Researchers who found the wreck of the Titanic headed home today with the chief scientist promising he was bringing back "spectacular" film from the expedition, while a controversy over who owns the Titanic is brewing.
It was also revealed that 47 members of the crew held a memorial service Sunday after the discovery was made, for the more than 1,500 people who died in the disaster. Said a spokesman, "Their initial reaction at the discovery was one of elation. Then it dawned on them that the Titanic was part of a major maritime disaster. They held a service on the fantail of the Knorr."
Meanwhile, a London insurance company claims that insurance underwriters own the hulk. Salvage operators say the treasures are there for the picking, albeit perhaps impossible to reach 2.5 miles below sea level.
But Bernard Crisp, a director for the Cunard Line, which merged with the White Star line that had operated the ship, said today the wreckage of the Titanic probably cannot be legally claimed by any shipping company, including Cunard.
Crisp said the line's legal advisers had reviewed the history of Cunard's merger with White Star.
"The ship sank 22 years before Cunard had involvement in White Star," Crisp told the Associated Press by telephone. Asked who might claim to own the wreckage, Crisp replied, "Nobody, I would expect."
The Navy-owned research ship Knorr, on which the expedition team is returning, is scheduled to dock Monday at Woods Hole.
Officials said Robert Ballard, chief scientist on the U.S.-French mission, will try to arrange a return trip, possibly next summer, to explore the sunken luxury liner in a manned submersible known as ALVIN.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution officials said there is concern the future may bring scavengers to the wreck site, about 560 miles off Newfoundland.
"Ballard is very concerned with the exploitation of the Titanic. Wreck-ruining destroys archeological finds," said William Marquet, senior engineer at the Woods Hole deep submergence laboratory, which is headed by Ballard. "If he were to return, it would be to continue documentation and not as exploitation."
Robert Spindel, head of the Woods Hole ocean engineering department, said numerous questions must be answered before another visit to the wreck is scheduled.
"Mainly, it's a matter of safety. But also it's a question of what you could learn about it," he said, adding that possible reasons for inspecting the ship in a manned vessel would be the chance to learn more about such things as corrosion and preservation.
"We don't know that much about the preservation of things at the depths of the sea floor. People all over the world are thinking about using it for disposal, particularly of nuclear waste," he said.
Asked how Woods Hole could safeguard the Titanic, he said: "We've tried not to release the exact position of the ship and the exact depth of the find. But we heard aircraft were in the vicinity. I don't think there is anything we can do about that."
He said Woods Hole would act to protect the Titanic only if someone were to try to salvage it.