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The prow of the Titanic shipwreck is quickly getting rustier, scientists say. (Atlantic Productions Photo)

Scientists and enthusiasts are due to visit the wreck of the Titanic next summer in a submersible built by Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate – but what will they see?

Based on a newly completed expedition, they’ll see a hulk that’s decomposing almost before their eyes.

That’s the word from members of a deep-ocean exploration team who visited the site, nearly 13,000 feet beneath the surface, during a 10-day expedition in late July and early August.

Team leaders included Caladan Oceanic explorer/pilot Victor Vescovo, Titanic historian Parks Stephenson and Rob McCallum of EYOS Expeditions. With the aid of a technical crew from Triton Submarines, they surveyed the wreck during a series of five dives in the DSSV Limiting Factor, a two-person Triton 36,000/2 submersible.

The exploration team captured 4K video footage of the wreck using cameras that were specially adapted for the bone-chilling, high-pressure environment of the deep. The imagery will be used in a forthcoming documentary film by Atlantic Productions – and transformed into photorealistic 3-D models of the Titanic site for augmented-reality and virtual-reality platforms.

Stephenson said he was shocked to see how the wreck has deteriorated. Salt corrosion, metal-eating bacteria and deep currents are contributing to the decay.

“The most shocking area of deterioration was the starboard side of the officer’s quarters, where the captain’s quarters were,” he said in a news release. “The captain’s bathtub is a favorite image among the Titanic enthusiasts, and that’s now gone. That whole deck house on that side is collapsing, taking with it the staterooms, and the deterioration is going to continue advancing.”

Vescovo said he wasn’t prepared for how large the wreck was.

“It was extraordinary to see it all, and the most amazing moment came when I was going along the side of the Titanic and the bright lights of the submersible reflected off a portal and came right back,” he said. “It was like the ship was winking at me. It was amazing.”

The team laid a wreath at the site and held a short ceremony in honor of the 1,503 people who died in 1912 when the liner struck an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic, 370 miles south of Newfoundland.

This was the first crewed scientific expedition to the Titanic site in 14 years, although there have been film projects, robotic surveys and tourist trips since then.

Lori Johnston, a scientist at Droycon Bioconcepts who’s a veteran of past expeditions, said the wreck’s breakdown is sure to accelerate.

“It’s a natural process,” she said. “These are natural types of bacteria, so the reason that the deterioration process ends up being quite a bit faster is a group of bacteria – a community working symbiotically to eat, if you will, the Iron and the sulfur.”

If things had turned out differently, OceanGate’s Titan submersible would have been making dives to the Titanic over the past couple of months. The privately held venture has been testing its innovative carbon-composite craft for months in Puget Sound and in the Bahamas – and it signed up squads of customers willing to pay more than $100,000 each to be part of the crew and participate in the dives.

In June, however, last-minute complications relating to the Titan’s intended mothership forced OceanGate to reschedule this summer’s dives for next summer.

“We were aware there was another crew diving on the Titanic this summer,” Kyle Bingham, expedition manager for OceanGate Expeditions, told GeekWire in an email. “Though the Titanic wasn’t their priority, they took the opportunity as they passed over in transit to their next dive location.”

OceanGate’s plan calls for making repeated trips to the Titanic to document its condition with high-resolution imagery as the years roll on. Based on today’s reports, those trips are likely to chronicle the quickening collapse of one of the world’s most famous shipwrecks.

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