Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have changed plans around the globe. Now the ill effects are even reaching miles below the ocean’s surface. Hopes of retrieving an important piece of history from the world’s most famous steamship wreckage may prove the latest loss blamed on the virus.
The RMS Titanic luxury ocean liner was traveling from England to New York in 1912. The ship struck an iceberg and sank. A Marconi wireless telegraph machine (an early radio) sent distress calls to nearby ships. Those which responded helped save 700 people in lifeboats.
In 1985, divers discovered the Titanic wreckage about two-and-a-half miles below the surface of the North Atlantic.
A company called RMS Titanic Inc. (RMST) owns the ship’s salvage rights and oversees a collection of items recovered from the wreck. These include silverware, china, gold coins, and a piece of its hull.
RMST wants to raise the Titanic radio. Officials say exhibiting it will help support the ship’s legacy while honoring passengers and crew. But the company’s revenues plummeted after coronavirus restrictions closed its artifacts displays. Some exhibits, which are scattered across the country, are still closed. Others have reopened but are seeing limited attendance.
“The pandemic and resulting governmental restrictions forced the company to temporarily close its exhibitions to the public, effectively shutting off its primary source of revenue for six months,” RMST wrote in a court filing.
While the company scrambles for funding, a U.S. District Court is deciding whether the expedition is even legal. Lawyers for the government argue that the mission is banned under federal law and an international agreement with Great Britain. Federal attorneys say the company must seek the government’s permission to remove the radio—because the sunken vessel is a recognized memorial to the roughly 1,500 people who died. (See Leave Titanic Alone.)
A federal naval judge in Norfolk approved the planned expedition in May. But the approval depended on a detailed plan of costs, funding, and conservation of the recovered equipment.
RMST missed a January 10 deadline, but officials are still trying to finalize that plan. They say the plan “will depend on a complicated, multi-faceted commercial transaction between RMST, an international production company, and deep-sea salvage experts.”
The company hopes to submit its plan by January 29. If not, RMST plans to withdraw its original motion seeking the court’s permission to retrieve the radio.
(The remains of a coat and boots in the mud on the sea bed near Titanic’s stern. Institute for Exploration, Center for Archaeological Oceanography/University of Rhode Island/NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration)