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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    David Christensen of Amherst had the privilage of riding in a submersible to the floor of the Atlantic Ocean to observe the wreckage of the Titanic.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Styrofoam cups, carried outside of the submersible in mesh bags, were crushed by deep sea pressure during Christensen's dive on the Titanic.
  • Courtesy photo

    Amherst native Dave Christensen, center, with the other two crew members who took a Russian MIR capsule to the wreck of the Titanic in 2005
  • Courtesy photo

    A plate from the Titanic lies on the floor of the ocean near the wreck
  • Courtesy photo

    Diver Dave Christensen waves from the hatch of the Russian MIR capsule before he and two crew members embarked on their 2005 Titanic dive
  • The front page of the April 16, 1912 Nashua Telegraph announces the news everyone feared
  • Courtesy photo

    The remains of Titanic's crow's nest, where lookout Frederick Fleet shouted "Iceberg right ahead!" 100 years ago this weekend
  • Courtesy photo

    A close-up photo of Titanic's bow taken during Dave Christensen's 2005 dive
  • Courtesy photo

    A motor on the Titanic, as seen through a porthole in the MIR capsule
  • The Nashua Telegraph of April 20, 1912, carried the story of Milford school teacher Emilio Portalupi, who was returning from Italy on the Titanic. He later sued White Star Lines for $17,500 for the loss of personal property.
Saturday, April 14, 2012

Titanic, up close and personal for local diver

Dean Shalhoup

Dave Christensen had me on the edge of my seat, hanging on his every word. We were on a rare journey to one of Earth’s most fascinating places, an undersea voyage through fading light into pitch darkness that would turn even Captain Nemo green with envy.

Suddenly, I blinked and wanted off the ride. Christensen, an upbeat, friendly guy and practiced communicator, broke a big smile. “Oh, it’s awesome. Not for everyone, though.”

Not one who’s bothered much at all by tight spaces, crowded rooms or elevators, I still felt a creeping onset of claustrophobia, certainly a reaction brought about vicariously, but quite unsettling nonetheless. But I balanced it with the awe with which I listened to Christensen describe what it was like being shoehorned, shoulder-to-shoulder and knee-to-knee, into a tiny steel capsule with two other full-size men and plopped into a seemingly bottomless sea.

And that was just the beginning of his tale.

Christensen, an Amherst native and 1986 Milford Area Senior High graduate now living in Manchester, set out on this 2005 diving expedition as the media relations component of underwater exploration expert G. Michael Harris’ handpicked team. Their destination that summer was a comparatively tiny rectangle in North Atlantic water where, some 21⁄2 miles below the surface, lies the most revered and mysterious debris field in the world.

Thrilled to simply be part of the mission, Christensen, an entertainment and information specialist by trade, would get a visit from Lady Luck on that excursion. “I never thought I’d be diving,” he said with that big smile. “You can’t imagine how excited I was. More people have been in outer space than down there.”

Ah, “down there.” As spine-tingling, awesome and breathtaking the photos and footage I’ve seen over the years, and as mind-bending the faint prospect of a first-person account, I’m sure these visions of sinking in the sea in an oversized egg like a rudderless corkscrew would elicit a full-blown wimp-out.

Since swallowing a heaping spoonful of Titanic history and lore that summer, Christensen has modified his business model to include working on traveling Titanic exhibitions, auctions, recreations and ways of retelling the thousands of personal stories played out during those harrowing 160 hours a century ago.

Expedition leader Harris’ father, G. Michael Harris Sr., was a Titanic exploration pioneer, making three excursions in the 1980s. Each time, the crew narrowed the Titanic’s exact resting spot a little more. But because of unclear circumstances, Christensen said, there were no more expeditions.

Enter Robert Ballard, a former Navy man who, the story goes, was on a secret Navy mission somewhere in the North Atlantic when, in 1982, he approached the Navy and introduced his underwater robot “Argo.”

“He figured as long as he was in the area, why not look around for the Titanic?” Christensen said. Ballard got the Navy’s OK, and the rest is history.

Eventually, though, Harris Jr. applied for and received Titanic salvage rights, Christensen said. Inspired by his father’s earlier explorations, he said, Harris Jr. “worked really hard to get the rights.”

Harris’ dedication has come to fruition in many ways, one of which is a unique permanent exhibit in Orlando that, a la Plimoth Plantation, involves live actors who re-create Titanic’s five days in historically correct rooms with genuine artifacts. At the time, Christensen was Harris’ vice president of business affairs and media relations, and was on the team that launched the 20,000-square-foot exhibit. He’s also consulted on the new Titanic museum that opened this week in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the Titanic was built.

Christensen also has been working with R&R Auctions, of Amherst, on a coming auction featuring Titanic items. There’s a Titanic deck chair ($10,000 opening bid), correspondence from White Star Line owner Bruce Ismay, a handwritten note by band leader Wallace Hartley, an ephemera connected to Titanic commander E.J. Smith, some telegrams and more. Bidding starts April 19. Visit for more information.

After years of study, Christensen said he subscribes to the so-called “grounding” theory, that Titanic simultaneously “rode up” and alongside the iceberg more so than striking it squarely. The theory explains the Titanic’s two distinctive gashes, one in the side and one in the hull, which explorers discovered about a decade ago. “We’ve been able to find hull pieces that suggest that’s what happened,” he said. Meanwhile, the dive, for which the crew used a tried-and-true Russian MIR capsule, lasted 12 hours in all. The spot, an estimated 1,000 miles east of Boston and 400 miles south of Newfoundland, takes two hours each way, leaving about eight hours of “wow” time. “It seemed like 15 minutes, no kidding,” he said. “There’s just so much there.”

As the capsule neared the Titanic, its floodlights came on, bringing into focus scenes few will ever see close-up. Back to the sweaty-palms parts: “You’ve got to be extremely careful,” Christensen said. “If you get stuck and can’t break free, that’s it. There’s no rescue missions. Once your oxygen is gone … ”

“OK, enough, I get it,” I thought.

Another potential danger, which seems less likely but far more merciful, is a breach. Should the capsule develop even the most miniscule pinhole, or if a seal on one of the 7-inch-thick portholes becomes compromised, Christensen said, “You’d never know it. They told us it would take two nanoseconds, and we’d essentially be vaporized.”

Still, all the risk is well worth it, he said. Even when the ship approached ground zero, Christensen was captivated. “As amazing as it was being at the bottom of the sea, it was more so being on the surface,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘I’m in the exact same place the Titanic was, looking up at the same stars.’ It’s really eerie. It’s so emotional.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443 or