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The Disappearance of the Crow's Nest

The Titanic wreck has provided us with many unforgettable images, icons and reminders of human hubris; the empty lifeboat davits...the telemotor which once held the ship's wheel and where Robert Hichens frantically flung the wheel to evade the wall of ice ahead...the noble prow emerging from the mud rather than the North Atlantic swell...and the crow's nest, mounted to the foreward mast, and where lookouts Fleet and Lee first saw the invincible force of nature, and warned the bridge by ringing the warning bell and telephoning the bridge.

The wreck of the ship was first found (at least, officially) in 1985 and provided a valuable catalogue of images. Images of the crow's nest are reproduced below.

The above montage displays a selection of photos of the crow's nest; from left to right: the nest in 1985, taken during the joint French-American IFREMER/WHOI search; two pictures taken seconds apart in 1986; and an image captured by image intensifying cameras mounted beneath the Wood's House submersible Alvin, again in 1986. The white linear object protruding from the right hand side of the nest may be the remains of a strut used to attach a canvas "weather screen" to protect the look-outs. (Sources: "National Geographic" magazine, December 1985 and "Titanic: The Nightmare and the Dream" documentary, August 1986).

The above schematic displays a crude front view of how the nest looked in 1912 (left) and 1985 (right). The dashed line indicates the location of the entry portal to the nest, which would otherwise be obscured. Note how much the nest had sagged to starboard.

In 1986, when Dr.Ballard and his crew left the wreck, they had hoped that she would be left unmolested. This naive wish was to remain intact for one year, until a French salvage team arrived on site with the intention of retrieving artefacts from the ship and debris field. It was obvious from the meagre collection of photographs and video released that something was amiss with the Titanic wreck... the crow's nest was gone. Had it been destroyed by the salvagers?

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Following the destruction of the crow's nest in 1987, this area of the foremast has shown little signs of further corrosion, comparing these shots from "Titanica" (left) in 1991 and "Ghosts of the Abyss" ten years later.

Much has been claimed about the loss of the crow's nest, most of it by people who either should know better, or can't back up their claims: for instance, Dr.Ballard writes in his revised "The Discovery of the Titanic" (1989) that the nest collapsed, "perhaps in the act of getting at the ship's telephone that was inside"; Don Lynch in "Titanic - An Illustrated History" (1992) says that "as it [the bell] was pulled from the mast, the crow's nest itself collapsed"; Ken Marschall said in a "USA Today" (1995) article that "the subermisible Nautile accidentally bumped the fragile crow's nesy, sending perhaps this most historic part of the Titanic falling in shards to the deck below" :Daniel Allen Butler claims to have seen a video, but never provided proof and this is just another example of the many lies he has told over the years; and Eric Seright-Payne, who has since feigned death, also claimed that footage showed a submersible colliding into the crow's nest in 1987, making it disintegrate. To coincide with his latest "anti-salvage" junket (8th April 2012), Ballard claimed that the crows nest was knocked off by a rogue Russian submersible. This is unfair to those who ran the 1991 IMAX expedition, to which Ballard is obviously alluding. The crows nest vanished during the 1987 expedition, as he knows.

All of these claims are either false or dubious. The ship's bell was recovered from the debris field, and, indeed, footage of the nest in 1985 and 1986 show that the bell wasn't even attached to the mast. The telephone was also retrieved from the debris field, away from the ship's hull. And the request for proof of the submersible's 'crash' was ignored, and has never been provided. The photographs below show the bell and telephone in situ on the sea bed, prior to recovery.

It should be noted that the selection of claims above come from people opposed to salvage; therefore, any proof of carelessness on the part of the salvagers is immediately seized upon to reinforce their claim that the wrecksite is hallowed ground and should not be disturbed. This information is then devoured by the masses and unquestioningly repeated, mantra-like.

