The US Government is using the US District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, to attempt to block the next trip to the wreckage of the Titanic.
Many shipwrecks, such as military ships that have sunk in US waters, are off-limits to explorers, tourists, and people looking to salvage booty. The Titanic, lying in international waters, is protected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as well as a later US-UK treaty aimed at preserving the wreck and preventing looting.
However, people are still allowed to dive down to the Titanic and can obtain permits to enter the hull if they have the resources available to them to take them down there. Only one company – RMS Titanic Inc. – is legally allowed to salvage items from the wreck, thanks to salvage rights granted to the company by the US District Court in Norfolk, Virginia (which specializes in shipwrecks and salvage) nearly three decades ago.
However, the US Government is attempting to stop an upcoming expedition by RMS Titanic aimed at recovering items from the wreckage, attempting to exercise the right to veto trips they object to. Under the US-UK treaty, which Congress enacted in 2017, “no person shall conduct any research, exploration, salvage, or other activity that would physically alter or disturb the wreck or wreck site of the RMS Titanic unless authorized by the Secretary of Commerce."
The company had originally planned to recover a Marconi wireless telegraph from the ship, which was used to make distress calls. This prompted the government to file a legal challenge, but the trip was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, the New York Times reports, the company told the court they again planned to recover the telegraph and other artifacts, whilst also photographing the ship's interior using remote vehicles. The government has concerns that the wreckage, including human remains at the site, could be disturbed by the trip, according to AP News.
RMS Titanic said that it planned to take only free-standing items which are not affixed to the Titanic, and access the interior only "where deterioration has opened chasms sufficient to permit a remotely operated vehicle to penetrate the hull without interfering with the current structure,” reports AP News.
“The company believes it retains the right to continue to conduct salvage activities at the wreck site," lawyer for RMS Titanic Brian A. Wainger, said in a statement seen by the New York Times, "without seeking or obtaining approval from any third-parties other than the U.S. District Court which maintains jurisdiction over the wreck site."
The battle could take years, and perhaps even go to the Supreme Court.