A federal judge this month gave the go-ahead to a salvage company hoping to retrieve a telegraph machine from the wreck of the Titanic despite pleas from some that doing so would amount to grave robbery.
The company, RMS Titanic, wants to recover the sunken ship's wireless Marconi telegraph, which was used to call for help after the ship struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912. Only about 700 of the 2,208 passengers and crew on-board survived the wreck.
The mission's backers call the device the "last voice" of the Titanic. But lawyers for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration argued in court that the expedition could disturb the site, which was declared a memorial more than 30 years ago.
During a scientific expedition in 2010, RMS Titanic mapped out the site with cameras and sonars to assess its condition, says David Gallo, an oceanographer and consultant for the company. The thin ceiling above the Marconi room had gaping holes, making the machine visible through the perforations, he says.
The idea for the controversial expedition was to continue the scientific work started in 2010 and through that process, give scientists a better look at the Marconi room to determine whether the machine is in imminent danger, he says.
“The worry is that that ceiling will soon collapse before anyone gets back there again,” he says. “We were asking for permission that on our next expedition, if we took a close look and determined that there was an imminent risk to the Marconi, that we would be prepared to retrieve it if we did it with minimal damage to the ship itself.”
Photos from a series of dives on the Titanic last summer showed the ship is deteriorating faster than expected, he says.
Deep-sea expeditions are comparable to a difficult, intense “journey to an unknown planet,” he says. These missions require proper equipment to navigate the dark, cold area without GPS.
Scientists need to keep track of the robots, which are used to navigate, and work around the cables and sharp edges left at the site, he says. This requires an experienced team, the best technology available and an operational plan.
During the trial, Gallo testified that he used to consider the idea of excavating the shipwreck grave robbery. Though he was interested in the Titanic, he thought it seemed wrong to disturb a gravesite or recover anything from it.
But while wandering around the area one day, he witnessed families and kids coming in to experience real parts of the Titanic.
“That changed my mind completely,” he says. “Then I said, OK, I understand the importance of this, that they don't need a Dave Gallo or a Bob Ballard or James Cameron or whoever to tell them what to think. They're seeing it firsthand themselves.”
Lawyers for the government who oppose this mission said it seems clear that this is not simply a one-off proposal, but a placeholder for future requests to take similar actions in order to recover other artifacts from inside the wreck.
Gallo doesn’t see it that way. Sometimes criticisms of the proposal surprise him, he says, while being called a grave robber or a “greedy treasure hunter” hurts.
Some people may look at the ruling as a landmark case that sets precedent, but he says it’s a special case that wasn’t intended to “open the floodgates” for future artifact recovery.
“In my 10 years of association with RMS Titanic Inc. and as a consultant for the last year, I've never once heard anything to do with recovering artifacts, especially for money's sake,” he says. “It's always to do the right thing by the ship. It's always to strengthen the legacy of the ship and to honor the passengers that sailed on board that ship and especially those that died that night.”
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Gallo says the funding for the project is coming together well. Though his job is to plan the expedition, he hears people’s attraction to the Titanic makes finding funding and getting media attention easy.
To make sure the expedition leaves the ship unscathed, the company plans to work with the best pilots and tools, he says. The team goes through every version of the plan multiple times to figure out how to improve it.
The mission might not require cutting any pieces of the wreckage, he says. Instead, the team could use an articulator arm to reach down and easily recover things related to the Marconi that could show whether it was brand new.
“Believe me,” he says. “No one, especially me, wants to leave some mark on that ship.”
This segment aired on May 29, 2020.