Photograph by Emory Kristof, National Geographic

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

Photograph by Emory Kristof, National Geographic

Paint the Titanic, Wreck's Discoverer Says

Robotic paint job could be "piece of cake," explorer Robert Ballard says.

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.

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."

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.