U.S. Signs Treaty to Protect Titanic

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The R.M.S. Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, after striking an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. More than 1,500 people drowned with the ship, and the tragedy has reverberated through the years in the form of countless films and books.

Robert D. Ballard, Founder and President of the Institute for Exploration at Mystic Aquarium and National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, was the first to locate the resting place of the vessel. Ballard found the ship in 1985 off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, since the discovery subsequent expeditions have salvaged over 6,000 artifacts from the wreck. Various tour companies have visited the site, and there is evidence of submarines landing on the sunken ship's deck.

Ballard recently led a team of scientists and specialists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration (MAIFE), the University of Rhode Island's Institute for Archaeological Oceanography, and the JASON Foundation for Education. The team recently spent 11 days at the site aboard the NOAA research vessel Ronald H. Brown, mapping the ship and analyzing the causes and rate of its decay.

The team found that the wreck has deteriorated significantly since its 1986 discovery. They maintain that, while natural forces are at work, much of damage is the work of the tourism industry that has been spawned by fascination with the ill-fated liner.

Submersibles have landed, punching holes and damaging much of the ship's deck, and "treasure hunters" have plucked thousands of artifacts from the watery grave. The ship's mainmast has been "bashed down and destroyed," according to Ballard.

The detritus of expeditions has also scattered the site with modern litter.

"We don't want to discourage people from visiting the wreck," Ballard explained. "It's like visiting the [U.S.S.] Arizona [at Pearl Harbor] or going to Gettysburg. The ground speaks to you when you go to that place," he told reporters in today's conference call.

"You want people to have that experience, you just don't want them to have it in a destructive way. And the removal of artifacts certainly diminishes the entire experience."

Many artifacts have been legally salvaged by R.M.S. Titanic, Inc.—the company that has conducted dives and recovered artifacts for exhibition and sale. The agreement is not likely to stop activities by that company.

"The agreement does not displace R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. as salvor-in-possession," said NOAA General Counsel Jim Walpole. "Once it's in effect, the salvor-in-possesson will be working both with us and with the admiralty court, which will retain jurisdiction."

But Robert Blumberg, of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Ocean and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, said the agreement is a milestone for a wreck in the murky legal locale of international waters.

"It certainly does set a precedent," Blumberg said. "For the first time it incorporates current scientific standards for the protection, preservation, and curation of artifacts that heretofore have existed in the U.S., but there has been no international agreement that actually reflects those standards."

"Law tends to follow technology," Ballard added. "Prior to finding the Titanic, many thought that the ship wasn't something that one could find, or that it would be of little interest. But we are finding that that there are countless ancient ships, preserved by the sea, and that the deep sea is really a museum—that's only recently been realized."

"The Titanic in many ways is helping to precipitate the law," he continued, "because of the great interest in the ship … As the Titanic goes, so goes human history in the deep sea."

But Ballard cautions that total protection has not yet been achieved. "I'd say it's wonderful to have the process beginning, there's been a long hiatus since 1986," he said. "I'm encouraged to see the momentum. Several things need to happen before I'd call the Titanic safe, but we're certainly moving in the right direction."

Watch Robert Ballard and his expedition team's recent underwater telecast from the Titanic. The one-hour special Return to Titanic airs on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/PT, only on the National Geographic Channel.

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

For more news on the Titanic, scroll down.

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