Nearly 20 years after Robert Ballard discovered the resting place of the Titanic on the North Atlantic seabed, the American oceanographer says an international treaty is needed to preserve the world's most famous shipwreck for future generations. The Titanic has proved to be a magnet for undersea tourists and salvagers. However, he says the visitors are damaging the remains of the great ship, which sank after colliding with an iceberg on April 14, 1912, during its maiden voyage from England to New York City.
When Mr. Ballard first found the shipwreck some 4,000 meters below sea level, he documented its condition with dramatic photographs and videos. Then he left everything as he found it, saying that the vessel should be preserved as a memorial out of respect for the 1,500 people who perished there. When he returned to the site last summer, however, he discovered that others did not share his view. "We rose up on the port side and came in on the deck," he recalls. "I could see the change. It was not natural change; it was human-induced change."
Four countries have high-tech submersible vessels able to reach the Titanic: the United States, Japan, France and Russia. Mr. Ballard says only the French and Russians have repeatedly returned to the wreck. That alone does not bother him. "We don't mind people coming to the Titanic," he says. "In fact, we encourage people to visit. We just don't want people to love it to death. Come. Look. But don't touch. You don't come to a museum and pull things off the wall."
But that is exactly what has happened. The oceanographer says the French team that served as his partners in originally exploring the Titanic site chose to salvage the shipwreck, removing thousands of artifacts. "The ones that bother me the most are the artifacts that were attached to the ship," says Mr. Ballard, noting in particular the destruction of the so-called crow's nest. "That's the historic point on the ship where they were standing when they spotted the iceberg, when they called the bridge and said, 'Iceberg straight ahead, dead ahead.'"
In addition, the mast has been stripped of its bell and brass light, and the nameplate RMS Titanic has been removed. Robert Ballard says Russian vessels have landed on the deck, damaging it. "You can absolutely see the impact spots," he says. "There was a couple that got married on the bow and you can see where they landed and crushed the deck."
In addition to lobbying government officials to sign a treaty to preserve the Titanic, Robert Ballard has written Return To Titanic, a new book about his latest visits to the ship, and he has produced a film about his adventure.