Rough weather on the North Atlantic scrubbed plans for a French expedition's first dive to the sunken hull of the RMS Titanic yesterday, as Titanic buffs and U.S. lawmakers deplored the group's intention to salvage artifacts from the wreck.
Twenty-five knot winds and eight- to 10-foot seas at the site 350 miles off Newfoundland prevented the research ship Nadir from launching its three-person submarine Nautile, according to Eric Isphording, director of the French Institute for Research and Exploitation of the Sea.
Speaking by phone from Paris, Isphording said the weather was expected to improve during the weekend but that the expedition probably will use its first few dives for exploration and photography. No major salvage is anticipated before next week, he said.
What is salvaged, he said, will depend on the wishes of major backers of the expedition, a British-Swiss consortium underwritten in large part by Carlos Piaget of the Swiss watch and jewelry family.
Isphording said Piaget plans to hold a news conference in Paris next week to detail the expedition's objectives and plans for disposition of any artifacts recovered. But he said the institute had insisted, as a contract stipulation for its technical assistance in the $2.5 million salvage operation, that no artifacts recovered from the Titanic be sold.
He said any artifacts will be salvaged from the 2,000-foot-long debris field, which stretches from the largely intact front two-thirds of the Titanic's hull to the broken remnant of its stern. The debris field contains artifacts such as chamber pots, silver tableware, wine bottles and a pair of massive safes.
The "unsinkable" Titanic, the largest and most magnificent ocean liner of its day, struck an iceberg in April 1912 on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York and sank in water 2 1/2 miles deep. More than 1,500 of the 2,224 people aboard were lost.
The memory of those victims has prompted the outcry over plans to salvage any of the wreck.
"It's grave-robbing, as it were, and I think they should just leave it alone," said Edward Kamuda, co-founder of the International Titanic Historical Society in Springfield, Mass.
"We are absolutely appalled and amazed that a nation that has prided itself in the past on a sense of history is now preparing to turn its back on history," said Charles Haas, president of the Titanic Historical Society in Indian Orchard, Mass.
Last year, Congress approved a largely symbolic measure declaring the Titanic a memorial to those lost aboard it, but lawmakers' efforts to get other nations to join in the declaration have been unsuccessful.
Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.) said yesterday that the expedition is "not a fitting treatment of this marine memorial."
Rep. Walter B. Jones (D-N.C.), chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, said he doesn't know "what, if any, would be an appropriate response at this point," but said the committee soon would be taking another look at suggestions that the importation of Titanic artifacts be banned.
Isphording said he is "sorry this affair has been taken emotionally" in the United States. "The Titanic is a grave, but there are many graves like the Titanic around the world."
He said Americans need to understand that the French involved "are not treasure hunters . . . . We are scientists," who by law must earn their research funds by hiring out their undersea technology on the world market.
"There are many things man wishes to remove from the sea besides treasure," he said. "We must develop these capacities and learn these techniques." The Titanic expedition, he said, is one way of doing so.
He said Piaget and his consortium have contracted with the institute for 54 days' charter of the Nautile and the Nadir and their crews, with an option for an additional 17 days if weather permits. He said the consortium has a second support ship on the site -- an offshore supply vessel chartered from North Sea oil fields.
Nadir, he said, went directly to the Titanic expedition from the Mediterranean Sea where, on July 1, it completed recovery of an Italian DC9 jetliner from water off Palermo more than two miles deep.
The money earned from that operation and the Titanic trip, he said, would be used to finance basic geophysical research in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean later this year and a joint U.S.-French expedition to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in 1989.
A U.S.-French expedition discovered the Titanic's location in 1985.
Robert Ballard, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, who led the joint expedition and returned to photograph the wreck in detail last year, in April voiced dismay at plans for the current expedition. He was not available for comment yesterday.
Shelly Lauzon, a Woods Hole spokesman, said long-term ties with the French will continue. "We're sorry they're doing it, but we wish them a safe expedition," she said.
Christopher Von Alt, a member of the Woods Hole staff that builds exploration equipment and visited the Titanic last year, said the French effort "from a technological point of view . . . will be of tremendous interest to us." He said he sympathizes with those who believe the Titanic is unique in maritime history and wish to leave it undisturbed.
But, he added, "there are a lot of other shipwrecks with tragic loss of life that have been salvaged . . . . Where do you draw the line?"