoke on it for a long time, but its top is covered with a forest of tall ocher-colored pipes: once black smoke raged here.  Hills with large reserves of polymetallic ores: copper, zinc, iron, silver, gold remain in the place of the former hydrothermal fields.  The largest of all known hydrothermal structures on the ocean floor was named after Mir submersible.  And one of the newly discovered species of hydrothermal shrimp was named Mirokaris after Mir submersible.

Titanic Bow Mir
The prow of the Titanic illuminated by one of the Mir submersibles.

Tell me about the expedition to the Titanic.

The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, 300 miles southeast of Newfoundland Island.  1,522 people died in the crash.  Alvin submersible worked there once before us, when Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found the Titanic on September 1, 1985, and the French organization Ifremer on the Nautile submersible returned in 1988.  The French then raised a lot of objects from the bottom. Our Soviet expedition was the third.  In total, the research vessel Akademik Keldysh has conducted seven expeditions on the Titanic.  During the period from 1991 to 2001, 140 dives were made to a depth of 3800 meters, where the Titanic lies.  The first time we landed near the Titanic was on July 2, 1991.  There were a lot of items there but we did not raise anything, as we had signed a special memorandum.  We made 17 dives and filmed various parts of the ship's hull: bow, bridge with steering column, passenger and officer cabins, anchors, propellers, engine room.

Artist Impression Mir Titanic Bridge
Artist's impression of the Mir exploring the Titanic's Bridge

"Titanic" broke apart into two parts: the bow dived and lay on the sediment, and the stern stood up vertically and then went down and lay down towards the bow.  The pieces lie 600 meters apart, and between them and on the sides there is a huge field of debris: a lot of iron and utensils are scattered from the broken ship: pieces of side and deck plating, bulkheads, suitcases with personal belongings of passengers, a lot of dishes, bottles, silver plates, shoes, cups, antique chinese vases, chandeliers. On the bottom there are the whole bunches of bottles of cognac and champagne.  Using the manipulator, we lift the suitcase and pull the locks: they are closed, and we put the suitcase back.  There are huge boilers on the bottom from the engine room.

We can see the engine room, which, by its weight, broke into two parts the hull of the liner, which stood up during the sinking, when the water went into the bow, at a critical angle to the ocean surface.  The Titanic's hull broke somewhere in the middle (as shown in the movie film).  And the stern of the Titanic was heavy, since the engines were situated there.  The stern is now a continuous heap of overhanging debris with huge pieces of metal sticking out of its side.

Today in the world there are several Titanic exhibition.  I have been in the Titanic exhibitions in London, Hamburg, Chicago, and aboard the Queen Mary in Los Angeles.  There are no so many items in these museums, bearing in mind that in the first expedition alone more than 2000 artifacts were raised. Robert Ballard did not lift anything from the bottom.  The French raised a lot of things and did not show everything: they were interested in personal enrichment, and not in the creation of a museum.  A lot of items have been hidden away.  If all the lifted things were collected in one place, it would be an interesting and colossal museum.  Some time later, the US Congress decided that no one should lift anything on subsequent expeditions, except for one US firm “R.M.S. Titanic".

Initially "R.M.S. Titanic" worked with the French on the Nautile submersible and raised new finds from the bottom.  In July-August 2000, by agreement between our Institute of Oceanology and “R.M.S. Titanic" we recovered objects from the debris field around the Titanic for the exhibits.  Our two "Mir" submersibles made 28 dives and raised more than 400 items from the bottom.  We conveyed all the items to the archaeologists of the American Institute for study and conservation in the museum.  In particular, we raised the Titanic's telegraph to our deck, the handle of which was pulled by the helmsman on the watch William Murdoch, trying to stop the liner, also a bronze chandelier.

Chandelier
Director of the Institute of Marine Archeology Jim Sinclair takes out Titanic bronze chandelier from the Russian Mir deep manned submersible hold

Did you find personal belongings of any of the crew members or passengers?

