An underwater salvage company was granted approval this week to cut into the wreckage of the Titanic to try to recover a Marconi telegraph, rekindling a complex debate over access to the ship and maritime law.
The company, R.M.S. Titanic, persuaded a federal judge on Monday to allow it to conduct a salvage operation this summer in the wreckage of the ship, which sank during its maiden voyage across the Atlantic in 1912 after hitting an iceberg. More than 1,500 of the ship’s passengers died, and about 700 survived.
The ruling, by Judge Rebecca Beach Smith of the U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Va., made changes to a 2000 court order that prohibited the company from cutting into the ship’s hull to search for diamonds.
The company sought to loosen the restrictions so it could recover the Titanic’s telegraph machine, which it contends could be lost forever because of the degradation of the ship. The radio transmitter could unlock some of the secrets about a missed warning message and distress calls sent from the ship, said the company, which obtained the salvage rights to the wreckage in the 1980s. The site is about 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.
“The Marconi device has significant historical, educational, scientific and cultural value as the device used to make distress calls while the Titanic was sinking,” Judge Smith wrote in her ruling. The company will be permitted to “minimally to cut into the wreck” so it can reach the telegraph room, Judge Smith wrote.
David Concannon, a lawyer for R.M.S. Titanic, said in an interview on Tuesday that the company would try to avoid cutting into the ship and that the ship’s telegraph room could be reached through a skylight that was already open.
“It tells an important story,” Mr. Concannon said of the telegraph device. “It tells of the heroism of the operators that saved the lives of 705 people. They worked until water was lapping at their feet.”
Several groups, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have opposed the expedition and said that the Titanic wreckage should not be disturbed.
“NOAA believes a hard stop needs to be in place to prevent that from happening because the purported benefit of cutting open Titanic to recover the Marconi equipment is simply not worth the cost to the resource and is not in the public interest,” the agency wrote in an April court filing.
Officials in Ireland, where the Titanic stopped before it sank, also raised concerns about the salvage effort.
“The ship is therefore not just an enormous grave site, but a monument to such wider family tragedy and hardship given that those who died were the hope for all family members back home and that is the starting point — our moral obligation to the victims and their families,” wrote Michael Kingston, the vice chairman of the Irish Cultural Centre, and Ciaran McCarthy, an Irish lawyer who specializes in maritime law.
Some veterans of underwater expeditions said that access to shipwreck sites is a delicate process.
“There’s such an incredible amount of history there, and it’s a grave that needs to be respected,” said Ryan King, a member of the technical dive team that in 2018 discovered the U.S.S. Eagle PE-56, a World War II Navy ship sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Maine.
It was not immediately clear what R.M.S. Titanic planned to do with the telegraph or where it would be displayed.
More than 250 artifacts from the Titanic are part of an exhibit maintained by the company, with an admission charge, at the Luxor Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
Mr. Concannon, who has taken part in previous dives at the Titanic site, noted that the company had gone through an ownership change since it first obtained the salvage rights.
“They are being judged by the sins of the past, and they have nothing to do with it at all,” he said. “The new people want to do this right.”
Mr. Concannon described his dives to the Titanic wreckage as difficult and emotional.
“You realize this is a scene of a tragedy,” he said. “It’s like going to the World Trade Center on Sept. 12. Nobody considers themselves to be a grave robber.”
In an interview on Tuesday, David Gallo, a consultant for R.M.S. Titanic and an oceanographer, characterized the recovery of the Marconi telegraph as a rescue operation.
“We need to honor the ship and the passengers that sailed on her,” he said.
Mr. Gallo said the company wanted to avoid damaging what remains of the Titanic.
“We may get out there and decide not to do it because it’s impossible to do it without destroying the ship,” he said. “We have plans to do it surgically with minimum damage. It’s not like we’re going to a field. It’s an expedition to almost another planet. A world we’re not familiar with.”