Inside The Latest Planned Titanic Expedition (And Why The Government Wants To Stop It)

The company that owns the exclusive salvage rights to one of the most famous shipwrecks in history, the RMS Titanic, has been recovering artifacts from the wreck site at the bottom of the North Atlantic for decades. But plans for its latest venture are going too far in the eyes of the U.S. government. RMS Titanic Inc. wants to use robotic undersea vehicles to go inside the hull of the ship and photograph — and possibly recover — items found there, according to the Associated Press.

The salvage company is no stranger to controversy or the federal courts. Just three years ago RMS Titanic Inc. and the U.S. government fought it out over the exact same proposal, which ended up being sidelined by the pandemic, per PBS. The U.S. Attorney's Office has continued to argue that because the site is "an international maritime memorial," the salvage company would need to get authorization from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce for "any research, exploration, salvage, or other activity that would physically alter or disturb the wreck or wreck site of the RMS Titanic," per an August 25, 2023, federal court filing.

An international treaty

RMS Titanic Inc. said it wasn't going to seek a permit for its planned operation in May 2024 since the international treaty between the U.S. and the U.K. concerning the wreck site isn't ​​"enforceable or constitutional," according to the court filing. The U.K. signed the treaty in 2003, but it didn't go into effect until 2019 when the U.S. ratified the agreement, per the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the terms of the agreement in the U.S. The salvage company did say it would "work collaboratively" with the NOAA.

In 1985, a U.S. military-funded robotic submersible developed by scientist Robert Ballard discovered the site where the Titanic went down on April 15, 1912, after colliding with an iceberg, according to The New York Times. The salvage company, led by an unusual group of investors that included a producer for TV's "The People's Court," a concert promoter, and others, won the exclusive salvage rights in 1994.

Artifacts and controversy

Since 1987, RMS Titanic Inc. has recovered more than 5,500 artifacts from the Titanic wreck site, including jewelry, a decorative bronze cherub, and a bowler hat. But the real prizes are believed to still be inside the ship. Back in 2000, RMS Titanic Inc. proposed piercing the Titanic's hull to get inside and recover the estimated $300 million in diamonds believed to be inside but later abandoned the idea.

According to the Associated Press, the salvage company's latest proposed expedition involves photographing the entire wreck and possibly retrieving "free-standing objects inside the wreck" — including the Marconi wireless, which was used to send out distress signals as the ship went down. The doomed Titan submersible expedition that ended with the deaths of five people in June 2023 was not related to RMS Titanic Inc. but did require receiving its permission to explore the site. The court case between the salvage company and the U.S. government is ongoing.