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This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service. I’m Troy Kitch.
In recognition of the100th year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, this podcast is the second of two episodes this month featuring an interview with Jim Delgado, director of maritime heritage with the National Ocean Service’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
Now, before we get started, you did listen to the first Titanic podcast, right? If you didn’t, hit pause and go do that now. You’ll find it on our podcast page at oceanservice.noaa.gov. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
OK, so in our last episode, Jim shared some amazing stories about the Titanic that really got to the heart of why this shipwreck has continued to capture our imagination, even now, 100 years later.
You may feel like you’ve been hearing about the Titanic non-stop this month, and that there’s nothing much new to learn. Well, I bet what you’ll hear today will be new to you. We’re going to answer some questions that aren’t really talked about much. Things like, who’s in charge of the Titanic wreck? Why is the U.S so deeply involved in preserving this shipwreck, even though it’s in international waters? What do now know about Titanic that we didn’t, say, five years ago?
Well, there’s no one better to answer these questions than Jim Delgado, ocean explorer and marine archaeologist. Jim has been on the forefront of Titanic preservation efforts since 1986, shortly after the wreck was discovered. And he’s been to Titanic twice.
His most recent trip in 2010 was a joint mission funded and organized by RMS Titanic, Incorporated, salvor-in-possession of the shipwreck. More on what a salvor-in-possession is in a moment. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the National Park Service, the Institute of Nautical Archeology, the Wait Institute, and NOAA’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries joined RMS Titanic, Inc., for this trip. And Jim served as chief scientist and lead archeological investigator.
[James Delgado] “This was a ‘look don’t touch’ mission specifically focused on doing a comprehensive map of the entire Titanic site. Not the bow or the stern, which had been looked at and carefully examined by others … but very specifically, everything that connected the two pieces of the hull … the entire field in which every piece of Titanic which had disintegrated and fallen to the ocean floor, where all that lay, as well as all of the artifacts – about several square miles of seabed down there, two and a half miles below.”
Jim said the 2010 mission was the first time that researchers were able to see the Titanic as a whole. In previous expeditions, this just wasn’t possible because of limits in technology.
[James Delgado] “This was the first time that we were literally going to be able to walk into the room and ‘turn the lights on,” if you will. We looked at Titanic as you would, say, a forensic crime scene. Imagine trying to understand that by walking into the room and with a tiny little pencil flashlight and a bunch of smoke and crawling around and just looking at it and saying, ‘we think this happened, and here’s a shell casing. Here’s a bullet hole. OK, here’s the victim.’ That’s the way decades of looking at the Titanic had happened, and that’s because technology has been evolving … and the initial technology when the ship was found was towing cameras, Sonar has come along and sonar has gotten sharper and crisper, so to has our ability with computer systems to capture digital imagery and stitch it together to create comprehensive views.”
All of this new technology came together in 2010, he said, largely through the pioneering work of the Woods Hole advanced imaging and visualization lab. So instead of walking into a dark room with the smoke:
[James Delgado] “you literally walk in and turn the lights on and everything is there before you. So what we did with high-resolution sonar, what we did with 3D, as well as 2D imagery, was create this amazing map that you can now go to and zoom in from the surface all the way down to a big piece like the bow to something as small as a teacup and know exactly where it is in the real world. So, in terms of Titanic, with regards to anything that’s lying down there on the seabed, there are no more secrets.”
Since the 2010 mission was entirely funded by a private partner, RMS Titanic, Incorporated, Jim said that a lot of the new imagery and data collected during the expedition is the intellectual property of this company. The government, though, has access to all of RMS Titanic, Inc.’s data, which is being used to develop a detailed archeological map.
[James Delgado] “We’re also working with them as we better understand the site to come away with a more comprehensive 3D look at the ship. And a lot of that they’ve taken and started to release through media outlets.
For example, the April 2012 issue of National Geographic includes an amazing spread of beautiful, never-before-seen Titanic imagery. And, as you may have heard, Titanic 3D is now playing in theaters across the nation.
