National Geographic News
Titanic picture: the railing of the sunken Titanic is seen in an undated photograph, for a gallery on cruise shipwreck disasters, related to the Costa Concordia accident in Italy

"Rusticles" coat the railing of the R.M.S. Titanic (file picture), which sank a hundred years ago.

Photograph by Emory Kristof, National Geographic

Photo: Portrait of Bob Ballard

Robert Ballard. Photograph by Priit Vesilind, National Geographic.

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic News

Published April 12, 2012

There's nothing like a fresh coat of paint to revive tired walls. Now—a hundred years after the R.M.S. Titanic's sinking—ocean explorer Robert Ballard wants to apply that homespun wisdom 12,500 feet (3810 meters) underwater, painting the wreck with deep-sea robots.

Most adults are agog at the seemingly impossible plan, Ballard said Tuesday at National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C. But when he talks about it with schoolchildren, he said, "their first question is, What color?"

Ballard, who discovered the wreck in the North Atlantic in 1985, is quick to point out that his proposed paint job won't restore Titanic to its original black-and-white glory—that would be inappropriate, he said.

Rather, the corrosion-inhibiting "antifouling" paint, generally used below the waterline on ships, would be meant to preserve the wreck in its current state for as long as possible. The color scheme, he said, would mimic the ship's current rusty palette of oranges, reds, and browns.

(On TV: Save the Titanic With Bob Ballard airs Friday, April 13.)

"The Paint Works"

Ballard is already petitioning the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with his plan to use submersible robots to clean and paint Titanic's hull, which is beset by metal-eating life-forms that form icicle-like "rusticles." (Read "Titanic Is Falling Apart.")

"When I first dove on Titanic in 1985, I saw original antifouling paint"—the reddish paint covering the bottom of the hull—"with no corrosion on the hull," said Ballard, a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)

"The paint works, but obviously they didn't think they'd have to paint the whole ship with it."

Ballard believes coating the famous ship's remains could prevent rivets from rusting out, which would allow intact hull sections to splay away from the structure, exposing an interior that remains in surprisingly good condition. (Interactive: Explore the Titanic crash scene.)

Recent footage "shows you the Turkish bath [see pictures], and it looks as if they are about to turn it on," he said. "You can conserve these things."

Painting Titanic a "Piece of Cake"?

While Ballard's plan to preserve the wreck may seem far-fetched, the basic technology is already in use, he said.

"Supertankers use robots that clean their hulls and paint them underwater," he said. "So it could be a piece of cake."

The robots attach themselves magnetically to a ship and systematically cover the hull, first scouring the metal clean and then painting it with a gooey, epoxy-like material that adheres even underwater.

(Watch an animation of Titanic's iceberg collision, breakup, and sinking.)

Deciding What's Best for Titanic

James P. Delgado, NOAA's Director of Maritime Heritage, said the U.S. agency won't have the final word on this or any other proposed projects concerning Titanic, because NOAA offers only advice—it doesn't actively manage or administer the wreck.

Courts have granted the privately held R.M.S. Titanic, Inc., sole rights to salvage the wreck, "so what happens is up to the U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Virginia," Delgado noted.

"But, with that said, the court would likely turn to NOAA for advice, because Congress has asked [in the R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Act of 1986] that NOAA develop guidelines for the wreck site, and the court has adopted those."

Delgado added that other organizations—including foreign ones, since the wreck lies in international waters—may wish to have their say in court if Ballard's painting proposal makes it that far.

NOAA's advice on the plan would depend on the answers to a number of questions, Delgado said, including any possible environmental impacts from paint or other aspects of the project, unforeseen impacts to the ship itself, and technical feasibility.

"Robotic systems do this type of scrubbing and painting in shallower water. Is that possible at 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) down and 6,000 psi pressures? I don't know that answer."

For his part, Ballard said extreme water pressures at depth might not be a great concern, because the painting equipment is a closed system that contains no air and so should not crumple under pressure.

And NOAA's Delgado allows that painting the Titanic is "an intriguing idea."

"The plan raises a number of interesting questions, and we'd also be interested in opinions from the public, so it may be the kind of thing we'd possibly put out for public comment and review."

(See pictures of Titanic then and now in National Geographic magazine.)

Perhaps the biggest question is how much the operation would cost—and who would foot the bill.

It certainly wouldn't be NOAA, Delgado said.

"We don't even have the resources to go and look at Titanic," he said. "The 2010 Expedition Titanic mapping expedition, for example, was privately funded, and we were fortunately given the opportunity to come along for the ride."

Ballard believes the cost could be manageable. "I guess it might be about the same cost as painting a supertanker," he said.

If the project gets a green light, Ballard added, he'd likely raise several hundred thousand dollars privately to test the procedure on a small section of the ship before committing to a full paint job.

More: "Titanic at 100: Be Among the Last to Dive to Wreck Site?" >>

2 comments
Roy Raaijmakers
Roy Raaijmakers

Yes, it is true that what's left of Titanic is a grave site for over 1500 souls, therefor it should be threated with respect. I think it's important to take good care of her, an anti rust paint job to keep this monumental ship protected as good as we can for as long as we can. Like we keep on putting flowers on the graves of our loved ones.

However things should be verry well tested before the actual expedition takes place.

I support Mr Ballards idea!

Bex Slade
Bex Slade

The Titanic has always been a passion of mine, from its history to the film created so brilliantly by James Cameron. Whenever I watch a documentary showing the wreckage as it is now and describing the sinking I feel as if I am connected somehow to the past and my heart goes out to those who lost their lives, even though 100 years have already passed.

One of my greatest sadness' about it all is the simple fact that the wreckage will one day be lost in its majority. While I understand this is simply the way of nature the idea that Ballard proposes, to be able to preserve the Titanic for a longer period of time as it is now, puts a little hope back into my love for the great ship. If it could be preserved for future generations to come to know, and so that perhaps in time more may come to be discovered then that is something I think should be strived for. Otherwise, its history may fade far too soon.

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