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NOAA's Role

Q: How is NOAA connected to the Titanic?
A: Since the discovery of the wreck of the RMS Titanic in 1985, NOAA has been involved in protecting and preserving the wreck site in some capacity — from participating in exploration and scientific missions to negotiating international agreements. Congress recognizes NOAA as the nation's lead agency for Titanic because of its experience with the deepwater wreck USS Monitor. As directed by Congress, NOAA published the Guidelines for Research, Exploration and Salvage of RMS Titanic in April 2001 and assisted the Department of State in negotiating the international Agreement on Titanic in 2003. In addition, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recognized NOAA's role in representing the public interest in Titanic consistent with these laws and the scientific rules in the Annex and Guidelines. NOAA designated the Office of General Counsel and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to implement the Court's directives, which include overseeing the activities of the salvor, RMS Titanic, Inc. Today, the U.S. Departments of Justice, State, and Commerce (primarily through NOAA), and other interested agencies continue work on proposed legislation to protect the Titanic from looting and unscientific salvage, and to ensure adherence to the scientific rules for research, recovery or salvage that will help preserve the Titanic for present and future generations. For more information about the proposed legislation to implement the international Agreement on Titanic, the NOAA Guidelines or salvage of Titanic, please visit the NOAA General Council International Section website on Titanic.

    This open skylight leads into the wireless compartment where Titanic's calls for help were sent from (James Delgado/NOAA)
Q: Why is the U.S. government involved?
A: The Titanic holds tremendous national and international significance, as both a cultural icon and one of the greatest jewels of world maritime heritage. It is perhaps the most famous shipwreck in American history, and its story of disaster and human drama has been, and continues to be, recounted in numerous books, articles and movies. While the ship sailed under the British flag, its passengers included 306 Americans — 119 of whom were never rescued. The wreck was discovered on Sept. 1, 1985, by a joint American-French expedition involving renowned oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution co-sponsored by the U.S. Navy. In light of the Titanic’s deep, enduring connection to U.S. history and popular culture, Congress passed legislation in 1986 that directed the Department of State and NOAA to negotiate an international Agreement to protect the wreck site and develop guidelines for its research, exploration and salvage. The U.S. government remains committed to the protection of the Titanic wreck through cooperation with other nations and international organizations, as well as under existing U.S. law including orders of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Q: Are other foreign governments and international organizations involved?
A: Yes. The U.S. government negotiated an Agreement to protect the Titanic with France, Canada, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The U.S. continues to discuss Titanic-related issues with Canada and the United Kingdom. In addition, the U.S. conducts education and outreach on Titanic at international meetings. Most recently, NOAA, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard prepared a letter sent by the Vice Admiral of the Coast Guard to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), requesting the issuance of a non-binding circular advising vessels to refrain from discharging garbage, waste or effluent in a 10-square mile zone above the wreck. The IMO issued the circular to member countries in January 2012.

Q: Who owns or has rights and interests in Titanic?
A British-registered ship in the White Star line that was owned by a U.S. company in which famed American financier John Pierpont "JP" Morgan was a major stockholder, Titanic was built in Belfast, Northern Ireland by Harland & Wolff for transatlantic passage between Southampton, England and New York City. The White Star Line went out of business and no successor in interest has claimed ownership or rights to Titanic. In the salvage, the Liverpool and London Insurance company asserted potential rights and interests. However, RMST entered into an agreement that is under the seal of the court. In a circuit court decision, it was held that RMST does not own the Titanic wreck but does have exclusive rights to salvage under maritime law. Since then, the “salvor” of the Titanic, a company called RMS Titanic, Inc., holds the title to the artifacts recovered from the wreck site from 1987 to 2004. The rights were granted by France for the artifacts from the 1987 expedition and by a U.S. court for the recovered artifacts between 1993 and 2004 on Aug. 15, 2011 in an order signed by the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. All artifacts recovered by the salvor are subject to a set of “covenants and conditions” which the salvor negotiated with NOAA and the Department of State. The covenants and conditions lay out the rules for the management and preservation of the artifact collection.

Q: I heard that artifacts from the Titanic are being auctioned — can I buy something?
A: In short, no. According to court orders including the covenants and conditions governing the award of the collection of artifacts that have been salvaged, they may only be sold as an entire collection to a “qualified institution” that demonstrates the experience, willingness and capacity to conserve the collection and ensure it is available “for public display and exhibition, historical review, scientific and scholarly research, and educational purposes.” Auction of individual artifacts, on the other hand, is prohibited. The covenants and conditions are perpetual and will carry over to any new owner and trustee of the collection of artifacts. For more information about the covenants and conditions and other court orders protecting Titanic see the NOAA GC International Section pages on the salvage of Titanic.

Q: Does NOAA protect other shipwrecks?
A: Yes. NOAA administers and acts in the public interest to research, assess and protect nationally significant cultural sites and resources, particularly in the National Marine Sanctuary System. The submerged maritime heritage of the United States includes iconic shipwrecks both within and outside of U.S. waters.

