Ninety years ago this month, the world's most famous ocean liner, the Titanic, sank 3,600 meters in the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. More than 1,500 passengers and crew died in the Titanic's maiden voyage. The incident resulted in a seven-decade search for the ship's wreckage, which was finally discovered by the renowned explorer Bob Ballard.
The uncovering of the Titanic also renewed the debate over whether historic artifacts should be removed from a wreck site. Dr. Ballard was in Washington recently to open a new exhibit of ship models at the National Geographic Society - where he discussed with VOA his efforts at preserving maritime treasures.
Although Americans have long been fascinated by the stories of the passengers who survived the sinking of the Titanic, the interest reached a fevered pitch five years ago when James Cameron's movie "Titanic" became one of the most popular films ever. It also brought renewed attention to the Titanic wreck site, with scavenger teams pulling everything from dinner plates to pieces of coal from the ship and displaying or selling them for profit. More than 6,000 items have now been recovered from the Titanic wreck.
Bob Ballard and his team returned to the Titanic site in 1986 to photograph the wreck and left a memorial plaque, hoping that the area would be left untouched. The explorer recalls that soon after he discovered the Titanic, he began efforts to save the site.
"Shortly after finding the Titanic, I was asked to testify before both houses of Congress. They did pass the Titanic Memorial Act in 1986 and the President Reagan signed it. But it had no legal force to it. It only had the 'will' of Congress because the Titanic wasn't an American ship and it's in international waters. So what can we do? except express our will," he said.
Soon after, salvage companies began work in the area, and Dr. Ballard said his dream of keeping the Titanic site as a historic monument faded.
"If I were to find it today, I could actually protect it today. I couldn't then because when I found it way back when, there was an admiralty law that said 'Finders keepers': If you find it, you have to salvage it or you can't own it. Now that they're actually diving on the Titanic [wreck] and doing tourism, you could claim you found it but you want to leave it there and use it for tourism. Thus you could own it and protect it," Dr. Ballard said.
"There are now new laws that are almost becoming treaties in the United Nations a new one moving through the system that said you can't salvage anything that's more than 100 years old. It's in UNESCO and will take 20 nations to ratify. I'm sure it will ratify this year," he said. Currently, a salvage company, "RMS Titanic, Inc." has the rights to recover artifacts from the site under a U.S. District Court ruling in 1964. As part of his efforts to preserve the wreck sites of great ships such as the Titanic, Bob Ballard helped organize a new exhibit of models of the vessels. Among the best-known collections of ship models is one owned by Detroit businessman Gary Kohs, who shares Dr. Ballard's desire to preserve wreck sites.
The exhibit includes large, detailed replicas of such ships as the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank in Lake Superior and the USS Arizona, which sank in Pearl Harbor. But the centerpiece of the National Geographic display is the five-meter-long model of the Titanic, which took Eastern European artists five years to build. Bob Ballard said he is amazed at the detail in the model.
"There's not only the exterior of the model, but the inside, as you look into the bridge and into the parts of the ship, [you see] they've done the insides as well. It's stunning: a million rivets. Can you imagine! The lifeboats - too bad they didn't put more of them on the model. The lifeboats, the workmanship, have the smallest detail: you look at the figureheads and the heads are 'teeny-weeny' and you see their lips and eyes. You [can't] imagine how they do it. Did they cut them with a laser? How could a person's hands work that precisely?" he asked.
Dr. Ballard said he's fascinated by what details the Titanic craftsmen included in their model, since the blueprint plans of the ship were different from the actual vessel.
"When we dove onto the Titanic, we had diagrams and they were wrong. A lot of ships, after they built them, had modifications. They didn't do that with the Titanic; it was on its maiden voyage. So they never got around to correcting the drawings. I can remember when we were trying to get our little vehicle down the promenade through a passage way, it was blocked! On the real ship, it wasn't blocked. On the model, I have to check to see which version he has," he said.
Dr. Ballard said he's had a lifelong interest in ship models, which he built as a child with his brother. "My brother was particularly good at it. He was much better than I, so I tended to lose interest after awhile. But I've always had an interest in depictions of ships, because in my world, you can't see things. It's totally dark. So you can never get the picture you really want. The only way to get it is through photography, artwork or modeling," Dr. Ballard said.
"Every expedition I've gone on - when I'm going after something like the Titanic - I always have a model of the ship. It's my reference point. Once you get down there, you're just seeing a piece of it and wondering, 'What part of the ship is that?' And you find it on the model. So models are a major part of [searches] today. I just did a model of a particular thing I'm looking for that I can't tell you about a little tease!" he exclaimed.
Although filmmaker James Cameron consulted with Bob Ballard in the making of the 1997 epic movie of the Titanic, the marine geologist said his role in the ship's history was left out of the film.
"They don't portray me in the movie. They portray the salvager the guy that came after me, the bad guy! The guy that was trying to get the jewelry! They start the movie with the assumption that it's already been discovered. So my role is on the cutting room floor somewhere. But what I really loved about the movie was it showing me the 'Young Lady.' I knew the 'Old Lady.' In the movie you have [the human] young lady and old lady. But they're also reflecting the ship as a young lady and old lady. I knew the ship as an old lady, but I've never seen it as a beautiful young lady. The movie gave me that; that's what I got out of it. I loved seeing the beauty of the ship," he said.
Although his discovery of the Titanic is his best-known achievement, Bob Ballard's explorations of the ocean floor including the discovery of ancient vessels continues today. He is director of research at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, where many of his deep-sea explorations are presented.
"We think there's been one million ships of antiquity that have been lost at sea. We began searching for them and we began finding them. We found them wherever we looked. So we created an institute - the Institute for Exploration - whose mission in life is to bring together three fields of research: oceanography, ocean engineering and anthropology-archeology to create a new field, deep-water archeology. That's what we're all about. We're out there to assess the potential of the deep sea as a repository of human history," he explained.
Explorer and marine geologist Bob Ballard is trying to preserve the wreck sites of great ships such as the Titanic which sank 90 years ago this month.