This Court Case Will Decide Who Owns the Titanic

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The Wreckage of the R.M.S. Titanic (Image credit: RMS Titanic, Inc.)

Will the infamous Titanic ever be left to rest? In a legal conflict unfolding with increasing complexity, the United States federal government is opposing RMS Titanic, Inc.’s plan for an upcoming expedition to the iconic Titanic wreckage. The company, which has held exclusive salvage rights to the Titanic since 1994, has undertaken numerous missions to retrieve thousands of artifacts from the site, some of which have been publicly exhibited throughout the United States. However, the federal government is now arguing that the proposed expedition could potentially disrupt the final resting place of more than 1,500 individuals who tragically lost their lives when the Titanic sank in 1912, and cannot go through. 

Such a compelling legal dispute, especially one of this time, raises questions regarding its relation to the recent Titan submersible, which was used for site survey and inspection, as well as research and data collection of the Titanic. Many were outraged that such a submersible journeyed to the Titanic, which later suffered a “catastrophic implosion” in which all five people on board died. Nevertheless, both incidents have raised significant questions about access to the Titanic wreckage.

The essence of the government’s argument, presented in a motion filed last Friday, is the proclamation that any operation involving physical disturbance to the Titanic wreck necessitates the permission of the Secretary of Commerce. In contrast, RMS Titanic, Inc. contests this claim, maintaining that it possesses the right to proceed with its planned expedition without requiring federal approval. The company’s proposed mission encompasses an exploration of the Titanic, nestled two miles beneath the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean.

The primary objective of this expedition was to retrieve the renowned Marconi wireless telegraph, a pivotal instrument used by crew members to transmit distress signals when the Titanic struck an iceberg and commenced its tragic descent into the icy depths. Additionally, the mission aims to document the site extensively, including capturing photographs of the ship’s interior and recovering artifacts. It is essential to note, however, that RMS Titanic, Inc. has vowed not to disturb any items affixed to the wreck itself.

This legal standoff is currently being adjudicated upon in the U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, a jurisdiction with a specialization in shipwreck recovery. This court had previously granted RMS Titanic, Inc. salvage rights almost three decades ago, further fueling the fire for the drama yet to unfold. Despite the weight of this situation, RMS Titanic, Inc. has not yet issued an official response. Instead, the company has released a statement affirming its dedication to preserving the memory and legacy of the Titanic, its passengers, and its crew for future generations.

A similar legal confrontation took place in 2020 when a U.S. district judge initially granted the company permission to retrieve the Marconi telegraph. Subsequently, the government filed a legal challenge against the expedition, leading to its indefinite postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The potential for this legal matter to linger for years is at large, with experts suggesting that it could ultimately land in the hands of the Supreme Court. 

As this legal conflict unfolds, it not only highlights the intriguing legal complexities surrounding shipwreck recovery but also raises ethical questions regarding history. Balancing the goal to preserve the memory of the Titanic’s tragic voyage with the need for continued exploration and historical documentation presents a challenge that will continue to captivate both legal and historical enthusiasts.

Written by Max Caiola

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