Into the Deep: A Maritime Controversy

Replica of the Titanic telegraph room.

This past week, the Titanic has become a topic of controversial media discussion. After major debate in US federal courts, the R.M.S Titanic salvage firm has been given permission to conduct a mission to retrieve the Titanic’s Marconi telegraph machine.

In July 2000, a US federal court order forbade the cutting into the ship for salvage purposes, excluding the search for diamonds and other treasure within the ship itself, but allowing the retrieval of artifacts from the debris field surrounding the wreck. But the latest court ruling, made by federal judge Rebecca Beach Smith of the US District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, made changes to allow an expedition to take place this summer. Given the fact that bacteria have greatly corroded the hull of the Titanic to the point where it could be completely gone by the year 2030, the salvage company sought to loosen the restrictions imposed by the 2000 court ruling in order to try and save the telegraph machine before the ship has completely disintegrated.

The R.M.S. Titanic salvage company argued that an expedition to retrieve the Titanic’s Marconi telegraph machine would open up new research about the ship’s sinking in April 1912, and the telegraph messages that were sent out as the ship went down. As Judge Smith wrote in the recent ruling, “The Marconi device has significant historical, educational, scientific and cultural value as the device used to make distress calls while the Titanic was sinking.”

While cutting into the ship’s hull would be a last-resort measure that the company will try to avoid if possible, the salvage team will attempt to retrieve the telegraph machine through an open skylight by using ROV (remote operated vehicles).

However, despite the fact that this expedition would have great historical significance and would give the opportunity for new research, it has instigated a huge debate and controversy. A number of organizations, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), have voiced their fierce opposition to the expedition. Representatives of the organizations in opposition to the planned dive voiced their arguments at the court hearing, stating that wreck of the Titanic should be left undisturbed and respected as a grave site rather than as a museum supply location.

Marine archaeologist James Delgado, who helped map the shipwreck in a 2010 expedition, stated “Titanic has always been a singular case of passionate, strongly held opinions. For some it’s a memorial, for some it’s a historic site, for some it’s where a family member died. For others, it’s an ultimate tourist destination, and for others it’s a business opportunity.”

The statements made by Michael Kingston, vice-chairman of the Irish Cultural Center, and Ciaran McCarthy, an Irish lawyer who specializes in maritime law, reflect those made by Delgado. To them, “The ship is therefore not just an enormous grave site, but a monument to such wider family tragedy and hardship given that those who died were the hope for all family members back home and that is the starting point — our moral obligation to the victims and their families.”

And given the fragile condition of the wreck, the R.M.S. Titanic salvage team might decide once they’ve dove down to the site not to proceed with the recovery of the Marconi telegraph machine for fear of damaging the ship further and the collapse of the telegraph room’s ceiling.

While I’m not a historical expert by any means, after reading articles stating both sides of the argument surrounding the planned expedition to the Titanic, I am honestly on the fence about it. While I agree that the retrieval of the Marconi telegraph machine would open up the opportunity for historians to make new discoveries about the sinking of the Titanic and add to the numerous volumes of research about the ship, the Titanic wreck is the site of a significant maritime tragedy which resulted in the deaths of over 1,500 passengers and is a gravesite that should be left in peace.

And the debate begs the question of should the expedition go ahead, despite the historical significance, is it worth the risk of potentially damaging the wreck further in order to attempt retrieving the telegraph machine when the wreck is already in such a fragile state? Only time will tell…

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