Aug. 17, 2003 — -- It's perhaps the world's most famous underwater attraction, immortalized in film and in legend: the Titanic.
But now experts say the ocean liner, once a wonder of the high seas, is falling to pieces.
Capt. Alfred McLaren, the scientist who in July led the most recent expedition to the ship's underwater grave, said his team saw clear signs of the wreck's accelerating decay. There was damage likely caused by rust and sea life, and the captain's captain had collapsed.
"I was absolutely astonished," McLaren said.
Worse still, the fallen mast that crushed the ship's deck is believed by many to be the result of an unapproved salvage operation.
"It was almost depressing to see how quickly she was deteriorating," McLaren says. "I would be really surprised if there's very much standing up from the bottom, two decades from now."
Ed Kamuda, who runs the Titanic Historical Society in Springfield, Mass., says adventure tourists — who pay $36,000 each to visit the wreck — are also contributing to the crumbling of the Titanic.
"This is something I expected. I just didn't expect it to happen so quickly," Kamuda said. "People are going down just as an ego trip to say 'I was there.' All this takes a toll on the ship."
The Titanic has sat at the bottom of the Atlantic since it sank after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage on April 14, 1912. More than 1,500 people died that night.
The ship came to rest at the bottom of the frigid North Atlantic, more than 2 miles beneath the waves. The wreck was discovered in 1985, and since then it has been repeatedly visited by treasure hunters.
But still some scientists say those divers, and other thrill seekers are not necessarily to blame for the Titanic's current woes.
Capt. Craig McLean of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration went on an expedition to the Titanic in June as part of a government study that is monitoring the condition of the ship. He says it's unclear what part of the damage is from Mother Nature and which is from human nature.
"It's too early and there is insufficient evidence to put our fingers on anything," McLean said.
Regardless, most agree there's little that can be done for this most famous of wrecks. And soon, the mighty Titanic could well be lost again.