[James Delgado] “In that way, the governments participation has been to do the science and learn from the science, and share the science with the public, while these other folks have paid for it, by creating a commercial product that enables anybody in time to be able to virtually walk the decks of Titanic in 3D and see the site. Essentially, Titanic will be virtually raised for the first time.“
Now, if you find this private-public partnership confusing, don’t feel bad. It’s complicated. Without going into too much legalese, as the official salvor-in-possession, the RMS Titanic, Inc., has exclusive rights to Titanic and can salvage artifacts from the wreck to exhibit. The U.S. government has an ongoing role in Titanic, too – to represent the public interest in preserving this historic wreck and its artifacts. NOAA is the lead agency in dealing with these issues, working closely with the Department of State, Park Service, and the Department of Justice. The details of this complex relationship are detailed in the Titanic Memorial Act passed by Congress in the 1980s. Since 1987, Jim said that more than 5,000 artifacts have been recovered from Titanic. Today, these artifacts tour the world and are displayed in a permanent exhibition in Las Vegas. Until recently:
[James Delgado] “Those artifacts were the property of no one – the Court controlled them – and most recently, the Court awarded title of those artifacts to RMS Titanic, but with a rather long list of covenants and conditions for the public interest. These included keeping the entire collection together, never selling or auctioning it off one piece at a time, making it available for science, and also for outreach and education. To make sure those covenants and conditions are followed, NOAA has been given the responsibility of acting on behalf of the Court to review and report back with Department of Justice, and I’m the guy that does that, along with Ole Varmer, the attorney, and Dave Alberg, the superintendent of Monitor Marine National Marine Sanctuary. Dave’s been a great partner in all of this. Like me, he comes from a museum background, and as the Monitor superintendent, Dave deals with and manages another iconic and highly symbolically important shipwreck – USS Monitor, so he was a perfect choice for Titanic. “
Ole Varmer, who Jim mentioned a moment ago, is an Attorney-Advisor with NOAA’s Office of General Counsel for International Law. Over the span of several decades, Varmer has played a key role in piecing together an international treaty to protect the Titanic and its artifacts. The key word here is ‘international.’ Remember, the Titanic is in international waters. So while the U.S. is shepherding this effort to get a treaty in place, it’s an effort that involves many nations:
[James Delgado] “The United States signed the treaty, as has the United Kingdom. Two other nations are named in it and have not yet signed it, and that is Canada and France, and we understand that efforts are underway. That will not ratify, or bring the treaty into effect, though. That takes Congressional action. A variety of bills have been introduced through the years, it’s just never elevated itself to the point to where it really got much attention … certainly it wasn’t passed, though we do hear rumblings that perhaps a new bill is coming, and that it would happen this year on the 100th anniversary of Titanic sinking.”
So we have the Titanic Memorial Act, which directed NOAA to write guidelines on how the Titanic wreck site and artifacts should be preserved for the public interest … and we have an international treaty that’s not yet in force that has evolved from the Titanic Memorial Act. So, at this point you may wonder, why is the U.S. so involved with this to begin with? It was a British ship, right? Here’s Jim:
[James Delgado] “Titanic is in international waters. It was a British vessel but owned by an American company. Titanic has strong ties to the United States, and that’s not just because Jack and Rose, and the films that were made in Hollywood, but because Titanic represented an important link between the United States and Europe, and specifically England in this case. That link was that which began 500 years ago in one of the greatest migrations of people in history, and that is people coming to the new world. Titanic is an important link in that long chain of immigration, and many on board the Titanic were either returning home to the U.S. or were coming here for the first time with the intention of becoming citizens…in terms of loss of life on that ship, the largest loss of life were British, followed only by that of people from the U.S., so in terms of those who rest in the ship or lost their lives in it, we have the second biggest stake as a country. But also those cultural ties continue. There are thousands of Americans who trace their ancestry to people who sailed on Titanic or who were lost. And there’s a large number of places dotted in the vast American cultural landscape that link us to Titanic, from the home of the unsinkable Molly Brown in Denver to the graves of people who were lost and whose remains were recovered and buried in Kentucky and Ohio, and then Connecticut, to New York. To monuments and memorials, including here in Washington, DC, where the Titanic Memorial, erected by the grateful women of the U.S. commemorates all of those men who stood by as the lifeboats were loaded for women and children.”
Now we’re almost home. As you’ve heard, the Titanic salvage rights belong to RMS Titanic, Inc., but with a lot of caveats to ensure the ship and artifacts are preserved and protected. The responsibility of ensuring the shipwreck is preserved and protected into the future? The U.S. clearly plays a major role here, but it’s a job that’s not just for the U.S. Rather, it’s a responsibility that’s shared by the global community. So where do go from here?
