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Consumer Reports

Explorer to promote video tour of Titanic | (KRT) NORFOLK, Va. Robert D. Ballard was in his flannel pajamas when his crew found the Titanic. It was 1 a.m. in the North Atlantic. He had just turned in for the night and was reading Chuck Yeager's autobiography when a cook poked his head into the cabin.

"The guys think you should come down to the van," the cook announced.

The Holy Grail of shipwrecks, the Titanic, was lost no more, after 73 years sitting on the ocean floor.

At that moment - Sept. 1, 1985 - Ballard became the most famous undersea explorer on the planet. Yet he returned to the Titanic only once more, a year later, to map the wreck. Others salvaged the Titanic and made movies about it, but Ballard moved on.

Now, while Norfolk judges decide what to do with 6,000 Titanic artifacts raised since 1987, Ballard is making plans for the wreck itself. And they don't include salvage.

Ballard hopes to create a kind of underwater museum at the Titanic - a permanent video presence 2 ½ miles under the Atlantic, 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada.

When the project is completed, visitors would be able to tour the wreck from land via remote-controlled video submersibles. And they wouldn't pay $35,000 a trip, as tourists do now when they make trips to the Titanic in tiny Russian submarines.

The project is possible soon, Ballard said, even though the Titanic lies under 12,000 feet of water.

"Remember, 12,000 feet is the distance from the Oval Office to the Pentagon," Ballard said. "It's not that far."

Slowly, Ballard is making his Titanic project happen.

From his office at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, Ballard directs the discovery and exploration of modern warships in the South Pacific and ancient vessels in the Mediterranean and Black seas. His most recent find was John Kennedy's PT 109 in the Solomon Islands.

Ballard leads the Institute for Exploration, a nonprofit outfit that conducts research and ocean exploration. He is a pioneer in deep-ocean archaeology, excavating seabeds in search of ancient vessels.

He also is an innovator in remote-video undersea exploring. From his desk in Mystic, Ballard controls underwater cameras at Monterey Bay, Calif. It is a demonstration project that tickles visitors at the Mystic Aquarium.

Soon, he said, he will add underwater video facilities at marine sanctuaries in California, Michigan and Florida. And last month, Ballard won a $500,000 federal grant to expand his high-tech underwater network.

This summer, Ballard will use his underwater technology to put on a spectacular live show for MSNBC from the bottom of the Black Sea: a tour of ancient, newly discovered shipwrecks. They lie 10,000 feet under the sea's surface - just 2,000 feet shallower than the Titanic. With his remote-controlled equipment, Ballard is conducting archaeological digs on the sea floor, delicately scraping ancient mud to reveal long-forgotten 2,000-year-old vessels.

"So if I'm doing that this summer, I'm very close" to realizing the Titanic project, Ballard said. "What do you think I'm doing with these incremental steps? I'm going deeper and deeper.

"The key is dealing with the technical issues and the ownership issues."

When will the Titanic project happen?

"In my lifetime," said Ballard, who is 60. "Certainly in a decade."

Among those who wish Ballard well is Arnie Geller, president of R.M.S. Titanic Inc., the Atlanta company that has been salvaging the shipwreck since 1987.

The two men are not friends; they have never spoken directly. They are, if anything, enemies or rivals. Ballard is the most visible and passionate spokesman for the anti-salvage faction. Geller is the personification of Titanic's salvors.

Yet Geller applauds Ballard's project.

"Quite frankly, I think it's terrific that he's working to put this together," Geller said from his Atlanta office last week. "If he could do the lighting in such a way that you could see the vessel in its entirety, it would be something to see."

Only a handful of people worldwide have visited the Titanic, either as paying passengers in tourist dives or on other expeditions. A remote-video tour would be the next best thing, Geller said.

"From the public's point of view, it would be a wonderful opportunity," Geller said. "I certainly applaud the effort."

For 73 years, the Titanic was lost.

When the ship sank April 15, 1912 - killing 1,500 passengers and crew - it vanished. At 2 ½ miles down, it was unreachable for decades. Its location remained a mystery, even after technology was developed to find it.

But on Sept. 1, 1985, a joint American-French expedition co-led by Ballard found the Titanic. Ballard became a worldwide celebrity. And though he was tempted to pick up pieces of the sunken ship, he didn't. The 1985 expedition was one of discovery, not recovery.

"You know the recipe for chicken soup," Ballard joked. "First, you find the chicken."

Soon after, Ballard toyed with the idea of salvage. In congressional testimony in 1985, he noted that "many beautiful artifacts lie outside the ship itself, scattered over the rolling alpine-like countryside around it and are vulnerable to crude and damaging salvage attempts."

He proposed that France and the United States record and recover "those delicate items" in the debris field.

"I am in favor of recovery of that material probably with manned submersibles to ensure that they are protected and the world will have the ability to touch or, so to speak, feel the ship," Ballard told Congress.

Then Ballard changed his mind.

It was a gradual process. Over the next few months, Ballard said, he approached several organizations about salvaging the Titanic - the Smithsonian Institution, the British Museum, the Titanic Historical Society, even the oldest living Titanic survivor. All said no.

"We found absolutely not a single soul that saw value in salvaging this site," Ballard recalled. He became the loudest anti-salvage voice in America.

One year later, in 1986, Ballard returned to the Titanic and laid a plaque on the ship's bow. It asked all who followed to leave the ship in peace.

But that didn't happen. A year later, in 1987, a different American-French expedition began raising artifacts from Titanic's debris field. Competing salvage claims eventually landed in Norfolk's federal court, where R.M.S. Titanic Inc. won sole salvage rights in 1994. Norfolk judges have been supervising the salvage ever since.

That same year, Ballard published a book, "The Discovery of the Titanic," in which he scolded the salvors and concluded that the greatest threat to the Titanic comes from man, not nature.

"How I would have loved a bottle of Titanic champagne for my own wine cellar," Ballard wrote. `But from all our discussions it became clear the Titanic has no true archaeological value.

"Though it is tempting to make the comparison, the Titanic is not a pyramid of the deep. We knew exactly how the ship was built and what was on board. Recovering a chamber pot or a wine bottle or a copper cooking pan would really just be pure treasure hunting."

Instead, Ballard wrote, researchers should look for "ships of real archaeological worth" in the Mediterranean. He's doing that now.

What will future visitors see at the Titanic? Ballard is worried.

Will it be plundered, Ballard asked, like the Egyptian pyramids and the Greek Acropolis? Or, Ballard wondered, will it remain sacred ground like the battleship Arizona at Pearl Harbor or the Gettysburg battlefield?

In years to come, Ballard predicted, a visit to the Titanic will cost no more than a visit to Yellowstone National Park. It's hard to imagine today, he said. But then, Egyptians couldn't know that someday tourists from halfway around the world would hop a jet, rent a car and visit the pyramids at Giza - only to find the crypts looted.

To date, salvage of the Titanic has been limited to the debris field surrounding the wreck. Salvors have never taken anything from inside the ship or cut anything off it.

When he returns, Ballard promised, he will look at the Titanic, but he will not touch it. He does not endorse a plan by R.M.S. Titanic to donate the 6,000 Titanic artifacts already raised to the Mariners' Museum in Newport News.

Ballard's preference: Put the artifacts back where they came from.

"If the company is willing to deliver them here," Ballard said, "I would be willing to take them back."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services