Undersea tourists and souvenir hunters are hastening the decay of the Titanic, says U.S. explorer Bob Ballard who discovered the world’s most famous shipwreck nearly 20 years ago.
In a visit last June to the site of the Titanic -- his first since 1985 -- Ballard was shocked at how fast the wreckage had deteriorated and he wants Congress to pass legislation giving greater protection to the sunken vessel.
Most alarming, he said, was damage caused by submersibles landing on the deck of the Titanic, which hit an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912, on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York.
“It’s sort of like going into the Louvre (Museum in Paris) with a bulldozer,” said Ballard of the submersibles landing on the deck of the once-luxury liner.
Ballard will be in Washington this week, lobbying for Congress to approve a treaty signed by the State Department in June aimed at protecting the wreck of the Titanic.
He hopes France and Russia -- from where many tour operators to the Titanic operate -- will sign the treaty. Britain signed the accord in November 2003.
In his 2004 expedition to the Titanic, Ballard used a remote operated vehicle to take thousands of digital images of the ship and compared them against pictures taken in 1985.
Most notable was a deterioration of the promenade deck where submersibles had bumped or landed on the ship. In 2001, an American couple got married in a submersible on the deck.
Pictures showing these changes are in Ballard’s glossy new book “Return to Titanic” published by National Geographic, where Ballard is an Explorer-In-Residence.
In addition, the mast has been stripped of its bell and its brass light is missing. There was a recent gash on the bow section where the name Titanic used to be and part of the brass telemotor which once held the ship’s wooden wheel is twisted.
There was less biological decay than Ballard expected although much of the ship was covered in icicles of rust.
About 6,000 artifacts have been removed from the Titanic and its debris field since Ballard found the ship 13,000 feet below the surface of the North Atlantic.
There are two schools of thought on the Titanic -- one that it should be salvaged and the other, like Ballard, that it should be preserved as a mark of respect for the 1,523 people who are buried in the deep sea grave.
“The greatest museum on earth is beneath the sea and we have the technology to go there. The question is, are we going there to appreciate this history or plunder it?” said Ballard.
He understands the fascination people have in wanting to get close to the vessel. Movies such as the 1997 blockbuster ”Titanic” have only boosted this curiosity.
But Ballard says new technology could turn the Titanic into a virtual museum rather than have diving companies take clients down there and salvagers plunder it. The Titanic could be ”wired up” to beam out information to people’s home computers.
“We have robots on Mars, we have put humans on the moon, it’s not a big deal to have live access to the Titanic.”
He fears if the Titanic is not protected then other lesser-known ships have no hope of being respected.
“If we can’t protect the Titanic, we can’t protect anything. The Titanic is my soap box to talk about this larger issue about ancient history,” he said.
He estimates there are more than a million ships of antiquity lost in the deep sea and like the Titanic, these could provide important information about our history.