A Senate committee has approved a bill to help preserve the storied wreck of R.M.S. Titanic from the modern day tomb raiders who have been plundering the site for relics.
As every Leonardo DiCaprio fan knows, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage a hundred years ago last April. Explorer Robert Ballard found the wreck in 1985, and Congress quickly passed and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation to protect the site, where more than 1,500 people perished.
But because the Titanic was lost in international waters, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland, there is not a terrible lot that the United States and other nations can do to stop grave robbers from using deep-sea submarines to collect artifacts, or to keep eco-tourists from poking around the rusting shipwreck, which lies two miles below the surface of the sea.
Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass. and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. hope to change that, with a bill that would outlaw the sale of stolen relics from the ship, enter into an international agreement to preserve the wreck, and otherwise crack down on plunderers.
"It's hallowed ground, not just some underwater area to be poked at or damaged for commercial reasons," says Kerry.
The Titanic broke in two as it sank, and pieces of the ship and its cargo spilled across the ocean floor. Under international law, a salvage firm has been authorized to explore the site and bring up relics for exhibitions. But wealthy tourists also pay six-figure sums to commercial firms to take them down in submersibles to see the legendary ship. Some have stolen important artifacts, Ballard charged, in a National Geographic article in 2004. The wreck is being treated like "a freak show at the county fair," he said.
Whitney Smith, an aide to Kerry, said that the bill has not run into any opposition in the Senate, and that the sponsors hope to see it pass in this session of Congress. The measure would also allow the Secretary of Commerce to organize an advisory council to take further steps to preserve the Titanic.
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