December 4, 2004

Explorer Says Titanic Should Be Protected

MYSTIC, Conn. (AP) -- Legendary explorer Robert Ballard was nervous this summer as he prepared to return to the Titanic for the first time since he discovered the famous shipwreck nearly two decades ago.

He had been hearing reports of severe deterioration of the ship from natural causes and from damage done by scores of dives. Ballard, a professor at the University of Rhode Island, also worried that all of the personal belongings of passengers had been taken by salvagers.

But using the latest high definition cameras and precise robotic submarines, he soon made a startling discovery: Two shoes, one larger than the other, next to each other and a hair comb nearby along with materials from a third-class cabin. Ballard believes the shoes belonged to a mother and her daughter and they reminded him of the sacredness of the site.

"They're the tombstones," Ballard said. "I can tell you it absolutely speaks to you when you go there. It's not just a ship. It's a very special place and we should spend our energy to keep it that way."

Ballard, who visited the Titanic last June, spoke Friday at Mystic Aquarium & Institute For Exploration, which he runs. The aquarium has expanded its exhibit on the Titanic to include Ballard's latest video clips and photos from the summer voyage.

The exhibit, "Return to Titanic," also includes replicas of a stateroom aboard the ship as well as its radio room and the ship's huge boilers.

The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, after it hit an iceberg and began taking on water. Bound for New York on its maiden voyage, more than 1,500 passengers and crew members - about two-thirds of those on board - died in less than three hours. The wreck was found in 1985 about 380 miles east of Newfoundland.

Last June, scientists with the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration visited the Titanic and reported it was deteriorating more rapidly than previously thought in its grave 2 1/2 miles beneath the Atlantic Ocean. Of the damage noted, NOAA researchers, scientists and other visitors have reported that parts of the stern are falling apart, the deck where passengers crowded as the ship sank has folded under itself and the crow's nest from which a lookout shouted, "Iceberg, right ahead!" has disappeared.

Ballard, who visits the shipwreck without touching it, said he was disturbed by the damage done by visitors. Submarines that weigh 30 tons have punctured large holes in the ship's deck when they land, he said.

"It's getting worse and worse," Ballard said. "You can see the damage being caused by the visitors. That's the problem - they're loving the Titanic to death."

But as he surveyed the sides of the ship, Ballard said he was surprised to see some parts of the Titanic were in better shape than he expected.

"It was really nice to go back. It was like seeing an old friend," Ballard said. "I thought I was going to be really depressed. Parts of it have not changed at all."

Ballard wants France and Russia to sign an international treaty to protect the Titanic as a maritime memorial and regulate visits to the site. The United States and Britain have signed the treaty.

Ballard also said his staff is researching the possibility of painting the Titanic to protect it from bacteria. He also wants to set up remote camera systems at the Titanic so people can visit it by computer at any time.

Protecting the famous Titanic could set a precedent to preserve other shipwrecks, he said.

"If the public can't protect the biggest icon beneath the sea, then they won't protect anything," Ballard said. "There's more history in the deep sea than all the museums combined."


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