[James Delgado] “Well, hopefully we’ll see action taken by our own country, by other countries, to appropriately deal with Titanic in this anniversary year, because it is an anniversary year. Since it is in international waters, no one can say much about what happens. What we did, as a government, the U.S. reached out to the international community – to the International Maritime Organization – our colleagues in the U.S. Coast Guard, working with a lot of support from NOAA, from the Office of General Counsel International and those of us in sanctuaries, as well as Woods Hole, the Park Service – came up with a recommendation that the U.S. government moved forward (the Coast Guard is the official representative to the IMO), so they wrote a letter, and that letter called for a voluntary exclusion zone around Titanic where you don’t throw garbage, where you don’t discharge. And that’s important, because when we mapped the wreck, we mapped more than what came to rest in 1912, we were looking at fresh beer cans and plastic cups, we were looking at a fair amount of detritus that had been left there, were thrown into the ocean. And that’s inappropriate, even if there’s not a wreck like Titanic down there, but in particular for us, it was looking at this and saying, ‘you know, if this was Gettysburg, you would not come up to a Monument where men had fallen and see somebody’s empties lying there. Just because there’s not a garbage can, just because there’s not a mowed lawn, and the Park Service isn’t there monitoring it, doesn’t mean we should deal like a site like Titanic any differently. “
This voluntary exclusion zone is thankfully being followed by other nations, notices are going out to mariners about this special area. And even the cruise industry has agreed to follow the rules when they’re out there cruising on the site, with all of these ships going out there for the 100th anniversary. Jim said that the U.S. has also published a map for subs visiting the area, which lays out the best place to enter and the best place to leave so the ship, and more importantly, the remains of those lost in the tragedy, is not disturbed. The map even details where weights should be dropped that are left behind when subs surface from their dives to Titanic:
[James Delgado] “because right now, the site is dotted with drop weights from various expeditions, so better to have in one place, and try to leave that museum as pristine as you possibly can. So I think more of that and, in the time to come with the international cooperation and people voluntarily managing themselves, will be an appropriate thing. And I think too what also could happen, should happen, is that as time moves on, we take an anniversary like this and refocus ourselves not only on the site, but on the stories, the people’s stories in particular, and tell more of those, and to reach out even farther to connect all of us, whether its through a unique family story, or through something we’ve learned down at the bottom of the sea, with the saga of Titanic and the community that she was.”
Now, you may have noticed that Jim called the Titanic site a ‘museum.’ That’s important. It may seem strange to you to think of a shipwreck on the bottom of the ocean in international waters as a museum, but it is. And that’s the key idea behind NOAA’s mission to protect our underwater cultural heritage, which is a big part of what our National Marine Sanctuary system is all about.
[James Delgado] “One of the biggest museums that we have – in terms of American history, and even world history – rests beneath the waves. …. So if you consider the importance of manufacturing today, and then think back 150 years ago to when whaling was as big as all manufacturing in the country, I think you begin to get a sense of just how critical the maritime world was to America. The fact that our government was funded entirely with customs revenues from ships coming in to Salem, Massachusetts, in the first years of the republic. It’s vast, it’s important to us. Today, perhaps we don’t see it as much. We fly, we drive in cars, but it’s there. NOAA sees the evidence of that in the form of the maritime cultural landscape – the harbors, the lighthouses, the things we pass, but also the ships that are down there, and there are thousands of them. And many of the important ones, as they’re found, are studied, others are set aside. With the discovery of USS Monitor in 1973, it became the first National Marine Sanctuary in the U.S., one of the first ships to become a national historic landmark, and still there’s only a handful of those are national landmarks, and that’s the cream of the crop, by the way, those are the ‘Mount Vernons.’ So Monitor was pretty important, and that led ultimately to 14 units in the sanctuary system. In one case – Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary – over a hundred shipwrecks that really represent the history of 10 years of economic development and settlement in the Great Lakes – when that region was providing the backbone of the American economy through the iron ore and through the coal and the other products that were being created, those shipwrecks speak powerfully to not only that experience, but also the role that NOAA plays through the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in not only managing them and protecting them, but making them accessible and available to the public through outreach and education. Dive tours, online exhibits, podcasts, all sorts of things, tell the story of the wrecks at Thunder Bay, but also shipwrecks elsewhere in the Marine Sanctuary system.”
That was Jim Delgado, director of maritime heritage with the National Ocean Service’s National Marine Sanctuaries office.
And that's all for this week. If you'd like to learn more, check our show notes for the links. You’ll find these on our website at oceanservice.noaa.gov.
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This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. We’ll return in two weeks.