The explorer whose team located the remains of the Titanic has drawn up plans to have robots apply protective coatings to the wreck, to preserve the disintegrating resting place of more than 1,500 dead.
Corrosion, scavengers and tourists plague the rapidly decaying remains of the doomed ship that sank on its maiden voyage April 15, 1912, says Dr. Robert Ballard, of the University of Rhode Island.
Photos: NOAA / Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island
|The bow of the Titanic was photographed on the floor of the North Atlantic as part of a 2004 expedition led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.|
Part of the remedy, Ballard says, may be a new coating job by deep-water robots dispatched to the floor of the North Atlantic.
Original Paint Job
“When I first came to the ship in 1985, I saw original anti-fouling paint on the bottom and no corrosion there,” Ballard told National Geographic in a new two-part special airing this week. "It works, but obviously they didn't think they'd need to paint the whole ship with anti-fouling paint.”
Under Ballard’s plan, robots would clean the ship’s steel hull and coat it with an antifouling system such as that used to treat the hulls of oil tankers.
Ballard said the coating is needed “so the hull doesn't splay open and expose the highly preserved interior with its precious contents.”
He also proposes that robots be used as “sentries” to monitor the tourist submarines that researchers and authorities say are damaging the wreck, which rests 12,000 feet below sea level and more than 350 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland.
‘A Sacred Place’
Ballard has been sounding the same warnings in other recent interviews on the eve of the disaster’s centennial.
“The Titanic is in greater peril than ever before,” Ballard recently told the New York Daily News. “If the Titanic is not protected, it’ll get stripped until all the jewels have been taken off the old lady’s body.”
Ballard said he had documented significant destruction to the wreck since his team found the site in 1985.
|A telemotor, the steering mechanism that held the ship’s wheel, is the last piece of machinery remaining on the bridge.|
“The crow’s nest has been knocked over, the landing lights have been ripped off,” he said. “They’re basically plowing up the site.”
“I'm trying to get people to understand that Titanic is not just an object; it's a sacred place,” Ballard said in an interview with TV Guide. “I do not believe in the salvaging of its artifacts. You don't go to Gettysburg with a shovel. You don't take belt buckles off the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.”
Garbage and Debris
Ballard is not the only one calling for action to protect the site. The centennial of the sinking is expected to spur a new surge of commercial activity and tours at the site, which is not policed.
In January, the U.S. Coast Guard wrote a letter to the International Maritime Organization, asking the agency to issue a “non-binding circular” advising vessels to refrain from any discharges or dumping within 10 nautical miles of the site.
Researchers “have documented an alarming amount of garbage and debris discarded or left behind by surface vessels on or near the wreckage in the form of non-degrading (plastic) waste and salvage equipment,” said the letter.
The letter also notes “recent damage” to the ship’s hull “from submersible craft.”
IMO did issue the circular Jan. 31 to its member countries.
‘We Cannot Do Nothing’
Operators of submarine tours—which cost in the neighborhood of $60,000—deny that their expeditions are damaging Titanic’s environment, but protectors of the wreck are not waiting for more evidence.
Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) recently introduced a bill that would give the U.S. Commerce Department authority “to protect the Titanic wreck site from salvage and intrusive research.”
|A shoe lies among the debris near the ship. More than 5,000 artifacts have been removed since the wreck was discovered in 1985.|
The bill would update the R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Act of 1986, which designated the site as an international maritime memorial and regulated research, exploration and salvage activities there. That act led to a similar international agreement with France, Canada, the UK and Northern Ireland.
“The Titanic can be a model for how humanity treats the world's underwater cultural heritage,” James Delgado, chief of the maritime heritage office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told the Vancouver Sun recently. “But we cannot do nothing.”
NOAA is involved in protecting and preserving the site.
Ballard describes the wreckage as “under siege” and says in the National Geographic special that the site cannot survive another 100 years under the current conditions.
The Titanic is “being killed by love,” Ballard said.