A Century of Safety at Sea

Beginning April 8, National Geographic Channel promises to show the Titanic's wreck in more detail than viewers have ever seen. The April 15, 1912, sinking triggered a sweeping new international treaty governing safety equipment and procedures aboard such ships.

National Geographic Channel will begin its two-night special on April 8 about the Titanic's fatal voyage a century ago. The opulent ship had been built at the Harland & Wolff shipyards in Belfast and was steaming toward New York when it struck an iceberg, of course, and sank at 2:20 a.m. April 15, 1912, killing 1,503 people. It was a disaster so horrific that it triggered a sweeping new international treaty governing safety equipment and procedures aboard such ships -- not to mention a long list of expeditions, movies, and books devoted to Titanic.

The International Maritime Organization has made "IMO: One hundred years after the Titanic" the theme for this year's World Maritime Day, but the reception at IMO headquarters celebrating the day will not take place until September 2012. IMO has posted a detailed graphic listing requirements in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (the SOLAS Convention), which was adopted in 1914 as a result of Titanic's sinking. Newer SOLAS versions and updates have been adopted repeatedly since then. Among the requirements are training for crew members in lifeboat drills, ice patrol flights in the north Atlantic that continue today, a public address system required on all passenger ships, fully or partially enclosed lifeboats, immersion suits (mainly for the crews of rescue boats), "abandon ship" drills and fire drills for passengers, and maintaining a continuous watch on distress and safety signaling frequencies.

IMO says this year's World Maritime Day theme is an opportunity to assess developments in maritime safety since Titanic and to examine which areas of ship safety should be given priority in coming years.

National Geographic's website offers a great deal of information about the ship – how it was built and by whom, how and why it sank, how it looks today, and how explorers including Robert Ballard and James Cameron found the site and photographed the wreckage. Also available on the site are a feature article from National Geographic's April issue about the most recent exploration of the site, which include the use of robotic submersibles to map the entire debris field. The resulting zoomable images of the wreck are available here.

Science writer Richard Corfield's explanation of the many factors that caused the ship to sink so rapidly is featured in Physics World and is available here.

On April 5, UNESCO announced the site is now protected according to the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage to protect it from damage or looting, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said. The wreckage is in international waters; countries have jurisdiction over wrecks lying in their own waters and flying their flag, and Titanic previously was not eligible for protection under the UNESCO Convention because it applies only to underwater remains submerged for at least 100 years.

From now on, states that are parties to the convention can outlaw the destruction or sale of objects found at the site and have the authority to seize any illicitly recovered artifacts, UNESCO said.

"The sinking of the Titanic is anchored in the memory of humanity, and I am pleased that this site can now be protected by the UNESCO Convention," Bokova said. "But there are thousands of other shipwrecks that need safeguarding, as well. All of them are archaeological sites of scientific and historical value. They are also the memory of human tragedy that should be treated with respect. We do not tolerate the plundering of cultural sites on land, and the same should be true for our sunken heritage." She said divers should not dump equipment or commemorative plaques on the Titanic site.

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