A new look at Titanic

National Geographic Channel will mark the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking with two world-premiere films featuring James Cameron and Robert Ballard: “Titanic: The Final Word With James Cameron” and “Save the Titanic With Bob Ballard.”

In the end, saving the Titanic may be a more complex task than finding it.

Unique among the storied shipwrecks of history, the Titanic's final resting place in the North Atlantic is a hallowed graveyard. While it remains open season on the great gold- and silver-laden Spanish galleons of centuries past, descendants of those who perished in the Titanic tragedy do not want to see its remains desecrated.

Neither does her co-discoverer and ardent protector, Robert Ballard.

Yet the risk of further plunder of her artifacts has grown as the wreck — 1,000 miles from New York, 400 from Newfoundland, and almost three miles deep — has become accessible to anyone with the money to dive a submersible to her depths.

“No international law exists at this time that would prohibit it,” says Ballard.

However, a new international treaty and U.S. legislation are on the table, offering hope that the less scrupulous auction houses of the world won't obtain and sell off the final jewels of the old lady's collection.

Ballard, who located the wreck in September 1985, recently ventured to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where Titanic and her White Star Line sister ship Olympic were built. He interviewed the families of the “guarantee group,” that small cadre of designers, engineers, draftsmen and other specialists who knew the ship's every rivet and were accorded the signal honor of sailing on Titanic's maiden voyage in 1912. All of them died.

The explorer also absorbed the atmosphere of the ghostly shipyard where she was constructed, and the echoes of its history, a story told in “Save the Titanic With Bob Ballard,” one of two specials airing this week on the National Geographic Channel.

National Geographic opens its 100th-anniversary observation at 8 tonight with “Titanic: The Final Word With James Cameron,” in which the filmmaker and explorer best known for his 1997 blockbuster movie and its new 3-D update (and a 20-year-long fascination with the ship's fate), assembles some of the world's leading Titanic experts for a forensic investigation of how she really sank.

“How much does the telling of the story become the story,” Cameron asks, referring to the once-discounted eyewitness testimonies of survivors and other, more embellished accounts. His highly technical re-examination of the facts relies almost exclusively on new technologies.

“Save the Titanic With Bob Ballard” airs at 10 p.m. Monday.

Additionally, National Geographic is commemorating the anniversary with a “Secrets of the Titanic” Anniversary Collection on DVD (to be released Tuesday); an online hub; an e-book offering new insights into the disaster; a children's book; varied apps; a new online game, “Titanic: Unsolved Mystery”; a lecture by Ballard at National Geographic Society headquarters; and a new map detailing the ship's route and wreck site that features diagrams, photos and information on the ship, its passengers and history.

Cameron made history of his own in March by plunging the submersible Deepsea Challenger some 35,756 feet into the Pacific Ocean's fabled abyss, the Mariana Trench, becoming the only person ever to complete the dive in a solo vehicle and the first explorer since 1960 to reach the bottom of the world in a manned craft.

He has made 33 dives on Titanic, beginning with his first expedition in 2001, and always has said “I wanted to dive the wreck more than I wanted to make the movie.”

Cameron and Ballard, his fellow National Geographic explorer-in-residence, share a passion for her preservation, already imperiled by commercial “tourism” to the deep, and have suggested the possibility of robot “sentries” that could offer Titanic 24/7 protection.

“The days of submersibles being the sole province of elite oceanographers are all but over,” Ballard says. “And there is no formal protection, yet.”

Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.