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Photo 48: Bow of the RMS Titanic.
(NOAA Photo Library)
The Royal Mail Steamer Titanic is perhaps the most famous shipwreck in our current popular culture. A British registered ship in the White Star line that was owned by a U.S. company in which famed American financier John Pierpont "JP" Morgan was a major stockholder, Titanic was built in Belfast, Northern Ireland by Harland & Wolff for transatlantic passage between Southampton, England and New York City. It was the largest and most luxurious passenger ship of its time and was reported to be unsinkable. Titanic was launched on May 31, 1911 and set sail on its maiden voyage from Southampton on April 10, 1912; 2,240 passengers and crew were on board. On April 15, 1912, after striking an iceberg,Titanic broke apart and sank to the bottom of the ocean, taking with it the lives of more than 1,500 passengers and crew. While there has been some salvage outside of the major hull portions, most of the ship remains in its final resting place, 12,000 feet below sea level and over 350 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Its famous story of disaster and human drama has been, and continues to be, recounted in numerous books, articles and movies. Titanichas been recognized by the United States Congress for its national and international significance and in many ways has become a cultural icon. The disaster also resulted in a number of memorials around the world. In the United States, there are major memorials in Washington D.C. and New York; the Widener Library at Harvard University is another major memorial commemorating Henry Elkins Widener, a victim of the sinking.
The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 15, 2012, is expected to bring an unprecedented amount of commercial shipping traffic to the wreck site. In addition to the numerous cruise ships scheduled to visit the area, several submersible expeditions have been announced that will dive to the wreck site. These activities, along with others that may disturb the wreck site, highlight the need for action to protect the site’s archeological integrity and ensure that it is treated as a maritime memorial to the 1,500 people who perished when the Titanic sank. NOAA, the National Park Service and the United States Coast Guard prepared a letter that United States Coast Guard Vice Admiral Brian Salerno sent to the Secretary General of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on January 25, 2012, requesting the issuance of a non-binding circular advising vessels to refrain from discharging any garbage, waste or effluent in a 10 square mile zone above the wreck. The letter also requests submersibles to avoid landing on theTitanic’s deck, to concentrate any dropweights on ascent in specific areas away from hull portions, and to refrain from placing plaques or other permanent memorials on the wreck (however well-intentioned). On January 31, 2012, the IMO issued a circular alerting member governments of the United States’ request and asking them to take action as appropriate in response (MEPC.1/Circ.779). NOAA, in consultation and cooperation with its Federal agency partners, will continue to work to protect and preserve the Titanic wrecksite as a maritime memorial.
As of April 15, 2012, the R.M.S. Titanic comes under the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which only applies to remains that are submerged for at least 100 years. The 41 State Parties to the Convention have the authority to seize any illicitly recovered artifacts, close their ports to all vessels undertaking exploration not conducted in accordance with the principles of the Convention, and outlaw the destruction, pillage, sale, and dispersion of objects found at the wreck site. The Convention was adopted in 2001 by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to ensure better protection of underwater cultural heritage and entered into force on January 2, 2009. (UNESCO Press Release No. 2012-27). For further information please contact Ole Varmer of the NOAA General Council Office’s International Section by email or phone: (202) 482-1402.