In the early hours of April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank to the bottom of the sea, about 375 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. More than 1,500 people lost their lives in the disaster, along with 8 dogs. It is said that twelve dogs were on board the Titanic, ten of which boarded along with First Class passengers. The only surviving animals were a Pekingese and two Pomeranians.
Here, Captain Smith is photographed with a Borzoi, which was presumed to be his own.
The stories of the dogs on the Titanic vary in detail, but the most widely told is that of Rigel, the Newfoundland Dog who was said to belong to the First Officer, William Murdoch.
It is told that after the ships sinking, Rigel swam for 3 hours in the icy waters. He was not taken into a lifeboat because the passengers were so weak they could not lift him. The number 4 lifeboat had drifted under the Carpathia‘s starboard bow, and the passengers were much too weak and cold to shout loud enough for the boat to hear them. However Rigel’s continuous barking as he swam ahead of the craft, announced their position and attracted the attention of Captain Rostron, who then ordered the engines stopped. Rigel had saved the lives of the the passengers of lifeboat 4. Or did he?
There is some debate among historians as to whether this story can actually be proven. The original story first appeared in the The New York Herald, Sunday, April 21, 1912. A time when the papers were paying good money for any stories related to the Titanic. It very well could have been fabricated for the sake of money. There are some who believe that a dog could not have survived the freezing water for 3 hours. This, however, is something that provides possible evidence to the contrary. Newfoundland dogs are perfectly suited to swimming in icy waters. Author Stanley Coren, Ph.D. in Psychology Today had the following to say about Rigel:
“The Newfoundland dog was bred to function in the harsh conditions of the North Atlantic. It has webbed feet, a rudder-like tail, and a water-resistant coat that make it a natural swimmer. Its body uses the same mechanisms to combat hypothermia that polar bears possess. This allows these dogs to help retrieve fishing nets off the shores of its home island near mainland Canada-actually 400 miles north of where the Titanic sank. There are also many stories of Newfoundlands rescuing people from the sea and enduring icy conditions for long periods of time. Rigel swam around, at first apparently desperately looking for his master, but after awhile he chose to simply stay close to Lifeboat 4.” (Source)
There are some reports that say Rigel was taken aboard the Carpathia, and then adopted by one of it’s sailors after there was no sign of William Murdoch after the sinking. Other reports claim that he never made it out of the icy sea. Author Margaret Muir mentions that “the body of one woman was found in the water. She was clinging to a large dog, probably a Newfoundland, but both had succumbed to the elements.” she does not mention her source for this information. (source)
It’s been over a century since the sinking of the Titanic, and details of this hero dog’s story have had a lot of time to dissolve into history. However, the story of Rigel is a wonderful tale of canine heroism, whether or not the exact details can be proven.