Titanic Damaged by Tourists, Salvagers, Expedition Finds

Daniel Warshawsky
for National Geographic News
June 4, 2004
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. Objects—the ship's bell, the ship's light—have 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.

Improved technologies employed by a new generation of ROVs allow Ballard and his colleagues to remain underwater longer and to increase horizontal and vertical movement, while studying the Titanic. As a result of the new technologies, sharper and longer live Titanic video imagery can be viewed by millions of television and internet users across the world.

Look But Don't Touch

Using technology unavailable in 1986, Ballard's present team is mapping the bow and stern of the wreck—which separated during its sinking—and the surrounding debris field. By comparing the new data with 1986 data, the researchers will "be able to evaluate what has happened to the ship, and try, from that, to ascertain what has been natural change and what has been human-induced change," Ballard said.

In addition, new imaging technology will allow armchair viewers around the world a front-row seat to the wreck—and discourage Titanic tourism, Ballard hopes.

"We will come into your living room live with incredible high-quality imagery. You will see that you don't have to go down there," Ballard said, referring to an upcoming live broadcast from the wreck. The broadcast will air Monday at 9 p.m. ET/PT during the Return to Titanic special on the National Geographic Channel.

Ballard hopes these images will inspire a sort of virtual Titanic exhibition, perhaps a permanent hookup whereby people will be able to view real-time video of the wreck in their living rooms.

Although Ballard is not completely opposed to tourists visiting the Titanic, he advises a look-but-don't-touch policy.

"Come and see the Titanic like you see the Arizona at Pearl Harbor. But don't tear it up, don't land on it, don't run into it," Ballard said. Ballard hopes that, due to broad public interest in the sunken luxury liner, the Titanic preservation movement will act as a springboard to a broader shipwreck-conservation movement. He particularly hopes to safeguard wrecks of the ancient world.

"The deep sea has more than one million ships of antiquity, and that's what we're concerned about. As the Titanic goes, so goes human history beneath the sea. Everyone knows the Titanic," Ballard said. So let's see if we can use the Titanic to save these other ships."

Watch Robert Ballard and his expedition team's live underwater telecast from the Titanic. The one-hour special Return to Titanic airs on Monday at 9 p.m. ET/PT only on the National Geographic Channel.

Follow the expedition online through dispatches, photos, and more.

For more news on the Titanic, scroll down.

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