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Underwater cameras explore the Titanic. TV notes 75th anniversary of sinking

National Geographic Explorer: Secrets of the Titanic WTBS/cable, Sunday, 9-10:10 p.m. Directed by Graham Hurley and Dr. Robert D. Ballard. Written and produced by Nicolas Noxon. Photographers: Paul Houlston and Lee Mander. Narrator: Martin Sheen. A ``floating palace'' christened RMS Titantic, the largest moving object ever made by man at the time, sailed upon her maiden voyage on April 10, 1912. ``I cannot conceive of any condition that would make this ship founder,'' said the ship's captain.

Four days later the Titanic struck an iceberg about 350 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. On April 15, she sank. Of the more than 2,225 people aboard, more than 1,500 were lost, including the captain. Less than half the number of lifeboats needed had been provided, and many of those were never used.

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On Sept. 1, 1985 nearly three-quarters of a century later, a US-French scientific expedition led by Dr. Robert D. Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Jean-Louis Michel of the Institut Fran,cais de Recherches pour L'Exploitation des Mers rediscovered the sad, stately broken-in-two hulk of the Titanic 2 miles beneath the sea. In four days, their undersea cameras shot 20,000 frames of film covering some 8,000 different scenes. But it was inevitable that Dr. Ballard, for whom the discovery of the Titanic was a boyhood dream come true, would somehow return to see more, learn more, photograph more.

A few months ago, Ballard returned to the deep-water site - but this time with backing from the United States Navy as well as Woods Hole and with the National Geographic Society ex pressing an interest in more stories about the Titanic.

But, most important, he returned with a submersible called Alvin and a two-component submarine with a robot attached called Argo/Jason. Argo contains the eyes of the system, Jason the hands. There was also what Ballard describes as a ``swimming eyeball,'' christened Jason Jr.

They were able to take hundreds of thousands of pictures.

Watching ``Secrets of the Titanic'' turns out to be a strange, disquieting, saddening experience, rather than an exciting one. There is a certain eerie quiet and sense of invasion of privacy in the unique underwater footage. As Alvin and Jason maneuver within the rusted hull, the viewer feels like a nosy intruder. It is a fascinatingly unnerving adventure in time.

What expected thrills there are come when the film delves into the background of the voyage through newsreel footage, private snapshots, and scenes from a 1929 British movie dramatizing the sinking.

``Secrets of the Titanic'' is a tribute to the talent and persistence of Ballard.

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While it constitutes a memorial to those who perished in the disaster, it also stands as a stern warning against the dangers of arrogance.

After its WTBS premi`ere (and repeats Monday at midnight and the following Saturday at 9 a.m.),``Secrets of the Titanic'' will be available in syndication and eventually on PBS.

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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