Time, Tide and Man Take Toll on Titanic

"He was last seen just sitting there in this first-class smoking lounge, looking at his ship. He went down with it. He didn't even put a life jacket on," Ballard said. "He just went down with it. … The band played and all died, the captain said to the engine room, 'Stay at your station.' They're all still at their station. If you get inside, they're still there.

"They all died. You had Molly Brown commandeering a lifeboat … Hollywood couldn't have written a better script."

Ironically, this tidal wave of fascination with the Titanic had been jump-started by Ballard himself when, in 1985, he and a team of American and French scientists suddenly discovered this Holy Grail of shipwrecks.

"I was diving along in the submarine and this face went by my window," Ballard said, "and I almost had a heart attack, and it was a ceramic face of a doll's head."

Among Ballard's first thoughts were of the need to preserve this historic wreck. "When I found the Titanic I said, I don't want to destroy it," he said. "I don't want to salvage it. I placed bronze plaques on the ship saying please leave it alone."

But Ballard's early hopes for the Titanic to rest in peace have largely unraveled. Though hard conclusions from this current expedition are still months away, the early evidence suggests to Ballard that this grave site has turned into a macabre circus.

An unknown number of nonscientific expeditions have scoured the site. Tour groups have visited it, and she has even been used as an underwater altar for a wedding.

"That went over the edge," Ballard said, "you don't get married in a cemetery."

And there's more. In 1987, during a TV show broadcast from Paris, a safe reportedly recovered from the Titanic was opened. Inside were coins, currency and jewelry. According to some workers from the expedition, the safe had been opened prior to the show and loaded with items found on the ocean floor, although the show's producers have denied it.

It's that kind of "carnival" that Ballard says he hoped the Titanic wouldn't have to endure.

And the fascination continues. Next week in New York, a few dozen relics that were cherished by survivors — from life jackets to teacups and menus, will go on the auction block. An item like a rare deck chair from the ship could fetch $50,000 or more.

It seems that when it comes to the Titanic, there is no such thing as an artifact without a price tag.

The irony of all this is not lost on Ballard. The very man who opened this sunken treasure chest of history also lifted the lid on a Pandora's box of exploitation.

"I was deeply hit by the discovery. I've been away from it for 20 years. And now I'm going to re-immerse myself in the soul of the Titanic … and I haven't the foggiest notion of how I'm going to react," Ballard said.

Time and again these past few days, Ballard — using two unmanned, remote-controlled vehicles — has recorded the changes that have befallen the Titanic. Some have been caused naturally, through rust and decay. Others carry the clear handprint of man.

Ballard uses tough words to describe what has happened to the Titanic in the years since he and his crew found it. He speaks of plunder and desecration.

"To me," Ballard said, "it's a pyramid of the deep, and it's not different than the pyramids of Egypt. There's more history in the deep sea than all the museums of the world combined. We're just going in to those museums, and the question is: Are we going to plunder them or to appreciate them? And the jury's still out."

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