New rules must be implemented to stop people from plundering the Titanic, according to Dr Robert Ballard, who found the ship nearly 27 years ago.
The American oceanographer, who located the wreck in September 1985, took part in commemorative events at the new Titanic Belfast visitor centre on Saturday and used the occasion to highlight what he believes to be evidence of pillaging from the wreck.
In a public lecture, the self-confessed "equal-opportunity explorer" cited the ship's crow's nest and a light fixture as items that had "gone".
"You don't stick your finger in the Mona Lisa when you go to the Louvre," he quipped.
Dr Ballard also displayed photos to the audience showing areas where rust on the ship had been disturbed by what he believes to be robotic submarines landing on its surface.
"I have no problem with people visiting the Titanic," he said, "if we can get some rules to visitations."
Titanic's wreckage in the North Atlantic, which is in international waters and hence outside the jurisdiction of any state, is now protected under a Unesco convention as a site of cultural heritage, a status bestowed upon wrecks that have been submerged for 100 years. The convention aims to stop the illegal pillage of sites.
"The Unesco convention puts teeth to the protection of the Titanic," Dr Ballard told The Independent.
The 69-year-old stopped short of saying who was "plundering" the Titanic, but in a pointed remark said "Russians are selling dives" to the wreck that he discovered approximately 340 nautical miles from Canada's east coast at a depth of 3,800 metres.
"You don't go to a cemetery with a shovel unless you are burying somebody," said Dr Ballard, who believes it is the "world's responsibility" to protect the wreckage.
"The question is do you go through the museums of the deep to appreciate the museum or to plunder?"
Dr Ballard described visiting the Titanic with deep-sea robots as "easy" and explained how technology could be used to relay live images of the wreck across the world, including at the new visitor centre, for educational purposes. But he believes technology could also be used to police the site.
"It's trying to create this ethos that modern technology provides us with to look, but not to touch," he said. "I am interested in protecting human history in the ocean that is at peril. We can put cops and sentries on the Titanic."Reuse content