Q: I would like to visit the wreck site of the Titanic — are tours available?
A: NOAA is not involved in any operations that take visitors to the wreck site. Private companies may offer Titanic-related tours, and NOAA encourages operators who visit the wreck to do so in accordance with appropriate guidelines and procedures. Responsible tourism can offer the benefit of increasing public awareness of, and support for, the continued preservation efforts presently underway at the wreck site.

Q: Will tourism hurt the Titanic wreck site?
A: NOAA encourages members of the public to visit and explore historical shipwrecks in national marine sanctuaries, but recognizes the potential impacts that could result from unregulated tourism at a world-famous wreck site like the Titanic. Looting or other unauthorized salvage is prohibited by law, and NOAA works to ensure that tour operators avoid damaging or disturbing the wreck site in accordance with the official NOAA Guidelines for Research, Exploration and Salvage of RMS Titanic. With the assistance of NOAA and the National Park Service, the U.S. Coast Guard sent a letter to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on January 25, 2012. The letter requests that the IMO advise vessels to refrain from discharging any garbage, waste or effluent in a 10 square mile zone above the wreck. On January 31, 2012, the IMO issued a circular alerting member governments of the U.S. request and asking them to take action as appropriate in response.

Q: If Titanic is the most researched shipwreck in history, why continue to spend time and money on more scientific expeditions?
A: Despite 27 years of study, and the tremendous amount of field work done at the Titanic wreck site, much remains to be learned from the deep ocean and this shipwreck. Humanity knows more about the surface of the moon than we do about the depths of the ocean. In the case of the Titanic, significant questions remain about the shipwreck’s impact on the deep ocean environment and the environment’s effect on the wreck. Answering those questions not only provides more details about the Titanic, but also about other shipwrecks, including much older wrecks that lie in the deep ocean and may offer exciting new information about our past. The 2003 and 2004 Titanic expeditions were funded by NOAA and partners. Those expeditions involved science missions to examine the condition of the Titanic and to study the corrosion of the ship’s hull. Other expeditions, such as the 2010 scientific mapping mission, were funded by private parties and involved minimal government resources.

Q: Is Titanic expedition information publicly available?
A: The results of the 2010 Titanic expedition will be featured in television specials, magazine articles and news stories throughout 2012, commemorating the centennial of the Titanic's sinking. When NOAA releases the government's archaeological report, it will be publicly available.

Q. Does NOAA plan to return to the Titanic?
A. Currently, NOAA does not have plans for another expedition to the Titanic.

Q: Is the ship deteriorating and will it eventually collapse?
A: The rate of deterioration for each shipwreck varies and is dependent on several factors such as the material the ship was made from, the temperature and chemistry of the water that it rests in, and the wave action or currents of the water. Based on the available information for Titanic, scientists believe that RMS Titanic is continuing to corrode, and if environmental factors progress as expected that the hull and structure of the ship may collapse to the ocean floor within the next 50 years.

However, archaeological evidence of the shipwreck may be on the sea bed for thousands of years. It may be only chemical changes in the sediments, ceramic and glass artifacts, but the impact of the ship on the environment will still be there. The eventual collapse of a ship, like Titanic, be it in 50 years or 100, makes the site no less significant from the perspective of the archaeologist. The appearance of the site may change, and how scientists go about gathering data and studying the site may change, but this is all part of the natural site formation process.

Q. Are there human remains in the Titanic wreckage?
A. There are different views on this. While no intact skeletal remains have been found, several ocean scientists and archaeologists feel there is “evidence of humans”—defined as the remains of a human body, regardless of the state of decomposition. There are photographs of shoes and clothing that suggest that a body came to rest and subsequently decomposed, but there is some debate over whether the decomposition was partial or complete and what may lie within the clothing, shoes or sediment. Many individuals and organizations have expressed that the wreckage of Titanic should be considered a gravesite since numerous people died there. While their actual bodies may not, today, be on or near the wreckage, the site is their final resting place and should be respected as such. Congress recognized the symbolism of the Titanic wreckage to the memory of the victims in its direction to the U.S. State Department to declare Titanic an international maritime memorial. The guidelines developed to preserve and protect the site state: "Activities should avoid disturbance of human remains. In particular, entry into the hull sections of RMS Titanic should be avoided so that they, other artifacts and any human remains are not disturbed."

Thus, NOAA guidance is that the disturbance of artifacts associated with human remains should be avoided even if there is no visible evidence of the remains of a human body. In addition, experience has taught NOAA to not make assumptions based on the mere passage of time. Previously, NOAA was advised that there would be no human remains associated with the 1862 wreck of the USS Monitor, which sank with sixteen of its crew in 240 feet of water off Cape Hatteras, N.C. The wreck is now a National Marine Sanctuary and during an archaeological recovery of the ship's armored turret, two skeletons were revealed.

 
 
 

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