Titanic spans three generations for Belleair family | News
Belleair, Florida -- G. Michael Harris' path in life could have taken a very different turn when he was a teenager.
His sister went to Mount Ararat in search of Noah's Arc and his brother explored the Marshall Islands, so when it was his turn to go on his first expedition with his film maker/explorer father, he was presented with two options.
"In 1979, my dad said he was either going to look for Big Foot or Titanic and he chose Titanic," said Harris.
He went along with his dad on some of the first expeditions to find the Titanic. For more than 70 years its exact location was unknown.
Harris is convinced his father and his team found the Titanic first in 1980 using side scan sonar.
"We found it, put cameras over the side and they ended up getting destroyed by a rogue wave," explained Harris, "We had no photographic evidence and then in 1985, Dr. Ballard went back and he got the photographic evidence, so it didn't make us real happy which is why I put the first salvage operations together in 1987."
Harris is former co-owner of RMS Titanic, Inc. which is the only company allowed under U.S. federal law to salvage from the Titanic. During the first year of salvage operations, Harris says they recovered more than 1,500 artifacts.
The artifact he's most proud of is a leather satchel that contains 63 vials of perfume oils. It belonged to a passenger who survived.
"The smell just permeated the wet lab and for the first time in almost 100 years, this smell was back in the air and it was a very emotional moment," he smiled.
The dives two and a half miles below the ocean surface are not only expensive, they are incredibly dangerous and uncomfortable.
"You're talking 6,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. We're sitting in a three man deep sea diving submersible with 19 inch thick nickel-steel walls, if there's a breach in the hull, you literally have two nanoseconds," explained Harris.
The danger didn't deter Harris who has made eight dives, including one with his son Sebastian in 2005.
Sebastian was just 13-years-old and holds the Guinness World Record as the youngest person to dive so deep.
"It was just one of those things where I'm going to work with my dad, this is what we do," Sebastian, who is now 19, told 10 News.
"You come upon the bow and you see this perfectly still, perfectly picturesque...it's exactly what you see in photos and then you realize the actual size and magnitude of the whole thing. It's breath taking," Sebastian explained.
The father-son team discovered a new debris field during that mission and say they found the evidence to support G. Michael Harris' grounding theory that Titanic's underside was ripped as it went over the iceberg.
Over the years, Harris' relationships with his RMS business partners soured and he was forced out of the company, but he says he remains a shareholder.
RMS Titanic, Inc. has since salvaged more than 5,500 artifacts which are now on the auction block with an estimated value of about $189 million.
A court order requires the artifacts to be sold in one lot. Right now, most of the collection is on display at exhibits around the world, including Orlando.
G. Michael Harris had a hand in that, too. He is the original owner and says he designed the exhibit which you'll find tucked away along Orlando's International Drive.
Click: Titanic The Experience
"We basically created with Titanic, the timeline and the story line of what are now known in museums as super shows, super exhibits by recreating the rooms, recreating life on board and then using artifacts to explain that," said Harris.
"I wanted to bring it to life, so with the sounds, the smell, we created a total sensorial immersion," he went on to explain.
There's a recreation of a first class sitting room and the grand stair case where you'll find a crystal from the chandelier of the actual grand stair case in a display case.
G. Michael Harris sold the exhibit in October to Premier Exhibitions, which is owned by his former company, RMS Titanic, Inc..
Premier Exhibtions re-opened Titanic: The Experience in January, adding 100 artifacts.
Among the artifacts are a champagne bottle with champagne still inside, money, a two ton piece of the hull and the main engine room telegraph which is still stuck in the warning position where Officer Murdoch turned it to signal the engine room workers to reverse the engines.
The tour is still set up in the way Harris envisioned...A tour guide is not just a tour guide, they are portraying an actual passenger and a tourist is not a tourist, but an actual passenger on the ship.
Each tourist is given a ticket with the name of a real person who boarded the Titanic on its maiden voyage. It isn't until the end of the tour, do they find out whether their passenger survived or perished.
On Monday, the tour was given by Mike Acord. He portrayed James Kelly, a third class passenger who perished on the doomed ship.
"His great-grandson came through and I said, 'You know, I had a relative on Titanic' and I said, 'well who is he? His name was James Kelly and I said, I play James Kelly, so I was playing his great-grandfather for him a surreal experience, only one you can have here at Titanic," said Acord.
As the 100th anniversary of Titanic's sinking approaches, Acord says he's seen more people come through, curious to hear the stories behind the ship and her passengers.
He shares the real live love story of the Strauss, who perished together. "Where you go, I go," Acord tells the group, repeating the words of Mrs. Strauss as her husband begged her to get on a life boat.
In an area of the exhibit designed to look like the deck of the ship, Acord divides the women and men as he tells the story of one passenger who placed his two young boys in a life boat, "He says to his eldest son, 'tell your mother I love her' and they never see him again."
Acord then tells the men, they are staying on the ship. There are no more life boats.
The exhibit is among several that display the thousands of artifacts salvaged by RMS Titanic, Inc.. As the artifacts hit the auction block, Harris said, "I don't agree with it."
He would only say RMS Titanic, Inc. has an incredible asset that needs to be shared with future generations.
It has an estimated value of $189 million and must be sold in one lot.
While there is debate about whether Titanic should have ever been salvaged, Harris says it must be done to continue to share the story of Titanic and its passengers with future generations.
"We would like to keep the salvage going because there's so much still left down there and the ocean is a giant recycling machine and at some point, the ship and those artifacts will disappear and I don't know of any other archeological historic site that you just leave to nature to disintegrate and destroy," he told 10 News.
He says the world's largest ruby lies at the site, encased in a jeweled book of poems.
"We know that is on board, we know it was on the manifest," he said.
On Sunday, the Titanic site will come under the protection of the United Nations to put a stop to unscientific dives to the ship. There are concerns the ship is being damaged by the dives. Trash, like beer cans, can also be found on the site.
Harris says he is hoping to return to the Titanic in August, but it won't be the end to his days of exploring. He is planning an expedition later this year to the Marshall Islands where he hopes to find Amelia Earhart's plane.
Titanic will still be his obsession, or his wife calls it, his 'life force'.
"I have been doing this for a very long time and my family is along for the ride. Titanic, once it gets a hold of you, I've tried to leave Titanic on several different occasions, but Titanic somehow has a power and it continues to suck you back in because it keeps revealing more mysteries," he said from the office in his Belleair home. A few feet away from him, sits one of the last 9 remaining deck chairs from the Titanic. He says it was picked up as floating debris by rescue boats in the days after the ship's sinking. He also has a piece of the grand stair case and fabrics, which he says were also retrieved as flotsam.
They were the only pieces he kept when he sold the Orlando exhibit.
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