We found the very first cabin from the bridge on the starboard side of the boat deck.  It belonged to Smith - the captain of the Titanic.  Its external bulkhead has been destroyed so the interior is visible: a bath, and the remains of a bed.

Why were two Mir submersibles involved in the filming of the movie “Titanic”?

Working with two submersibles is more reliable, safe and efficient. The second submersible is able to free from the cable or net, bite the cable wound on the propeller. and sure, lighting from two submersibles is better as it was necessary to illuminate the wreck during the movie "Titanic" filming.

It was really amazing to see not just the rusty iron of the liner, but also our second Mir submersible above its deck, which brought the picture to life.

The Mir submersible has a wide central window (200 millimeters in diameter), which is very important for a movie camera lens.  The energy reserves of the rechargeable batteries of the Mir submersibles are twice bigger in comparison with other submersibles.  The filming was so intensive that other deep-sea manned submersibles would have been inadequate.

We worked with movie director Jim Cameron for 10 years: from 1995 to 2005.  He financed our work.  Our first expedition to the Titanic was in 1991 with the Canadian film company IMAX with the talented renowned director Stephen Low, with the great young producer Andre Picard.  A very interesting film was created.  At that time there was little contact between Russians, Americans and Canadians.  For the first time, 28 foreigners (Americans and Canadians) were on the board a research vessel of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. There was a group from the National Geographic, they filmed the 3D film. There was a group from Hollywood, led by renowned director Al Giddings, who also directed the film for CBS TV company. Of course, the company "IMAX", which shot the main film. This 90-minute film premiered by the great acclaim in Ottawa in 1992 during the 80th anniversary of the Titanic sinking.

The Mir submersibles enabled the whole world to see how Titanic appears, lying on the bottom.

James Cameron
Anatoly Sagalevich and James Cameron near the Russian research vessel “Akademik Keldysh” in Kaliningrad city after Titanic movie premiere.

Al Giddings invited Jim Cameron to the premiere of his film.  Previously, they had made an interesting film "Abyss" with underwater vehicles and divers.  After the film premiere, Jim asked Al Giddings to introduce him to me.  Al called me to Moscow and told me that Cameron had decided to shoot a natural-filmed feature film Titanic on a sunken liner with the help of Mir submersibles, which technical and maneuverable characteristics Cameron highly appreciated. In the summer of 1992, Jim and Giddings flew to Moscow, and then I flew with them to Kaliningrad to watch the Keldysh research vessel and two Mir deep-sea manned submersibles.  Everything was fine to them.  This is how the story of our acquaintance and the film began.

It took three years to figure out how to make the feature film. I remember Jim telling me when we flew to Kaliningrad: “I understand that you will do perfect deep-sea filming on the Titanic. It is important to show the magnitude of the Titanic tragedy with the help of your submersibles. But how do you imagine the main line and the plot of the feature film? "  I told Jim that “there is a lot of murder and violence in films now. Therefore, a vital and humane film is needed, and love should be the main line and plot in the film”.  Jim Cameron asked me: “What is love?  I answered: “Love is a flight!”  This idea was embodied in the movie Titanic.

He remembered our conversation.  When we met again, he told me that the film would be a love story.  For the movie, Kodak made a special film, three times thinner than usual.  Each dive lasted from 15 to 22 hours with a stay on the bow of the Titanic from 10 to 17 hours.  All filming was done on the Titanic bow.  For 19 days, 12 pair Mir submersibles dives were made (totally 24 dives), more than thirty scenes were filmed on the bottom.  After each dive, the batteries were recharged for 12 hours. 

