The wreck of the Titanic faces a race against time to be salvaged and saved or it could be lost forever.
A new TV documentary about the famous Belfast-built ocean liner warns it may eventually disappear unless action is taken to preserve what is left of the tragic vessel.
Experts have discovered that the ship's remains are being destroyed by voracious metal-eating bacteria on the sea floor.
Almost 110 years ago, the so-called ‘unsinkable’ passenger liner RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank into the depths of the Atlantic while on its way from Southampton to New York.
More than 1,500 passengers and crew died, and the maritime disaster remains one of the most famous in history.
The wreck site has become a holy grail for deep-sea explorers, but experts have now discovered that the remains of the vessel are being gobbled up by metal-eating bacteria.
"There’s more life on Titanic now than there was when she was on the surface," Canadian microbiologist Lori Johnston tells the documentary. "It's just not human life, it's biological and organic life."
Rusticles of up to two metres long are "alive" in the abyss after grafting onto the hull for decades after the sinking of the Titanic "brought millions of bacteria" from above.
Ms Johnston adds: "The rusticles have been known to cause deterioration up to 100kg per day of iron that it is removing from the ship itself.
"And the wreck itself of the Titanic, because it is made of steel, is a very good food source at the bottom of the ocean."
The programme looks back at the 1985 discovery of the wreck and subsequent deep-sea dives, comparing past images to show just how rapidly the Titanic’s structure has decomposed over time.
It also charts a critical 2019 mission that attempted to assess the rate of deterioration and predict how much longer it would take before the Titanic was lost for ever.
Among the experts featured is James Cameron, who directed the 1998 Oscar-winning film Titanic and who is now a deep-sea explorer, as well as imaging specialist Bill Lange, who has made multiple dives to the wreck site.
"Although the metal roof of the deckhouse is still intact, you can tell from the images that it’s dissolving away," says Mr Lange. "The degradation will probably never stop."
Now the race is on to save what’s left of the ship that was built by the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast.
Oceanographer Paul-Henri Nargeolet warns: "We have to recover artefacts, even pieces of the ship, and preserve them for the next generation — if we don’t do that, everything will be lost."
The passenger liner, operated by the White Star Line sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on 15 April 1912, after striking an iceberg during her maiden voyage.
Of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew aboard, more than 1,500 died, making the sinking at the time one of the deadliest of a single ship and the deadliest peacetime sinking of a superliner or cruise ship to date.
Titanic was under the command of Captain Edward Smith, who went down with the ship and Thomas Andrews, chief naval architect of the shipyard at the time, also died in the disaster.
The wreck of Titanic was discovered in 1985 by a Franco-American expedition sponsored by the United States Navy and thousands of artefacts have been recovered and displayed at museums around the world, including some at the Titanic Belfast.
Titanic: Into the Heart of the Wreck is on Channel 4 at 7.30pm on Sunday.