TO TITANIC" MEETS SCIENCE OBJECTIVES,
June 21, 2004 — When NOAA co-sponsored Return to Titanic, a scientific expedition to the site of arguably the world's most memorable shipwreck, the team of explorers and scientists sent their underwater robots to gather scientific data 12,000 feet deep. The mission was to learn how, and how quickly, Titanic was deteriorating from natural and human causes. However, pairs of shoes, suitcases and galley dishes that lie in the debris field were powerful reminders that this is hallowed ground. That’s why steps were taken to protect the wreck. (Click image for larger view of the shoes of a Titanic victim photographed in a debris field near the stern of the ship on June 6, 2004, by the ROV Hercules during an expedition returning to the Titanic, launched from the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit NOAA / Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island or NOAA—IFE/URI.)
The expedition included Robert D. Ballard, who discovered the historic wreck in 1985 and who today still has strong feelings about protecting the site. NOAA took a step to further protect Titanic in April 2001 when, in accordance with the Titanic Maritime Memorial Act, NOAA published "Guidelines for Research, Exploration and Salvage of RMS Titanic." Though the guidelines provided a model of conduct based on international archaeological standards, they were voluntary guidelines, without enforcement authority.
The protection of Titanic took a major step forward Friday just after the Return to Titanic mission concluded, when the U.S. ambassador in London signed an international agreement that will lead to enforcement authority and increased protection of the wreck site. When Congress passes enabling legislation, the agreement will come into force for the U.S. It will realize a goal long sought by Ballard and will provide for the signing nations, an international extension of NOAA's 2001 guidelines, but this time with law enforcement power replacing voluntary guidelines. (Click image for larger view of the starboard railing near the bow of the Titanic photographed on June 1, 2004, by the ROV Hercules during an expedition returning to the shipwreck of the Titanic. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit NOAA / Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island or NOAA—IFE/URI.)
NOAA leadership on this issue dates to 1985 when Nancy Foster, former assistant administrator of the NOAA Ocean Service, testified before Congress on a House Resolution to protect Titanic. "This agreement has potential as a model for protection of other shipwrecks and submerged marine resources well beyond the territorial jurisdiction of nations," said NOAA General Counsel Jim Walpole.
NOAA also played a significant role on the U.S. delegation during negotiation of the agreement by the four nations most closely associated with Titanic—the United States, Canada, France and the United Kingdom, which signed the agreement in November 2003. The agreement must be ratified by at least two of those nations to be effective. Concerted action by these countries would effectively foreclose unregulated salvage and other potentially harmful activities that would disturb the integrity of the wreck site. (Click image for larger view of a port side forward expansion joint on the boat deck of the bow section of the shipwreck Titanic as photographed June 1, 2004, by ROV Hercules deployed from the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit NOAA / Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island or NOAA—IFE/URI.)
Under the agreement, Titanic will be designated an international maritime memorial to those who perished there and whose remains should be respected. It will also protect the scientific, cultural and historical significance of the wreck site by regulating, within the jurisdiction of the signatories, dives to the Titanic shipwreck.
The Titanic Maritime Memorial Act was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and directs the Department of State to forward the signed agreement and recommended implementing legislation to Congress. The agreement does not apply to the existing collection of 6,000 Titanic artifacts that have already been salvaged pursuant to admiralty court orders, but it is consistent with those orders as well as current scientific principles of historic and cultural resource conservation.
The 2004 return trip to Titanic was not an easy one. The explorers and the crew of NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown battled weather so difficult it sometimes kept the remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) lashed to the deck of the tossing ship when they should have been relocating Titanic or gathering scientific data and images of the wreck. When the sea state did allow operations, technical problems with the underwater robots or electrical glitches in their long umbilical cords caused further delays.
Technicians from Ballard's Institute for Exploration soon had the ROVs ready for deployment, and when "windows" of good weather appeared, the underwater robots began their four-hour dive to the deep cold waters where the remains of the great ship and more than 1,500 of her crewmembers and passengers lie.
It was Ballard's first expedition on a NOAA ship and he was impressed with how the capabilities of NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown and her crew complimented the state-of-the-art underwater robotics that Ballard brought to dive on Titanic.
"It was important to go back to Titanic," said Capt. Craig McLean, director of the NOAA Office of Exploration. "It's a cultural icon and a maritime gravesite deserving of our respect. But it's also a deep-sea laboratory where we can study the chemical, biological and human effects on the ship's rate of deterioration and apply that knowledge to many other deepwater shipwrecks and submerged cultural resources around the world. As goes Titanic, so go other shipwrecks," he said.
This mission was a "look-but-don't touch" visit to Titanic, and yet scientists were pleased to achieve the goals of their extensive science plan. "High definition still and video cameras on the underwater robots mapped the bow and stern sections of the ship," said NOAA's Lt. j.g. Jeremy Weirich, chief archaeologist on the mission. "Additional research was conducted on rusticles, so-named because they appear to be rusty icicles but in fact are communities of microbes that process Titanic's iron. The rusticles hang from the ship, giving the appearance of a ship that is melting," he said. "Scientists also recovered and replaced two platforms containing a variety of metal test strips that were set in the vicinity of Titanic in 1998.
One objective was to create a photo-mosaic of the ship, to compare it with photographs Ballard took of the bow section nearly 20 years earlier. "We're finding very little has happened from natural causes," said Ballard. "The ship is similar to the ship we investigated 18 years ago, except where submarines have been landing. Over the last several years, submarines come for salvage operations, filming, tourism, and they have been landing on the deck of the Titanic where they're doing damage."
Ballard also emphasized that technology played an enormous role in the Return to Titanic mission. With live satellite transmissions and high-capacity Internet, the Titanic mission was beamed to scientists across the nation, making them virtual members of the scientific team. In partnership with the Jason Foundation for Education and the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration's Immersion project, thousands of students also participated. Live views of Titanic were a part of National Geographic Channel's "Return to Titanic" television program on June 7, and on World Ocean Day, June 8, Ballard and McLean participated live via satellite at the G8 Summit in Savannah.
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