Morning meeting
Morning meeting before the Mir deep manned submersibles dives to Titanic: D.Cree, S.Blanco, V.Moore,  James Cameron and Anatoly Sagalevich

A remote-controlled vehicle was introduced from the Mir submersibles into the Titanic liner through the central staircase or bow hold.  With the help of the remote-controlled vehicles, we examined the most secret corners inside the Titanic, into which the remote-controlled vehicles could penetrate and reach.  We saw a mahogany column in good condition.  There is a round spot on one of the bulkheads inside the Titanic liner.  From old photographs of the interior, selected by Cameron, we understand that there was a clock here, but because of the layer of rust it is not visible. On E deck we see a huge crystal chandelier: it hangs in its place like new.

Mir-1 shot with additional lighting from the Mir-2 submersible.  Jim Cameron dived in the Mir submersible, which was piloted by me.

The second stage of work on the Titanic movie took place in Halifax in August 1996. I played the role of the Mir submersible pilot in the film while searching for a safe with a diamond inside the Titanic liner.

How did you feel at the disaster site, wreckage? What did you and Cameron talk about?

With Cameron, it was already our second expedition.  That is why we knew what, where and how.  When you see Titanic liner in the picture in all its splendour and beauty, and then you see these two huge pieces of rusty iron in brown drips at the bottom, your heart aches.  This tragedy shouldn't have happened.  Its builders, crew members and passengers thought the Titanic was unsinkable.  Captain Smith is to blame for the Titanic disaster.  The Titanic captain Smith was warned many times that icebergs everywhere, but he ignored the urgent messages.

Cameron and I discussed the movie plot all the time. He strove to ensure that everything was closer to the truth, time.  All antiques, Chinese dishes, clothes were consistent with 1912.

When the film was filmed, all of these items with the "Red Star Line" [sic] signs were sold at auction to justify the huge spending on the film - over $200 million, which was a record.  But the film's profits were above $ 2 billion.  The Titanic movie was released in 1997 and had a huge success.

Actors in Titanic
The actors’ group of the Titanic movie in Halifax, Canada with James Cameron and Anatoly Sagalevich: Bill Paxton, Lewis Abernathy, Gloria Frances Stuart, Nicholas Cascone, Suzy Amis.

In 2005, we used a very thin fibre-optic cable and made the first ever online direct transmission of the Discovery Channel from the Titanic from a depth of 3800 meters via satellite to Earth. The whole planet watched our 2.5-hour program.  It was a unique operation that has no analogies in the world.  We worked with Jim Cameron as a team, and we even developed the shooting of the film and this broadcast together with him.  We constantly exchanged visits, two-hour teleconferences Moscow-Los Angeles with Cameron.  Then we also did visits to the Titanic with tourist passengers.

How much did it cost for a passenger to participate in such an expedition to the board of the Titanic at that time?

At that time, it cost 26 thousand dollars.  There were tourists from the USA, Germany, UK, Australia, Austria. Some of the foreigners have already dived to the bottom with us more than once - the ocean is so attractive, so unusual are the sensations that a person experiences at great depths.  We dive two passengers with one Mir submersible pilot to the depth and show in detail for 5-6 hours the bow and stern parts of the "Titanic" liner, the entire wreckage site.  Tourists inspect the bow, railing, deck, anchors, chains, winches, bollards, two holds (one of them contains cars belonging to wealthy people who sailed to America), a broken mast on the Titanic superstructure with an long hole “crow's nest”, in which the looking forward lookout sailors were sitting.  If they would see the ill-fated iceberg early, the fate of the Titanic liner and passengers would have been completely different ...  Then we show the steering column, captain’s bridge.  At the beginning of the boat deck we see the only surviving crane-beam [davit] for boats’ launching.  There are officers’ cabins with square portholes on the starboard side, glass in them has been preserved.

Glass in cabin windows
Cabins in the boat deck with glass remaining in the windows.

The entire "Titanic" liner from the bow to the upper tiers of the superstructure is covered with hanging rusty deposits in the form of icicles up to 30 centimeters thick over the past century.  The wood trim has largely disappeared under the influence of high pressure and sea water.  We see the bronze frame of a bench on the deck, the upholstery has disappeared, but the frame has not suffered: it is molding. Even the rusty body makes a grandiose impression.

