Image: Ballard
Victoria Arocho  /  AP
Robert Ballard, the co-discoverer of the sunken Titanic, points out a remote vehicle control device for use during a return visit to the Titanic.
updated 6/4/2004 6:11:30 PM ET 2004-06-04T22:11:30

The undersea explorer who found the wreck of the Titanic 19 years ago has returned to the North Atlantic site to find out why the luxury liner is decaying more quickly than expected.

Robert Ballard and other researchers hope their two weeks of surveying and researching will lead to efforts to preserve the Titanic and other wrecks and protect them from looters and thrill-seekers.

In live broadcasts from the federal vessel Ronald H. Brown, researchers said Friday they have noticed that many of the Titanic’s structures have collapsed and many items seen years ago are now gone.

It was unclear whether the items — including the ship’s bell and an ornate light from the mast — have decomposed, fallen or been stolen.

The half-mile-long (kilometer-long) debris field between the front and back sections of the severed ship also have been disturbed. In past visits, scientists saw personal items such as shoes, tools, furniture and china on the ocean floor.

Some salvagers have licenses to take items from the Titanic, which is in international waters, while others are taking items illegally.

Some masts and railings have fallen over, and the decks in places have caved in or crumbled, revealing staterooms and other parts of the ship.

Now visible is the stateroom of Titanic Capt. Edward Smith, including his bathtub.

92 years on ocean bottom
The ship sank on April 15, 1912, during its maiden voyage after hitting an iceberg. About 1,500 people died. The ship now rests at the bottom of the sea, 2½ miles (4 kilometers) down.

Because of the loss of life, some consider the Titanic site to be hallowed ground that should not be disturbed. Others believe that ship parts should be salvaged so people can learn the Titanic’s story. Salvaging items also would preserve them from damage under water.

Ballard said the context of a shipwreck artifact is lost when it is removed from the wreck. He said he hopes an international treaty could be drawn up to prevent undersea sites from being looted, as Egyptian pyramids and other ancient buildings have been.

“That is a tragic loss to human history. We cannot let that happen in the ocean,” he said.

The broadcasts are being fed to the Mystic Aquarium Institute for Exploration, founded by Ballard, and to schools and research centers nationwide.

Studying 'rusticles' and more
The researchers have surveyed the Titanic four times since they arrived Sunday.

One researcher will be studying rust-eating bacteria that are feeding on the ship. The bacteria leave behind clumps of rusty material that Ballard dubbed “rusticles” because they are shaped like icicles.

The Titanic is draped with rusticles, from the hull to the railings, that sway in the ocean currents.

Other scientists will create a detailed map and photo survey of the wreck that can be compared with surveys that Ballard did in 1985 and 1986.

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