for National Geographic News
The Titanic has significantly deteriorated since its discovery in 1986, explorer Robert D. Ballard announced yesterday during a telephone press conference from a research ship above the wreck in the North Atlantic.
Ballard found the Titanic in 1986. He is currently leading an expedition to assess how the wreck has changed since then and to ensure its future protection. (Read expedition dispatches.)
Though only about halfway through the mission, Ballard was already able to determine that the mainmast of the ship has been ruined and that large areas of the deck have been damaged.
"The mainmast of the ship has been bashed down and destroyed. Objectsthe ship's bell, the ship's lighthave been torn off of that," Ballard said. He attributes the damage to treasure hunters who have salvaged the wreck for artifacts.
The current expedition has also uncovered holes in the deck that Ballard says have been caused by the 100 to 200 deep-sea tourists who have visited the wreck via submarines. "The visitors that have come to this site have been in very large submarines," said Ballard, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence.
"When [submarines] bump into things, they can do damage. When they land, they can do damage," he said. "You can clearly see, all over the ship, where the common landing sites are knocking the holes in the deck."
Partly to avoid inflicting further damage, the Ballard team is using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), not submarines.
Diving from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research vessel Ronald H. Brown, these "robots" provide massive spotlights, cameras, and easy maneuverability along the wreck, which is 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) underwater and 325 miles (523 kilometers) from Newfoundland. The new expedition is funded by the National Geographic Society and NOAA, among other organizations.
Thousands of Artifacts Missing
Many of the submarine tourists have taken invaluable pieces of jewelry, porcelain, and glasses, among other Titanic relics. "Does that diminish it as you run along and you've had 8,000 to 9,000 objects recovered from that debris field that are not there to be seen? Does that diminish the experience? Absolutely, it does, particularly when many of these objects were not at peril," Ballard said.
Another problem has been litter. Many support ships that bring submarines full of tourists have been dumping debris into the ocean and the Titanic.
"This isn't any toxic kind of thing, but they're working on a piece of line and they throw it over the side, or they've got a bolt that doesn't work anymore and they chuck it over the side," Ballard said.
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