UNCW Professor Leads Research on Titanic Expedition to Understand the Surrounding Deep-Sea Ecosystem

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Dr. Steve W. Ross, adjunct faculty member in the Center for Marine Science, will be the chief scientist of the 2022 Titanic Survey Expedition commissioned by OceanGate Expeditions of Nassau, Bahamas. Dr. Ross will lead an international team of scientists this summer in a first-of-its-kind survey of the marine ecosystems on and near the Titanic shipwreck.   

“This opportunity to be working with some of the best scientists in the world continues to put UNCW in the forefront of marine research,” said Dr. Ross, who specializes in deep-sea corals, fish and submarine canyons. “Previous dives to the Titanic have focused mostly on the wreck and associated archaeology. We are seeking to compile a list of every living creature we can identify inhabiting the Titanic wreck site to understand this unique deep-sea ecosystem.”

The infamous Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic, a British luxury passenger ship that sunk during its maiden voyage in 1912, rests about 2.4 miles beneath the ocean’s surface off the coast of Newfoundland and serves as a refuge for life forms like corals, squat lobsters, brittle stars and rattail fish.  

Ross and scientists from the U.S., Canada and the UK will conduct a series of five 10-day missions that begin and end in St. John’s, Newfoundland, aboard a research class expedition vessel. They will descend to the wreck utilizing OceanGate’s Titan, the world’s only five-person manned submersible that can go that deep. This unique vessel will allow researchers to gather data at the site, collect high-definition video and photography and conduct environmental DNA analysis.

“We want to understand what sustains the fish and corals that make this deep ocean artificial reef their home, what is in the water column, and add a biological layer to the GIS mapping effort that began last year,” said Ross. “In addition to collecting important ecological and archaeological data, we hope this new information will also contribute to conservation of the wreck site.”

For deep-sea ecologists, the expedition represents a unique experimental opportunity to study how the wreck has affected the ecology for several hundred years. According to Ross, they will be able to better determine if the decomposition of the iron and steel that makes up the wreck is detrimental to the ecosystem or enhancing the soft bottom habitat.   

“The opportunity of Dr. Ross and colleagues to study ecosystems on such a unique and historical artifact, the RMS Titanic, with cutting edge non-invasive techniques offers unprecedented insights into one of the largest environments on Earth,” said Dr. Ken Halanych, executive director of the UNCW Center for Marine Science.

As Ross prepares for his departure in July, he is most excited about the potential for discovery.

“Every time we do a deep-sea mission, we discover something new that is unexpected,” said Ross. “Anticipating new discoveries is very exciting. Will we discover a new species or new predatory behaviors? A whole range of things is possible.”  

-- Krissy Vick


Submersible descending underwater

OceanGate’s Titan will allow researchers to gather data at the site, collect high-definition video and photography and conduct environmental DNA analysis.