On the upper deck we pass a huge gaping hole: there was one of the pipes.  We reach a huge opening in the middle of the deck: the central staircase that connects all decks.  It collapsed during the Titanic disaster.  In the opening we see a crystal chandelier, mahogany columns, the remains of a staircase leading to the reception hall. Further we see the second huge hole: there was a second pipe.  Further, the deck leaves at an angle of 30 degrees: the liner break line begins. Pieces of torn iron stick out. The deck breaks off and you can see the bottom with scraps of reinforcement.  We move to starboard along the promenade deck windows.  Slightly below we see the cabins’ windows of the second and third classes passengers.  The windows have survived, some of them have attached sea animals.

Did you see the place where the iceberg collided with the starboard side of the Titanic's bow?

Now only the upper part of the starboard side and the raised section of the bottom are visible. The line that the iceberg cut in the solid metal is covered in sediment.  The Titanic hit the bottom at high speed and sank a little into the ground.  On the right and left sides, the deformation of the hull is visible - a consequence of its impact on the bottom.  But during our first expedition, we saw a ragged gap of several tens of meters in length on the starboard side.

Anchor
Titanic's Port Anchor

The Titanic’s speed was 20.5 knots, when the lookout saw an iceberg 150 meters straight ahead, towering 18-20 meters above the water surface.  The alarm was immediately transmitted to the captain’s bridge at 23h40 on April 14, 1912.  The navigator on the watch, Murdoch, commanded: “Full left rudder! Stop the engine! Full back!"  But it was too late: the iceberg ripped the starboard side, leaving a long ragged gap, and, pushing off the ship, disappeared into the night.  Many years after the disaster, this terrible trail from a collision with an ice block makes very depressing impression.

We reach again the bow of the liner and head to the stern at 600 meters aside.  We go 2-3 meters from the bottom to view the disaster site.  There are very few items: pieces of iron, pieces of coal, fragments of plates and other utensils. 

During our first expedition in 1991, the bottom was literally strewn with everything that fell out of the liner.  The French lifted several thousand items on the Nautile submersible.  Now the bottom is almost clean.

There are huge metal structures that have fallen off the hull, parts of the engine room, large kitchen pots, cooking pots, and dishes in the field of debris.  We approach a huge boiler that fell out of the engine room.  We see kitchen utensils, fragments of dishes, bottles.  We approach the stern, where the left propeller is visible.  The span of its blades is 7 meters.  I stop Mir submersible just two meters from the propeller: it is amazing spectacle that beyond any description!  We rise to the stern.  It does not look like a part of a ship.  It is a continuous heap of iron with protruding ragged structures, like an abandoned landfill.  We see the engine room. Huge engines with the height of an eight-story building flank the stern. Driving mechanisms, separate parts are clearly visible.

Titanic propeller
Lights from the Mir Illuminate one of the Titanic's propellers.

During the first expedition, we sat on the top cover of a giant steam boiler.  Among the pieces of rusty iron on the lid, I noticed a shiny yellow object. With my manipulator I lifted the golden candlestick: it sparkles as good as new. I twisted it in a manipulator hydraulic hand and put it back in its original place.

Al Giddings, who directed the film, says: “Bravo! At least 30 million Americans will see and appreciate highly the Nobility of the Russians!" 

We all signed an agreement that nothing of value should not be lifted from the bottom: everything should remain as it was.

We put commemorative bronze plaques with the names of countries on the deck of the Titanic: USSR, USA, Canada.


Photos by Yury Plutenko and from the archives of Anatoly Sagalevich

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2021) The ocean is my whole life! (Titanica!, ref: #600, published 5 October 2021, generated 17th October 2021 01:25:13 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/anatoliy-sagalevich-interview-1.html