Titanic challenge: Dive, don't damage
Calcutta, April 13: Visit the ship by all means but do not plunder or damage its remains.
That is Robert Ballard's plea to the tourists queuing up to dive 12,000 feet into the depths of the north Atlantic Ocean, southeast of Newfoundland, for a view of the wreck of RMS Titanic, which sank on April 15, 1912, on the centenary of history's biggest maritime disaster.
Ballard, 69, deep-sea explorer and oceanographer, had discovered the wreck in September 1985.
To buttress his plea, he has made an hour-long documentary for National Geographic,Save the Titanic, which will be aired across the world. In India, it will air at 10pm on Saturday and 3pm on Sunday, following a companion show titled Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron.
"The wreckage of the Titanic is a site of tragedy, but at the same time it has an elusive history which has made it the most famous shipwreck of our time," Ballard told The Telegraph over the phone from London.
"The deep sea is the largest museum of human history on the planet, and yet there is no guard at the door. I am deeply concerned about not only the Titanic but all the ancient history that is now at risk."
The Titanic has been progressively stripped of hats, boots, handbags, rings, watches and thousands of other items belonging to the 1,500-plus victims that have become part of public displays or private collections.
The debris field around the wreck contains numerous items that fell from the ship and survived decay. The biggest emotional tug for Ballard is the sight of the shoes.
"It takes about seven years in the ocean for a human skeleton to dissolve, so now what is left behind are the shoes that were attached. All around the Titanic are pairs of shoes — crew's shoes, mothers' shoes with babies' shoes who must have died hand in hand. Those are their tombstones. Their resting place must not be disturbed."
The damage to the structure has been substantial. "We could document the Titanic before people started visiting the site," Ballard said.
"We took photographs and made a mosaic. Years later, after many such (tourist and scavenger) visits, we made a second mosaic. We put the two mosaics side by side and we could see exactly where the submarines were landing because they had crushed the deck."
Ballard's 2004 expedition to assess the state of the wreck revealed many more changes since its discovery. The main mast had been knocked out and sundry objects, such as the ship's bell and light, had been torn off.
In the film, Ballard travels to the Belfast shipyards in Northern Ireland to retrace the path of the doomed ship. As evidence mounts that the sunken ship, under siege by natural forces, careless visitors and rogue salvage operators, might not survive another 100 years, the man who found it teams with the families of victims and survivors to protect its legacy.
Ballard's hero on the Titanic was Thomas Andrews, who designed the ship and was on board representing the builders Harland and Wolff Shipyards.
"He was the one Captain Smith sent to assess the damage after the Titanic hit the iceberg. He reported that the iceberg had opened up five compartments and the Titanic was definitely going to sink," Ballard said.
"But I didn't know there were eight others with him from the company. It turns out that whenever they build a ship they select nine people to represent it on its maiden voyage. It's a great honour to be selected. They all perished. Nobody knew much about them as their bodies were never found and their families would not talk about it. Finally they have come forward to speak on camera."
Ballard asked them how the ship should be treated. "They agreed that the ship should be treated as a memorial to all the people who perished that cold April night."
Ballard's concerns are real. Cashing in on the centenary craze, several tour operators have announced Titanic excursions on submersibles that can withstand the enormous pressures at these ocean depths (around 6,500 pounds per square inch).
According to an advertisement put out by one such agency, the dive, lasting 11 to 12 hours, will cost about $60,000 and through the viewing port, will treat passengers to images, illuminated by powerful lights, of the Titanic's "huge anchors, larger than the submersible, and the capstans, the bridge and the famous grand staircase… the massive boilers, the propellers and the Marconi Room, from which the world's very first SOS was broadcast".
The tourist visits have been criticised as disrespectful, especially by the victims' families. Ballard, who has discovered other shipwrecks such as that of the German battleship Bismarck, says he doesn't mind people visiting the site.
"But you don't have to land on the ship and destroy it. Also you don't leave all your trash down there and you don't just take what you want."
Ballard believes that steps can be taken to preserve the ship's remains.
"Clean the surface and paint the whole of Titanic. You have the technology and the equipment for people to go down and do it. Lower down in the hall, the paint is still there and it means slow erosion. If we really want to preserve human history in the ocean, let us start with the Titanic," he said.