So, if we dispassionately put the falsehoods aside and consider the evidence, what can we say? Was the nest destroyed accidentally, or did it collapse naturally? Before I commence, one thing should be evident; the nest was initially attached to the mast via its back panels, and also by supporting struts and a ring of rivets underneath. In 1985, the nest was perched on the mast at a precipitous angle. The only possible point of connection was at the rear portside area where the nest joined the mast. If the strength of this single point was diminished (after all, the whole wreck is festooned with corrosion) then the collapse of the nest was an inevitability. Of course, people's suspicions would question the fact that the crow's nest had stood on the wreck for 75 years and only "disappeared" when human intervention commenced. Surely the two are connected? Maybe; but we have no idea of how the nest had deteriorated between 1912 and 1985. When the Titanic came to rest on the seabed, perhaps the nest was not lying as askew as it was the ship was found in 1985?

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The collapsed crow's nest as seen in 1987 as seen in "Treasures of the Titanic", which chronicled the French recovery expedition that year. Note that the nest seems to have been pulled forward, and has been split into two major pieces. An avi file of this fly-by of the nest, obtained from the "Titanic - A Voyage of Discovery" CD-ROM can be downloaded here.

A photograph of the Crow's Nest, again from 1987, and from the collection of the late Jon Hollis. There is no further information about this picture, but it was obviously taken before the above video. Although the steel cage has been eaten through, the nest is still in position.

What could have caused such damage? has a theory, presented here; basically, after viewing the 1987 footage where the French submersible "Nautile" cleared away the cables from the portside of the bow to remove the rust that obscured the Titanic's incised name in the hull, he theorises that a movement of the cables tugged on the nest, causing it to collapse further. Ken Marschall has a few reservations on this theory, based on the tension in the cable that impinged on the sagging, starboard side of the nest.

Another theory has been proposed by Parks Stephenson in this forum. He suggests that a curved fragment of highly corroded metal on A-deck could be the remains of the nest. If so, this would mean that the nest was snagged up and aft by some means. There were no towed undersea packages (like the Wood's Hole unmanned camera sled ANGUS) in operation in the 1987 expedition, which means that the nest would have to have been caught up either in the submersible Nautile or, highly unlikely, the ROV Robin. Parks' claim needs to be verified in light of the lack of released photographs or footage of this area of this wreck. It would also be hard to reconcile this "up and aft" theory with the 1987 shots of the collapsed nest, which show it crumpled, angled forward and flattened against the foremast.

Also, G.Michael Harris, co-leader of the 1987 salvage expedition claims to have seen, and to possess footage taken by the ROV "Robin" showing the crow's nest in "the bunker hatch" [sic? - he probably means hatch 2, directly below the collapsed nest; the bunker hatch is hatch no.3, further aft]. Bill Willard claims that an effort was made to look for the nest directly underneath her last known position; if he means the well deck itself, he is mistaken as no trace can be found of it there. P.H. Nargeolet's open letter to Bob Ballard mentioned this: "I dove on the wreck 30 times, and over a period of 11 years, I was able to observe the evolution of the deterioration, from my first dive in 1987 to my last dive in 1998. During that time span I saw tremendous changes in the crow’s nest, the same kind of changes that were affecting many other parts of the bow and the stern sections. In 1993, little pieces of the crow’s nest were still on the mast, but a year later, when we went down in hatch number three with the mini-ROV Robin, those particular pieces were gone. I looked for them on the deck, just under the mast, but I found nothing. On your recent National Geographic television documentary, you again accused the French of destroying the crow’s nest. But what you probably don’t know is that the IFREMER team recorded all of its 119 dives on Titanic. There are 800 hours of videotape, documenting our work from our first expedition in 1987 to our final dive in 1998. I watched all 800 hours of the video, several times, and I can certify that the Nautile never touched the crow’s nest during any of our 119 dives."

Mosaics of the wreck as seen in 1986 and 2004 are presented below. Larger versions can be found in Dr.Ballard's "The Discovery of the Titanic" and "Return to Titanic". The images have been annotated to include the location of cables that impinge on the crow's nest, and also the area where Parks Stephenson claims to have seen the remains of the nest.

