In deep water? One of the Mir submersibles, in international, but disputed, waters. Credit: OI/RAS

The research vessel Academician Mstislav Keldysh, which belongs to the cash-starved Oceanology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has provoked new controversy by apparently delivering tourists to the site of the sunken liner Titanic under the guise of researchers.

Deep Ocean Expeditions, a British company owned by Michael McDowell, an Australian citizen, has sold tickets at $32,500 each to people who descend 3 kilometres in the Russian bathyscaphes Mir-1 and Mir-2 to see the remains of the Titanic.

By doing this, the company appears to have infringed a US court ruling prohibiting such trips on the basis that the exclusive rights to taking photographs of the wreck belong to the US company RMS Titanic.

At first, Oceanology Institute officials denied suggestion that their vessel was involved in such an activity. But a telegram sent from the ship on 15 September, and later made public, suggested that the presence of the tourists had been disguised by referring to them as scientific observers.

In the telegram, the head of the ship's 41st expedition reported that “scientific research of the first stage at the Titanic experimental range ⃛ is over; the observers from the United States, Germany, United Kingdom and Australia, who have invested in our expedition, took part in six dives.”

Sergey Lappo, the institute's director, says they have done nothing wrong. He argues that the US court ruling applies only to US citizens, and that the Titanic lies in international waters.

Deep Ocean Expeditions made an advance payment to the ship to cover the ‘scientific’ expedition's expenses. The rest of money will go towards repairs to the ship and the two submersibles in the British port of Falmouth, to which it is now headed.