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Bent Tree resident recovered Titanic artifacts

 

     Despite sonar scans of the deep ocean bottom over a 30-square-mile grid where Titanic was believed lost, the Harris expeditions did not discover the wreck. That distinction fell to oceanographer Robert Ballard, who found the Titanic in 1985 during an expedition Ballard led with cooperation from a French sonar team and the United States Navy.

      Ballard was actually part of the original team of scientists Harris put together as he sought backing for his first Titanic expedition, Harris explained.

"Ballard was my scientist in the very beginning," Harris said. "Bob Ballard and Emory Kristof of National Geographic, they were my scientists."

     But when Jack Grimm and friends first signed on to back the Harris expedition, publicity went large, Harris said. And Grimm's name figured largely in it.

"He then cut my scientific team and put in his team," Harris said of Grimm. And Ballard was off the expedition.

     On the 1985 Ballard expedition that discovered Titanic, a French team again sonar-scanned 30 square miles of ocean bottom. Ballard, with Navy help, was to lower sophisticated camera gear to image objects of interest French sonar turned up. The sonar ship sounded the entire grid, sailing back and forth across it in side by side rows.

     “You call it 'mowing the grass,'” Harris said. “The French team didn't find it any better than Mike Harris did in 1983.”

     Then Ballard asked a question: Where had the French team experienced problems taking sonar readings due to poor sea or weather conditions?

They indicated a spot 20 miles over near the grid's northeast corner, Harris said. Ballard steamed there, lowered his cameras and discovered what he was looking for, the Titanic.

     “The first thing they saw was a boiler,” Harris said. A boiler to the sunken vessel in pieces nearby.

     Robert Ballard was an oceanographer from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

     "He was a wonderful scientist and all that stuff, but he got lucky," Harris declared. The Ballard expedition found the Titanic in two halves, widely separated with a large debris field between.

     "We went back over our sonar records that we took in 1980," Harris said. "Turned out we went right over the Titanic."

     "We were looking for the Titanic in one piece," he explained. "We didn't know it had broken in two. We weren't looking for it broken up, so that's whey we didn't find it in 1980."

     After Ballard found the Titanic, he wanted the site preserved as a graveyard, off-limits to artifact hunters, Harris indicated. That would not happen. The wreck lies 400 miles off of Cape Race, Newfoundland in international waters, Harris said. And wrecks at sea are generally regarded as fair game for marine salvagers.

     Harris proposed a new expedition. "My goal was to find the Titanic, recover the artifacts and put them on a world tour," he said.

     Asked on national television how he could legally salvage the wreck Ballard located, Harris responded that the law of F.K.L.W. covers in such cases.

     "F.K.L.W.?" The TV host asked.

     "Finders keepers, losers weepers," Harris clarified.

     Harris formed the company, Titanic Ventures, with some wealthy Connecticut backers, and sailed to the Titanic wreck in 1987. Relying on a single French submersible, the        Ifremer Nautile, manned by three submariners, the Harris expedition began recovering relics from the long sunken ocean liner.

     "Hundreds of artifacts: a vase; a cherub; Captain Smith's megaphone; a bridge telegraph [the signaling device between the bridge and engine room]; silverware; a carafe and so forth," Harris recalled. Even chunks of coal from Titanic's coal bunkers.

     I got my son involved," Harris said. "He had an exhibit in Orlando."

     The exhibit recreated the ship's grand staircase, the Veranda Cafe´aboard and a first-class passenger cabin. And the exhibit displayed recovered Titanic artifacts.

     Some time after his artifact-recovery expedition of 1987, a Virginia court granted to the company behind the recovery exclusive salvage rights at the Titanic wreck site, Harris said. Titanic Ventures later went public, he said, sold on the stock market as R.M.S. Titanic, Inc.

      He owns not one Titanic relic, Harris said. "PRXI [Premier Exhibitions, Inc.] has rights to all the artifacts," he said. "They now have the rights to the Titanic, because they bought R.M.S. Titanic [Inc.] that had the rights. That was the company I started, but I don't have anything to do with it [today]."

     Harris' second son, G. Michael Harris, returned to the wreck to recover artifacts. "He went back in 2000," Harris said. "He used Russian submersibles, the Mir I and Mir II."

      During that expedition, Harris' grandson, then 14 years old, went on record as the youngest submariner to descend on the wreck, Harris said.

     For Harris, the lure of the Titanic was never about personal acquisition of its artifacts, he indicated.

"Just being able to get out there, and being the guy that put all this stuff together, that's the thing," Harris said. "To take an idea and get the expertise and the people to put it all together, that's the motivation."

     "I've had my fifteen minutes of fame and everything," he said.

     Not that he wouldn't enjoy some more. His present object is to find Amelia Earhart's twin-engine Lockheed Electra, lost in the South Pacific during summer 1937. While filming a documentary at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands during the 1970s, Harris heard stories from islanders about Earhart's disappearance, he said.

     He said he later returned to the Marshall Islands and shot 16-mm movie film of islanders who claimed eye-witness information concerning Earhart. He said they connected her disappearance to Imperial Japan, then spreading its military might across the Pacific region.

     Harris said islander accounts pinpoint a particular island, where, they say, Japanese military forces deposited the Electra after capturing Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, elsewhere and holding them as prisoners.

     If he can raise the backing to do it, Harris means to soon lead an expedition to that island in a search for Earhart's plane, he said. Age has hardly dimmed his quest for adventure.

      "I'm 76," Harris revealed, "but I still got my health, and I'm still out there doing stuff. I love to do it," he said. "I'm excited."

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