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As one can see from the "Titanica" and "Ghosts of the Abyss" shots, a cable is still snagged under the starboard remains of the base of the crow's nest. The two cables that snake from the area of the nest to the bollards along the portside edge of the forecastle are still there and don't seem to have moved; one of these cables still seems to connect with the nest, but in the 2004 mosaic, the cable appears to run near the underside of the foremast. The lack of perspective makes it difficult to be definitive about this. However, on the starboard side of the foremast, and lying on the well deck, appears a cable which was not there in 1986. One end trails to the foreward starboard side of the well deck, the other is lying almost under the crow's nest and seems to have been snapped off from... somewhere. Could this be the remains of the cable that Roy Mengot hypothesises pulled the crow's nest apart?

An excellent compilation of shots of the crows nest is here

Postscript, June 10th 2011: I was still intruigued by Parks Stephenson's description of the collapsed crows nest. On his website, he writes: "I was particularly struck by a curved steel panel that straddles the sagging bulwark at centreline. Because it rested atop the bulwark, it had to have settled there after the sinking. I was able to look for and examine this panel closely from the Mir and determined that it did not come from the bridge above. The panel is made from thin steel and is now largely corroded. A row of rivet holes runs parallel to the starboard edge. It is my belief that this is what remains of the crow's nest, which unexpectedly disappeared not long after the wreck was first discovered."

Was there any photographic evidence to back this up? Tentatively, we can say yes.

The 1986/7 condition of the bridge.

Noted artist Ken Marschall painted a before-and-after comparison of the bridge area of the Titanic, which was reproduced in "Exploring the Titanic" and was later displayed, with corrections, on the back page of the Volume 12, No.2, 1988 issue of the "Titanic Commutator" as well as "Titanic - An Illustrated History" and "Ken Marschall's Art of Titanic." The area below the bridge is shown to be intact, although sagging from the centre line to port. It is this area that Parks claims he saw the crows nest.

From Ghosts of the Abyss
The area were Parks claims to have seen the crows nest remains was imaged in 2001 during "Ghosts of the Abyss" and 2005 (a still being released by Robert Goldsmith). These are presented here.
From Goldmsith's dive

It is clear that we are looking at the same area; I have marked the B deck window which has a distinctive stain of bright orange below it. The vertical stanchion I have marked is the only one that survives in this area of the wreck; there were three originally, and this is the starboard-most one. Note how the A deck railing is peeled forward to port of this stanchion in 2001 and 2005. The screengrab of the 2001 image is partially obscured by the mosaic of images overlaid with background, but it is clear that the only "sagging area" is the A deck railing; Goldsmith's picture is taken looking along B deck forward, and in the larger version on his website, one can even seen the forward mast, very faintly in the background.

From the 1986 dive

Ken Marschall doesn't mention this "collapse" of the A deck railing in his 1985/6-2001 comparison report. Roy Mengot also depicts this area in his model of the wreck as seen in 1985/6. In reviewing all the overhead SIT (Silicon Intensified Target, or night-vision camera) that has been released publicly, the National Geographic's "Secrets of the Titanic" (1987) shows this area, and as can be seen from the enclosed screengrab, the B deck bulwark is intact; the relevant area of the bulwark is highlighted in red. Thanks to newly divulged footage and photographs on the Titanic modelling site, this "peeled back" area of the A deck bulwark is upright and intact in footage that was presumably taken before 2001 (the footage is undated). How "natural degredation" could result in solid steel being ripped and bent is unexplained, but I suspect that the weight of the foremast falling down has "rippled along" B deck pulling the bulwark down. Sadly, this is not the first time that Park Stephenson's research and analysis has been shown to be severely wanting.

Without further imaging it is impossible to tell, but I strongly suspect that the "crows nest" is just the A deck railing, which is indeed seen on the centre-line of the ship. Mark Draper suggests on this thread that the curved section could be the gear box for the telemotor on the bridge, which can be seen on the roof of A deck in the photo to be seen on the message in that link.

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