Greenwich resident Paul Henry Nargeolet watched NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin press his fingers against the submarine window as they plunged nearly 12,500 feet into the North Atlantic abyss during a 1996 dive.
The sharp-nosed bow of the RMS Titanic appeared in the vista, illuminated by the pale blue light of the submarine. Though shrouded in rust and seafloor sediment, it has always been the most breathtaking part of the vessel, said Nargeolet, director of underwater expeditions for RMS Titanic Inc. and co-director of the company's 2010 expedition.
"He told me that he felt like he was taking a trip to the moon," Nargeolet said of Aldrin's reaction to Titanic, which was ripped open by an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland on April 15, 1912, during her maiden voyage. "For 10 minutes, not one of the 12 people onboard said a word."
Following a 22-year career in the French Navy, Nargeolet, 66, has led five expeditions to Titanic and 30 submersible dives, salvaging more than 5,500 artifacts from the seafloor debris field surrounding the wreck. In January, he participated in a roundtable organized by National Geographic that included the world's foremost Titanic experts, including filmmaker James Cameron and Nargeolet's colleague David Gallo, co-director of RMS Titanic Inc.'s 2010 expedition.
Indeed, Nargeolet's work has broken boundaries in the field of underwater exploration. The 2010 expedition alone created Titanic's first comprehensive site map with an unprecedented level of detail, he said.
Using an autonomous underwater vehicle, a camera mounted on a torpedo-like structure, the research team created a seafloor photomosaic composed of more than 130,000 pictures. The images serve to "virtually raise the Titanic in 3-D," said James Delgado, the head archaeologist of the expedition and director of maritime heritage at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
"My metaphor is that, for the first time, we can look at an area the size of Manhattan and zoom right in to a single tulip in Central Park," said Gallo, also director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. "We can see a crab crawling up the port side of Titanic."
The expedition's findings will be the subject of History Channel's upcoming documentary "Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved," which premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday. Delgado, who was responsible for compiling the expedition's final report, claims that Titanic now bears "no more secrets" because their research presents a compelling theory of how Titanic broke apart and how its mangled pieces scattered across the ocean floor.
"This represents a fundamental change in how people can work to understand sites at depth," Delgado said. "Processing the data created something that raises the bar and sets a challenge for expeditions and explorations to follow."
Delgado hopes the success of the expedition will be impetus to advance scientific understanding of the world's oceans, which remain largely unexplored, he said. But, for most divers who study Titanic, the passion for the wreck extends far beyond mere scientific motivations, researchers said.
"Just below the surface in this scientific coldness is an intense passion for this ship," Gallo said. "When I first came to Wood's Hole in 1987, I was only interested in pure science of the deep sea," he said, referring to Woods Hole (Mass.) Oceanographic Institution, a private, nonprofit corporation dedicated to furthering research and education in the field of oceanography.
"But, as I began to know Titanic better, I realized that there are thousands of stories at that spot in the middle of the ocean. It worked its way into my work, my mind and my soul."
Researchers share a desire to surface the lost stories of passengers that perished aboard the ship, Gallo said.
Nargeolet recalled salvaged artifacts that stood out as "very emotional" -- a man's trunk filled with sheet music, a clarinet and letters to his fiancee, still legible after nearly a century buried on the muddy ocean floor.
"I think all of us that worked on that site are always clearly aware of the tremendous tragedy that played out because we see evidence of those that died," Delgado said. "Sometimes, you look around the control room and see that people have moist eyes. And then you realize that yours are also moist."
Researchers suggest that artifacts from Titanic are far more than simply windows into the past -- rather, they are glimpses into the mirror. The sinking of Titanic remains a compelling story on the eve of its 100th anniversary because it still speaks to human folly and people of all walks of life, Nargeolet said.
"I wonder, why are people so fascinated with the Titanic after a century?" Nargeolet said. "I think everyone can find something they like in it. Onboard, there were rich people, poor people and immigrants coming to North America pursuing a dream."
The narrative of Titanic is rich with the personal histories of its passengers, which can contribute to controversy surrounding the salvage of artifacts from the wreck. Nargeolet has encountered families of survivors that both denounce and support his efforts to preserve Titanic, he said.
"One woman told me, `I think what you are doing is great,'" Nargeolet said. "`By the way, my mother forgot her necklace on the side table of the cabin. Can you bring it back?'"
RMS Titanic Inc. reserves the sole right to salvage artifacts from the wreck site. Notably, the company appointed Nargeolet to a 1998 expedition to supervise the recovery of the "The Big Piece," a 15-ton slice of the ship's starboard side hull, which is now on display in Las Vegas's Luxor Hotel.
While Nargeolet claims RMS Titanic Inc. has exercised its right to salvage respectfully, critics protest its parent company Premier Exhibitions for the upcoming auction of over 5,000 items, which The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday could sell for up to $200 million.
Nevertheless, the historical value of recovering artifacts from the deep cannot be undermined, said former Greenwich resident Matt Tulloch, son of RMS Titanic Inc.'s late president and Nargeolet's close friend, George Tulloch.
"People can't access Titanic like they can Gettysburg or the Louvre," Tulloch said. "If these artifacts are not recovered, they will be forever lost. My father and I both really felt that it would be much more valuable to the public to put them on display."
The late George Tulloch, who was RMS Titanic Inc.'s president until 1999 and a town resident, encouraged Nargeolet to settle in the U.S. After years of commuting across the Atlantic to consult for American Titanic expeditions, Nargeolet decided to move to backcountry Greenwich permanently in 2001, aided by Tulloch, he said.
"Greenwich is very important to me because this is where it all began," Nargeolet said of his Titanic career.
Nicole Narea is a special correspondent. firstname.lastname@example.org