international maritime law
When a ship sinks, the first person to bring up an object from a wreck can claim legal ownership of the wreck under international maritime law. That gives that person the control of the wreck and control over salvage rights. Robert Ballard, one of the men who discovered the Titanic in 1985, had mixed feelings about disturbing the graves of those victims who are still there…a very noble man, if you ask me. Ballard’s partner, Jean-Lous Michel, agreed. They made the decision not to disturb the wreck, but rather to leave it in the pristine (for a wreck) condition that it was in. They didn’t bring up anything from the wreck.
Unfortunately, their act of decency and kindness, left a legal door open, and that has been the greatest source of regret for the two men. Because they chose to bring nothing up from the wreck, they could not claim legal ownership of Titanic. Unfortunately, that left the ship vulnerable, because anyone and everyone now had a legal right for salvage the contents, and even parts of the ship…and they did. The artifacts and ship parts were free for the taking…and they were big business, especially after the movies came out, and interest grew. Soon, Titanic Ventures went in to claim salvage rights, and began bringing up artifacts to sell for exhibits and souvenirs. Since then, they have made a fortune on exhibits all over the world.
Following the find, and subsequent decision not to remove an artifact, anyone with the ability to explore the ocean floor that deep, went in and raided the ship. I’m sure that many of us have seen the Titanic exhibits, me included, and even purchased one of the artifacts, me included, but in my defense, I did not know the thoughts and wishes of Ballard and Michel, or the thoughts and feelings of the families of the deceased, at that time. I looked at the exhibit as a learning tool. I love learning, and I love history, and in fact, one of my own ancestors died on the Titanic, which I suppose gave me as much right to see the exhibit as anyone, but I’m still not sure it is right to make money off of the horrific way others lost their lives.
I remember as I went through the exhibit, walking through the recreation of the steerage rooms, with the eerie sounds of the water on the outside, thinking of the people who had been trapped there on that fateful night. I remember looking at the piece of the hull, thinking that I was standing almost close enough to reach out and touch part of a ship that had been so far under the ocean. I have seen both versions of the Titanic movies, but while looking at the exhibit, it was the original movie that came to my mind. Titanic wasn’t really a love story. It was a loss story. It was a story of bravery, courage, and yes, love…the kind of love that made a wife refuse to leave her husband and parents to comfort their children, when all hope of survival was lost…holding in the tears of knowing that their children would never get to live their life to adulthood. When I think about all the lives that were lost on that fateful day, I can see how Ballard and Michel would want to leave the Titanic as it was, thereby preserving the graves of all those poor souls. While their idea was noble, it is sad that they didn’t bring at least one thing us so that their ownership and control could remain the gift they had planned to give the families.