Washington — Thirteen thousand feet under the sea, the Titantic might not seem of much use to anyone. Still, the question of who owns the sunken luxury liner has become a hot topic. Although the chances are slim that the wreck will ever be raised from its frigid resting spot, the ship's discovery last week set the hearts of several would-be salvagers aflutter. It has also caught the attention of at least one insurance company, which claims ownership of the hulk.
But the legal issues swirling about such an undersea wreck are as murky as the inky waters that envelop the hulk itself. And many experts believe that as the technology employed in undersea exploration is improved, these kinds of questions will be raised even more.
``The technology [to salvage the Titantic] exists,'' says William Ryan, an oceanographer at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Laboratories and chief scientist on several earlier searches for the Titanic. ``The only question is how much money you're willing to spend.''
The probable answer: a fortune. Dramatic salvage operations at depths even greater than the Titanic's have been attempted before, but with mixed success. The US Central Intelligence Agency spent an estimated $350 million in 1974 to raise a sunken Soviet Golf-class nuclear sub from the floor of the Pacific Ocean about 750 miles northwest of Hawaii. The sub, which had lain a staggering 17,000 feet below sea level, broke apart as it was being pulled up by cables. Ultimately, only a third of the vessel was recovered.
Yet since that time, the technology available for such ventures has improved dramatically. Advances in computer intelligence, communications, and power-supply technology have led to the construction of unmanned monitoring vessels that can dive deeper, swim faster, see better, and rove about more freely than their predecessors. It was by using one of those vessels -- dubbed Argo, an instrument-toting device that glides over the sea bottom -- that the American and French expedition team found and photogra phed the Titanic last week.
The expedition leader, Dr. Robert Ballard, has voiced strong opposition to any salvage attempt of the wreck and has proposed that it be declared an international memorial. Officials at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which partly sponsored the effort, have also spoken of concerns that clumsy salvage attempts could severely damage the ship and its archaeological value. To deter potential treasure-hunters, Woods Hole officials have kept mum about the ship's exact location.
But other plans are afoot. Jack Grimm, a Texas oilman who launched searches for the Titanic in 1980, 1981, and 1983, last week announced his interest in launching a salvage operation and has reportedly said ``it would be fun'' to go see the wreck in a submarine. Mr. Grimm's last expedition yielded a photograph of the propeller of a sunken ship that he insists is the Titanic.
In addition, British deep-sea salvager John Pierce reportedly said he plans to try to raise the Titanic with his new salvage system, which features inflatable bags. Mr. Pierce successfully employed his system to raise the Rainbow Warrior, a ship belonging to the activist group Greenpeace, which was recently sunk in Auckland Harbor in New Zealand.
But a successful salvage attempt may well be just the beginning. More intractable, some observers say, would be sorting out the conflicting ownership claims that could arise if anything of value were pulled from the wreck.
In cases where no owners are known, ``the rule of the sea is `finders keepers,' '' says Michael Marks Cohen, a New York City admiralty lawyer. But the Titanic may not be such a case.
Mr. Cohen points out that a company or individual holding rights to the Titanic could assert its claim in the courtroom of the nation where the goods recovered from the wreck landed. In that case, a court would divide the proceeds of salvage between the owner and the salvager.
With the Titanic, it is not clear who the owner would be. The ship was owned by the White Star Line, later purchased by the Cunard Line of Britain. But White Star accepted reimbursement for the Titanic from its insurance claims on the ship, thus forfeiting its ownership rights.
The Commercial Union insurance company in London, heir to the consortium that insured the Titanic, claims that it owns the hulk, and it is reportedly considering salvage proposals. But the legality of its claim remains to be tested.
Similar cases in the past have been few and far between, says Cohen. In one incident, however, the owners' rights over an abandoned vessel were honored over those of the finder's. The case involved a German U-boat, sunk in international waters off the coast of Singapore in 1945 en route to Japan with a cargo of mercury. When the vessel was found some 25 years later by salvagers, the West German government succesfully argued in a Singapore court that the ship and its contents belonged to West Germ any.