Should technology let us violate Titanic's gravesite?

We need to respect the human remains at Titanic's wreckage and support the efforts of NOAA and others to protect the site.

As you might have guessed from my nerdy street cred, I watch a lot of sci-fi movies. I’m not as bad as the characters on my favorite TV show, “The Big Bang Theory,” but I do tend to overdose on those types of movies from time to time, and yes, I have the complete five-season box set of “Babylon 5.”

I bring this all up because sci-fi movies tend to have recurring themes, which often revolve around the use of technology, for good or ill. Many of these movies, from “Jurassic Park” to “The Fly,” ask the question of whether we should use a technology just because we can.

This brings me to Titanic — the real thing, not the movie — a great ship that sunk because we dared to think that we were more advanced technologically than we actually were. Obviously we weren’t capable of building an unsinkable ship, and probably still aren’t.
 
But we are capable of visiting the ship’s final resting place 2 1/2 miles below the surface of the ocean, which would have been impossible not that long ago. "Titanic" director James Cameron has been down there 33 times himself.

The controversy gripping people this week is based on a photograph taken in 2004 that appears to show human remains inside some old shoes and a fancy overcoat. The photos were taken as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expedition with ship-finder Robert Ballard, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, and published in a book by Ballard shortly thereafter.

James Delgado, the director of maritime heritage at NOAA, told the Associated Press that the way the clothes and shoes are laid out makes a “compelling case” that someone had died inside those clothes, as opposed to their being clothes that had fallen out of a bag or closet.

However, in the book, the photo in question was cropped to only show part of the boot. People are questioning whether this was done to disguise the fact that bodies are still buried with the ship. The full photos were only recently released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking.

There is now a debate going on about whether they are actual human remains, and what that means if they are. Cameron claims to have never spotted any human remains in all his trips, and he’s probably been down there enough to apply for a tourist’s visa.

But that doesn’t mean the bodies don’t exist. And even if they have long since faded away, it’s still a gravesite. Does a final resting place stop being sacred once the bodies decompose? If that were the case, then the USS Arizona (BB-39), which sank in shallow oxygenated waters at Pearl Harbor, would have long since lost its special protection.

So we’ve proven we can go down there. And yes, it is quite a technological feat to journey more than 2 miles into the deep, dark ocean. But does that mean we should? Or are some places sacred enough that they get to keep their secrets?

To its credit, NOAA, along with the State Department, has been leading the U.S. effort to protect the site as part of an international agreement signed in 1986, a year after the wreck was discovered. NOAA published guidelines for research, exploration and salvage in 2001, and NOAA, State and other agencies have been working on proposed legislation to protect the Titanic from looting and nonscientific salvage operations.

The possibility of human remains within the wreckage should add some urgency to those efforts.


 

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