A fragile tourist attraction on the ocean floor
Explorers and United States government experts have put together the first comprehensive map of the Titanic's resting place, illuminating a square mile of inky seabed as a guide to better understanding the liner's death throes and better preserving its remains. Already, knowing the exact positions of thousands of parts, structures and artefacts has allowed the government and the International Maritime Organisation to draw up recommendations for the operation of the mini-submarines that ferry tourists more than two miles down to the bottom of the North Atlantic for a glimpse of the great ship.
"People have the right to see, explore and learn," said James P. Delgado, director of maritime heritage at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors the wreck. The Titanic went down in international waters, 380 miles off Newfoundland, so no nation has an exclusive claim to its scattered remains. In 1985, a team of explorers from the US and France found its wreckage upright but split, the bow and stern about a third of a mile apart. Entrepreneurs mounted expeditions in 1987, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2004 that picked up roughly 5,500 artefacts. A US company, RMS Titanic, owns the salvage rights and displays many of the artifacts in Titanic shows. Now, it plans to auction off its entire trove.
Meanwhile, the tourist submarines have a history of damaging delicate artefacts and bumping into the increasingly fragile wreck, threatening to accelerate its demise.
Starting in 2004, the US sought to forge an agreement with France, Canada and Britain to find ways to protect the ship's remains. Then, in 2010, federal experts joined with RMS Titanic on an expedition to do extensive mapping. Sonars crisscrossed the dark site, and cameras snapped 130,000 pictures, revealing much that had previously been lost to history. The technical muscle behind the effort came from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, which originally helped find the doomed liner. "It's the first bird's-eye view of the entire site," said David Gallo, director of special projects at Woods Hole. One revelation is that the liner broke in two near the surface and the stern pinwheeled down through the dark waters. Judging from roiled sediments, the force of momentum kept trying to rotate the stern as it slammed into the bottom. "We can identify the big pieces, put them back together and better understand what happened," said Paul H. Nargeolet, a French mini-sub pilot who helped lead the 2010 expedition.
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