The United Nations has moved to protect the wreck of the Titanic amid growing concern at its deterioration as a result of tourist visits and exploration submarines crashing into its structure.
The 100-year old wreck has been brought under the cover of the 2001 Unesco convention on the protection of underwater cultural heritage, which gives signed-up member states the right to prevent exploration deemed unscientific or unethical, seize illicitly recovered artefacts and close their ports to all vessels undertaking exploration that is not done according to the principles of the doctrine.
Robert Ballard, the undersea explorer who was part of the expedition that discovered the wreck in 1985, has raised concerns about its condition and in 2004 undertook a dive that found the mainmast had been destroyed, the ship’s bell and light torn off and several holes had been made in the deck.
“When [submarines] bump into things, they can do damage,” he said at the time. “When they land, they can do damage. You can clearly see, all over the ship, where the common landing sites are knocking the holes in the deck.”
Announcing the application of the heritage convention to the wreck on Thursday, Unesco’s director general, Irina Bokova, called on divers not to dump equipment or commemorative plaques on the Titanic, a common practice that is causing conservationists significant concern.
“The sinking of the Titanic is anchored in the memory of humanity and I am pleased that this site can now be protected by the Unesco convention,” said Bokova.
“But there are thousands of other shipwrecks that need safeguarding as well. All of them are archaeological sites of scientific and historical value. They are also the memory of human tragedy that should be treated with respect. We do not tolerate the plundering of cultural sites on land, and the same should be true for our sunken heritage.”
The convention stipulates that underwater heritage should be preserved in its original location in the first instance and that it should not be exploited for trade or speculation.
However, the protections are limited by the fact that neither the US nor Canada is among the 41 signatory states and a number of the tourist and exploration trips chartered to the wreck site 4,000m under the sea off the coast of Newfoundland come from those countries.
A US company called Bluefish is offering 40 places on two trips in submersibles to the wreck this July, with each place costing $59,680 (£37,636). The brochure promises: “Experience for yourself the mystique and majesty of this poignant chapter in humanity’s collective history.”
Ulrike Guerin, the Unesco official responsible for the convention, said: “Damage has been done by ROVs [remote-controlled submersibles] bumping in the wreck and memorial plaques being placed on it.
“One ROV got also caught in the cables. Artifacts have been taken and are for sale now and this is a main issue. The Unesco convention foresees very detailed rules for activities directed at ancient wrecks, for instance supervision by an archeologist, respect for human remains and the prohibition of the commercial for-profit recovery of artifacts.”