US ends legal fight against Titanic expedition. Battles over future dives still possible

Published 3:01 pm Friday, July 5, 2024

The U.S. government has officially ended its legal fight against an upcoming expedition to the Titanic shipwreck after the company that owns the ship’s salvage rights scaled back its dive plans.

But the U.S. said in court filings last week that it may wage court battles over future expeditions if they break a federal law and an agreement with Great Britain to treat the wreck as a gravesite.

The litigation began last year after RMS Titanic Inc. announced the expedition, which is now scheduled for mid-July. The Georgia-based company originally planned to take images inside the ocean liner’s severed hull and to retrieve artifacts from the debris field.

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RMST also said it would possibly recover free-standing objects inside the Titanic, including from the room where the sinking ship broadcast its distress signals.

The U.S. filed its legal challenge in August, arguing that entering the Titanic — or physically altering or disturbing the wreck — is regulated by the 2017 federal law and pact with Britain.

Both regard the site as a memorial to the more than 1,500 people who died when the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in 1912. Among the government’s concerns is the possible disturbance of artifacts and any human remains that may still exist on the North Atlantic seabed.

In October, RMST said it had significantly pared down its dive plans. That’s because its director of underwater research, Paul-Henri Nargeolet, died in the implosion of the Titan submersible near the Titanic shipwreck in June.

The Titan was operated by a separate company, OceanGate, to which Nargeolet was lending expertise. Nargeolet was supposed to lead this year’s RMST expedition.

RMST stated in a February court filing that it will send an uncrewed submersible to the site and only take external images.

“The company will not come into contact with the wreck,” RMST stated, adding that it “will not attempt any artifact recovery or penetration imaging.”

The U.S. government stated in a June 27 court filing that it’s ending its legal efforts against the expedition because of the company’s revised dive plans.

But the government said future expeditions could be illegal. It noted that the firm’s longer-term objectives still involve the possible retrieval of objects from inside the wreck and surrounding debris field. For that reason, the U.S. said it wants to leave the door open for future legal battles. Specifically, the government said it may still pursue last year’s motion to intervene as a party in RMST’s salvage case with a federal admiralty court.

RMST has been the court-recognized steward of the Titanic’s artifacts since 1994. Its last expedition was in 2010, before the federal law and international agreement took effect.

The company has recovered and conserved thousands of Titanic artifacts, from silverware to a piece of the ship’s hull, which millions of people have seen through its exhibits.

U. S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith is the maritime jurist who presides over Titanic salvage matters in Norfolk, Virginia. She said during a March court hearing that the U.S. government’s case against RMST would raise serious legal questions if it continues, while the consequences could be wide-ranging.

Congress is allowed to modify maritime law, Smith said in reference to the U.S. regulating entry into the sunken Titanic. But the judge questioned whether Congress can strip courts of their own admiralty jurisdiction over a shipwreck, something that has centuries of legal precedent.

In 2020, Smith gave RMST permission to retrieve and exhibit the radio that had broadcast the Titanic’s distress calls. The U.S. government responded by filing an official legal challenge against the expedition.

The court battle never played out. RMST indefinitely delayed those plans because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Smith noted in March that time may be running out for expeditions inside the Titanic. The ship is rapidly deteriorating.