May 4, 1998
Battle Likely Over Visits to Titanic Wreckage
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
ike McDowell is a star of adventure tourism. For $19,000, he or one of his companies will sell you a berth on a Russian icebreaker that cuts its way to the North Pole. For $25,000, he will fly you to the South Pole.
And now, for $32,500, he's offering 60 people the thrill of a lifetime, a chance to go down more than two miles into the inky depths of the North Atlantic to view the rusting hulk of the Titanic.
There is just one hitch. His "Operation Titanic" has hit something nearly as dangerous as an iceberg: lawyers.
RMS Titanic, the American company that owns the salvage rights to the celebrated wreck and puts on shows of Titanic artifacts, wants no one else near its treasure, not even rich people with cameras. It plans to try to block the tourist venture, which says it already has 45 customers.
RMS Titanic is to file a motion Monday in U.S. court in Norfolk, Va., seeking a preliminary injunction against McDowell, his company Deep Ocean Expeditions, its agents and its consultants. After the filing, the court is expected to set a hearing date likely to be weeks away given the far-flung principals.
"We have given them every opportunity to step back," said Mark Davis, a lawyer for RMS Titanic in Norfolk. "They have not done so. So now, legal action is required."
The chief lawyer for RMS Titanic, Allan Carlin, said in an interview, "We're going to do everything we can to protect the wreck and our rights relative to the wreck."
But McDowell, the tour entrepreneur, insists that he too is ready for judicial war, if not engagement on the high seas.
"We think the injunction is appealable," he said. "If it's going to cause any problems, we'll take whatever steps are necessary to challenge it."
Both groups are planning August expeditions. The surface of the sea over the Titanic is calmest then and ships can most easily launch the sturdy little craft known as submersibles, which can withstand the crushing pressures of the deep.
Submersibles typically hold three people, a pilot and two observers in a sphere made of super-strong metal. Tiny portholes with thick windows allow the occupants to peer outside into darkness lit by floodlights.
During dives to the Titanic in August, the salvors plan to use experts to hunt for artifacts. And the adventurers plan to have tourists ogling the wreck.
Both sides claim the moral high ground. The salvors say they are preserving the sunken ship for posterity by rescuing its artifacts from briny decay and the adventure company says that it is respecting the watery grave by leaving it undisturbed. But both sides also concede that they are in it for the money.
The opulent ocean liner sank on April 15, 1912, killing more than 1,500 people, and has become a cultural icon. Movie ticket sales for "Titanic" have set a record, more than $1 billion worldwide. A half-dozen or so books on the ship and movie are on the best-seller lists, and there is a "Titanic" musical on Broadway.
Both sides say the recent interest in the shipwreck has raised the stakes even higher. "We're happy to be opportunists, happy that it made a big splash," said McDowell, referring to the movie "Titanic."
Since the discovery of the wreck in 1985 by a team of American and French scientists, it has been a magnet for all kinds of treasure hunters.
One of the earliest was RMS Titanic of New York City, which in 1987 won salvage rights by virtue of being the first to recover artifacts. It used a French submersible with robot arms and claws. To date, the company has retrieved thousands of items, including gold coins, fine china, a ship steward's jacket, a bronze cherub and a jar of olives.
The company makes money by filming the wreck and displaying artifacts at public exhibitions. There are traveling shows in Long Beach, Calif.; Hamburg, Germany, and St. Petersburg, Russia. Memphis had an exhibit last year and one is scheduled for Boston in July.
In 1995, a different kind of treasure seeker visited the wreck, provoking the legal action at the heart of the current dispute. The newcomer was James Cameron, the director of "Titanic," who used twin Russian submersibles to film the Titanic's remains for his movie.
The next year, an RMS Titanic crew found debris from the Russian submersibles littering the Titanic's deck. A Titanic skylight was knocked ajar, apparently by the subs.
The salvors seized on those discoveries to win an injunction from a U.S. judge in Norfolk, Va., in August 1996. The judge ruled that the Russians had to remain outside a 10 mile radius around the wreck and that the salvage company had the right to control all photography.
The U.S. District Court in Norfolk has a measure of jurisdiction, some legal experts say. They note that when rivals challenged the RMS Titanic's salvage claim, the court upheld it. But the court's reach is about to be tested.
The newest entrant in the sweepstakes, McDowell, is an entrepreneur with wide experience in organizing exotic travel, including cruise ships out of Bali. He is a founder of Quark Expeditions of Darien, Conn., which runs adventure tours and is helping market this summer's Titanic dives.
He is also president of Adventure Network International, a company that runs tourist expeditions to Antarctica. In December, three of Adventure Network's clients were killed while ski-diving at the South Pole when their chutes failed to open.
Last year, McDowell, upon learning that submersibles were becoming more available to the public, decided that the primordial deep would soon open up to tourists, he said in an interview last week.
He added that he had never descended into the sea's depths and was "desperate to do so."
An old hand at hiring Russian ships for polar treks, McDowell signed up the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, which is based in Moscow. It runs the 422-foot ship Akademik Keldysh, and its twin Russian submersibles, each 26 feet long.
For organizing the undersea tours, he set up Deep Ocean Explorations Ltd. McDowell lives in Rissen, Germany, outside Hamburg.
As consultants, McDowell hired top men in their fields: Don Walsh, a retired U.S. Navy officer, who in 1960 dived to the ocean's deepest spot, seven miles down, and Alfred McLaren, a retired Navy submariner who pioneered deep sea Arctic mapping.
McLaren is president of the Explorers Club of New York City, which is selling some of the 60 seats for the August trip and plans to use the proceeds to make grants to young explorers.
"It's going to be a great experience," McLaren said, referring to the tour of the sunken liner.
McDowell and Mclaren are optimistic about overcoming any legal obstacles raised by RMS Titanic, which says that it has repeatedly warned the adventurer of trouble lying ahead.
The tour organizers say they recognize the salvors' claim to the legendary wreck but strongly doubt its authority to keep tourists from shooting pictures and videos. "It's like a building owner objecting to a tour bus," said a company consultant who insisted on anonymity.
McDowell said the legal challenge was serious but would be fought hard. "I'm sure they think they're sitting on something that gives them rights," McDowell said. "But it's a very wide-ranging injunction that probably lacks jurisdiction. We'll be looking into that."
For now, he said, it's full speed ahead for his expedition.