Friday, December 03, 2004


Titanic wreck 'is doomed'


Washington - The wreck of the doomed luxury liner Titanic is being lost to sightseers who are "loving it to death", said Robert Ballard, the explorer who discovered it in 1985.

Ballard spoke on Tuesday at the National Geographic Society in Washington, where he is an explorer-in-residence, as part of his campaign to have the wreck protected by international treaty.

Ballard led an expedition to the Titanic to assess the condition of the ship after nearly two decades of visits by salvagers, scientists and tourists. He said the visits have accelerated the ship's deterioration, plundered important artefacts and left trash at the site.

"We're not opposed at all to people visiting the Titanic. We're just opposed to people loving it to death," he said.
The Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage and sank on the night of April 14-15, 1912.

Only 711 of the 2 200 passengers and crew aboard the British luxury liner survived. Many who died were well-known figures on both sides of the Atlantic, including wealthy businessmen John Jacob Astor and Bejamin Guggenheim.

Remained undisturbed
The sinking, still one of the worst maritime disasters, captivated public attention from the start, and has been the subject of numerous books and films, including the 1997 James Cameron film Titanic.

The wreck remained undisturbed 3 600 metres below the ocean's surface until Ballard and French explorer Jean Louis Michel discovered it on September 1, 1985.

Ballard refused salvage rights to the wreck, saying he preferred it be preserved as a memorial to those who died. "Unfortunately, admiralty law would not permit it," he said.

A US court in 1994 granted salvage rights to Atlanta, Georgia-based RMS Titanic Inc, which has brought up some 6 000 artefacts from the wreck since 1987, some of which have been sold at auction.

The US Supreme Court in 1999 cleared the way for expeditions bringing tourists to photograph the site. The trips cost about $30 000 per person.

'Wired with robot video cameras'
In June, the United States signed an accord aimed at protecting the wreck from souvenir hunters and undersea tourists, joining with Britain, Canada and France in new efforts to preserve it.

Under the agreement, the Titanic would be designated as an international maritime memorial. Britain signed the accord in November 2003 and it becomes effective once two countries sign it.

Ballard said he hoped France and Russia - which leases many of the submersibles used on sightseeing trips to the wreck - will also soon sign the deal.

RMS Titanic has said its salvage operations are the only way to preserve valuable Titanic memorabilia from eventual disintegration. Ballard however said the wreck would be relatively stable if it was not disturbed as much as it has been.

The damage, detailed in Ballard's new book, Return to Titanic, written with journalist Michael Sweeney, includes holes in the deck and crumpled crew cabins from collisions with submersibles. He also notes that the crow's nest where the fatal iceberg was first spotted, is now missing.

"Clearly it was knocked off," he said.

Ballard's plan calls for the wreck to be wired with robot video cameras that could beam live images to computers worldwide without risking damage to the wreck.

"The only way that vision is going to happen is if you stop destroying it," he said.

Ultimately, he said he would like to find a way to clean and paint the wreck to stem further deterioration.
"Crazy? You heard it here," he said with a laugh.

Edited by Ilse Arendse

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