Time, Tide and Man Take Toll on Titanic

If you travel some 450 miles east of Newfoundland, into the cold immensity of the North Atlantic Ocean, you will come to a spot that's unremarkable in every way, except for what lies below.

Two and a half miles down lies the iron soul of the greatest shipwreck of all time: the R.M.S. Titanic.

This week, Robert Ballard, the National Geographic explorer in residence and the man who discovered the Titanic wreckage in 1985, made a bittersweet return to the ship.

Ballard — along with scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a team from the National Geographic Society — has come back to document the decay — and some say the "desecration" — of this underwater graveyard.

Ten years ago, a U.S. federal court awarded an Atlanta company called RMS Titanic Inc. sole salvage rights to the ship. But as you might imagine, that court order has been nearly impossible to enforce. There are no shipwreck police or security guards out in the vast, wild North Atlantic. So the Titanic, alone at the bottom of the ocean for so many years, has most certainly been host to many souvenir-seeking visitors.

All told, it's been estimated that as many as 8,000 artifacts may have been hauled away as "salvage" from the liner — everything from the ship's china to a part of its hull.

While Ballard wants to study the site, he is hoping the Titanic and all the history it holds can be preserved. "To me, the Titanic is an old lady in her grave, and we are taking the jewels off this old lady, can't she have her jewels in her grave?"

Of course, in many ways the old lady's most precious jewel is her story, which, like the ship itself, is of epic proportions.

Ballard paints a picture of April 14, 1912, the night of the ship met its doom.

The night was beautiful — flat seas, but no moon. And that was a problem, Ballard explained. Because icebergs were lurking out there. Without the moon, they weren't illuminated.

On board the Titanic were society's glamorous elite.

"You had the wealth and power of the world riding on that ship. You had Lady Astor on the Titanic. You had Guggenheims. It was all eyes were turned to it because of its passengers," Ballard said.

But at 11:40 p.m., the lavish dream world ended with a crash against an iceberg.

History and Hollywood have not always seen eye to eye on who may have first seen the looming iceberg. But scenes from the 1997 blockbuster film Titanic are considered to be a remarkably accurate portrayal of the big ship's last moments.

Ballard explained the results of the crew's attempt to avert calamity. "By taking that evasive action, they exposed the side of the ship and it [the iceberg] raked along the whole starboard side of the ship. It took out too many watertight compartments," he said.

It took just 90 minutes for nature to undue what had taken 3,000 men and two years to build. Some 1,500 lives were lost, and as many stories were born.

"You had a young boy, 17, on the trip and when the officer said, 'You can get in the lifeboat,' he said, 'I'm a man now' and died," Ballard said.

Thomas Andrews, the man who designed the Titanic, died too.

"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."