Oceans: Whose Ship Is It Anyway?

By Don Walsh

In August 1993, RMST petitioned the U.S. Federal Court in Norfolk, Virginia, to be named exclusive salvor of Titanic and owner of all artifacts recovered. Since it was not feasible to bring the ship to court, the company proved its salvage expertise by producing an artifact (a wine decanter) in court. Judge J. Calvitt Clarke, Jr., then ordered notice of the proposed action to be published in major newspapers. He invited any party to come forward to prove ownership of the vessel or to offer a better claim to salvage rights. Other than RMST, only one claim was made. In June 1994, the judge ruled that RMST was "salvor in possession" and owner of the artifacts.

This process was in accord with the traditional international body of admiralty law concerning maritime salvage. In general, the basic idea is return of property to its original owners with a generous share being awarded to its salvors. Considering public concerns over disturbing the site of this great tragedy, the company promised that it would not "harvest" artifacts for sale. Instead, RMST would place them in exhibits for public viewing and education. They would make their money by organizing exhibits where admission fees would be charged.

RMST conducted salvage operations in 1993, 1994, 1996, and 1998. In addition to the 5,000 artifacts recovered, thousands of photographs were made, together with hundreds of hours of video imagery.

Problems began when other parties wanted to film at the wreck site. In 1991, a major IMAX film, "Titanica," was made there using the Russian Mirs . This was before RMST became salvor in possession. However, James Cameron's filming for "Titanic" was in 1995, requiring 12 Mir dives to Titanic . RMST protested, but took no legal actions against Cameron.

Admiralty case law relating to salvor's rights was silent on the question of "innocent visits"—i.e., projects that did not interfere with ongoing salvage activities, did not remove any items, and did no damage to the site.

When a 1996 film project was proposed for the site, RMST went to Judge Clarke requesting an order to ban future visitors without RMST's specific permission. If they could not sell artifacts, then having control of site access would permit them to develop offsetting income by charging an "admission fee" for all visitors. The judge agreed and issued the order. The film project was abandoned.

1998 brought a new challenge for RMST. An English company, Deep Ocean Expeditions (DOE), announced it would take tourists to Titanic . Using the Mirs (each carrying two passengers, plus pilot), DOE planned to take up to 60 people to the site in August-September 1998. Ticket price for "Operation Titanic " was $32,500. Initial customer reaction was excellent; 45 people inquired about making the trip.

RMST moved to stop DOE. In June 1998, Judge Clarke ordered DOE, all of the participants in Operation Titanic , and essentially "all of the world" banned from entering a 168square-mile box containing the wreckage. The box extended to the ocean surface two miles above. Through his 1996 and 1998 rulings, Judge Clarke now had banned innocent visitation to the historic site, and unilaterally asserted U.S. control over a portion of the high seas outside U.S. territorial waters

DOE filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. Arguments were heard in October and their decision was issued in March 1999. With respect to innocent visits to the site, Judge Clarke's ruling was overturned. However, the appeals court also reaffirmed traditional rights of the salvor (which DOE never had contested). DOE's "Operation Titanic " dives now will begin in July 1999.

This is not just another " Titanic story." The appeals court decision is a far-reaching reaffirmation of the rights, duties, and limits of salvors. Traditional rights of salvage are maintained, but rights of visitors to a site have been newly defined and established. This will have worldwide implications wherever a similar situation may occur in the future. Scientists, explorers, and tourists will all benefit from this decision.


Dr. Walsh is neither marine archaeologist nor treasure hunter. He has spent the past four decades involved with design, manufacture, and operation of submersible systems. A retired naval officer (submarines) he was designated U.S. Navy deep submersible pilot #1 in the early 1970s. During 2001, in addition to Atlantic Sands, hehas participated in diving operations at the battleship Bismarck (16,000 feet) and RMS Titanic (12,500 feet). On 20 July 2001, he had lunch on board the Titanic, when the Mir 2 landed on the bridge so the sub crew could eat.

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