The following message was written as a reply for a relative thread at the Encyclopedia Titanica forum but Simon Mills has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here because the subject is of great interest.
To everyone with an interest in the raising the Britannic:
I was recently taking one of my periodic glimpses from the sidelines at the ET Britannic forum, and I notice that Colleen Collier has indicated that she would like to see me getting more involved with the discussion forums. While I am flattered and freely admit that on some occasions I am sorely tempted, sadly it isn’t really practicable for exactly the reasons in Mark Chirnside’s reply – as an author and owner of the wreck I would be completely swamped in correspondence, so while I am grateful and delighted to see interest in the Britannic growing to such an extent, I also know that if I were to get too deeply involved in these discussions then it would never end. It was partly for this reason that I agreed some time back to do a couple of interviews for Michail Michailakis’ Britannic website, in the hope that it would pre-empt a lot of these questions. Unfortunately it doesn’t always work, but never mind!
Having said that, I did break this self-imposed rule back in January when a rather disagreeable exchange took place in another Britannic website forum. Fortunately that particular thread was eventually deleted before things got totally out of hand, but it occurs to me that my response is probably just as relevant now as it was then, so I thought that I would ask Mark to post a slightly expanded (and corrected!) version in this forum, in the hope that it will install a little reality to what seems in places to be becoming an increasingly bizarre thread. If you want to read a more detailed description of the trials and tribulations of owning the Britannic there is a more in-depth article in the latest edition of the Titanic Commutator (# 161), but in the meantime here is a necessarily brief outline.
It may surprise many of you to hear this, but being the owner of an Olympic-class liner is no picnic. Over the years I have seen numerous letters, e-mails or whatever on the subject, and while I will freely admit that I have always considered the possibility of raising the wreck to be amusing to a certain extent, I have always tried to take these suggestions with the proverbial “pinch of salt.” Mind you, I am also curious as to wonder how anyone can come to the conclusion that Britannic’s hull is sound enough to be raised, based on the few selected photos or excerpts from the several documentaries that have been made on the subject. With the evidence to hand, even my colleagues on the Marine Forensics Panel in Washington DC would be hard put to suggest that it was possible to raise the Britannic undamaged.
Unlike most people who have an opinion on this subject, I do not really have the luxury of being able to talk openly about any thoughts, dreams, ambitions or desires that I may have, for fear of being misunderstood or even misquoted. However, while I still believe that it would be unwise for me to become a regular contributor to this forum, or any other come to that, I see no harm in reiterating a few facts of life which will hopefully ensure that any future discussions on the subject of raising the Britannic remain within the bounds of reality, rather than fantasy. To be frank, there are a good number of factors that should be considered in more detail, because it seems clear that many people out there have little or no notion of what can really go on behind the scenes. This observation is not intended as a criticism – there’s no particular reason why you should – but there are certainly enough misconceptions out there that require comment, both on the legal, moral and financial sides.
Let’s start with the legalities. Believe it or not, even in international waters wrecks have owners, be it an individual, a shipping company or even the insurance company that paid out after the loss. Any artefacts from these sites may well be open to retrieval without consultation, but when those artefacts are landed in any civilised country then they must be declared to the relevant authorities of that nation. In England it comes under the jurisdiction of the Receiver of Wreck (UK), and British law quite clearly states that any retrieved items must first be offered to the registered owner, who then has the right to determine their ultimate fate. Quite often the salvor may be allowed to keep them, but not always, and in the past appropriate museums have been known to benefit from any subsequent “division of the spoils.” I am reasonably confident that there is also a similar law in the United States although I am not sure which Government department would be responsible.
In territorial waters the matter can be even more complicated, and even my own wishes as the humble owner do not give me the right to arbitrarily start retrieving any artefacts without first consulting with the Greek Department of Marine Antiquities, who monitor any such activities in their province very closely. More to the point, anyone who even tries it could not only end up with an extremely large fine, but in more extreme cases even a prison sentence of up to fifteen years! Perhaps that should give you some idea of just how seriously they take it?
There are also the moral considerations, and the British “Protection of Military Remains Act” (1986) should be enough to indicate that sites considered to be war graves are still of considerable sensitivity to certain organisations. To some this excuse may seem like something of a sham, in which case I would wager that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Royal British Legion (the equivalent of the American War Veterans) would be happy to take issue with you.
Inevitably, however, we come to the financial aspects, because no matter how technologically possible any attempt to raise the Britannic may or may not be, any such venture could only succeed if the figures add up. The simple truth, however, is that they don’t. The staggering costs of undertaking such a huge salvage operation alone must render it problematic, and this is before taking into account the staggering conservation expenses for preserving the entire wreck intact. And before anyone suggests that we should raise a few artefacts and sell them off to cover the costs, you should be aware that such practices are generally frowned upon in archaeological circles, which prefer to see the required funding put in place before any such activities are commenced. This ensures that any such projects do not collapse before completion, which could result in retrieved objects being lost due to the lack of funding to conserve them, or scattered in collections around the world. I actually shudder to think how much the final bill to salvage the Britannic intact would come to, but I do know that it is certainly a great deal more than the value of what’s actually down there.
Hopefully from this reasonably concise summary alone you will understand exactly why Britannic will very likely remain where she is. The hull itself could never be raised intact, although the possibility of raising a number of selected items for public display could just happen one day if the circumstances are right. Nevertheless, it could only be after extensive consultation with a number of official organisations and after a great many safeguards have been put in place. For those out there who cannot accept this then I can only offer my commiserations, but by hopefully pointing out the various options that now exist in these more enlightened times, it may confirm that there really is far more to marine conservation than simply yanking a few bits and pieces off of the seabed and sticking them in a museum! It’s an important point and I am pleased to say that an increasing number of people out there are beginning to get the message. Oh, and one last thing – I actually saw Britannic for real in September 1995 and I decided there and then that she looks absolutely perfect right where she is. Now why would I want to change that?
Thank you again to all of you for your interest, and please excuse me if I don’t post any further responses on this subject. It really isn’t anything personal, but I just wouldn’t have the time to answer every potential reply…