No matter that the United Nations has declared 1998 the International Year of the Ocean. For intrepid oceanographer, explorer and author Robert Ballard, the real year was 1985. On the calm night of Sept. 1, using an underwater “sled” fitted with cameras, he discovered the wreck of the Titanic lying undisturbed on the floor of the North Atlantic.
The 55-year-old Ballard was born in Wichita, Kans., grew up in San Diego and earned a Ph.D. in marine geology and geophysics from the University of Rhode Island. In 30 years at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, he rose to director of the Center for Marine Exploration. Next month, Ballard will unveil his Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Conn., which will re-create in multimedia presentations—in addition to his finding the Titanic—his 1987 discovery of the “unsinkable” German battleship Bismarck and of last year’s treasure trove of Roman cargo vessels in the Mediterranean. “The deep sea has more history in it, preserved, than all the museums in the world combined,” says Ballard, who lives with second wife Barbara, 41, and their two small children in Old Lyme, Conn.
An enthusiastic fan of the film Titanic, Ballard calls the blockbuster “an incredible chance to sail on her and see the ship that was alive for only five days—long before cameras could capture its beauty. “Ballard himself collected superb still photographs of the wreckage for his 1987 book, The Discovery of the Titanic. The book, which details Ballard’s 12-year-long struggle to locate the great ship, is being redistributed by Warner Books.
THE FIRST TIME I REMEMBER seriously thinking about going after the Titanic was in 1973. By then I had left the Navy, and, as a junior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, I was a brash 31-year-old member of the Alvin group. Alvin is a small three-man submarine, and the group was moving into the forefront of underwater research technology.
But at the same time, I began to dream of ways to improve our ability to see so far below the surface. I was already convinced that the best way to to do this was with deep-towed vehicles mounted with special cameras and lights, eventually supplemented by remote-controlled robots. But I also knew that it would be hard to sell my dream directly. I thought that the prospect of searching for this legendary ship might attract the money needed to develop the mains intact. very means required to find her.
As word circulated that I was interested in finding the Titanic, people began to come out of the woodwork. There was an outfit called Big Events. One of their successes had been buying up old cables from the Golden Gate Bridge and selling them as souvenirs. I soon discovered that their goal for the Titanic was to turn her into paperweights.
In 1977, Ballard met William H. “Bill” Tantum IV, a dedicated and knowledgeable Titanic scholar.
Largely through Bill’s influence, the ship became much more than something to find in deep water. It became a fascinating chapter in human history. As I listened to Bill, the Titanic took on a personality—a soul. Pretty soon I could picture Captain Edward J. Smith joking with the wireless operators as the ship was sinking or see Colonel Archibald Gracie huffing and puffing up the sloping deck in a vain, gallant search for the missing Mrs. Candee.
We also began to tackle in earnest the problem of where the Titanic was really located and to speculate on what condition she would likely be in. I concluded that she was inside an area of 100 square nautical miles and estimated that the search would take 10-12 days. Years would have been more like it.
In 1979, Ballard made his first full-scale attempt to find the Titanic. The venture was plagued by the loss of the expedition’s expensive equipment in a shipboard mishap. In 1985, Ballard and French oceanographer Jean-Louis Michael formed a joint project funded by the French Institute for Oceanographic Studies and the U.S. Navy. They employed a technique called “mowing the lawn “—dragging the camera-equipped sled Argo back and forth in mile-wide swaths over the ocean bottom.
In the grim stretch of the Northwest Atlantic where the Titanic foundered, there is only a handful of weeks when the elements are likely to be kind. Subtracting the time required to get to and from the search area—first for the French ship Le Suroit, then the American ship Knorr—we would have barely five weeks to not only find the Titanic but to bring back a photographic record to the waiting world.
As I stood on the Knorr’s stern, somewhere not far from where the real Titanic sank, not the one of legend and half-truth, I pondered the enduring fascination of what we would find in the blackness and crushing pressure below. What changes would the deep sea have wrought over the years? Would the Grand Banks earthquake of 1929 have unleashed an avalanche that left her buried beneath tons of mud? Would the wood paneling in the first-class lounge still show its careful craftsmanship? And a darker thought: Would there be human remains?
Whenever Argo was flying, all shipboard operations were concentrated in our control van. I thought of it as the bridge of an imaginary submarine, its huge television monitors like windows in the sea. I could dive to the bottom of the ocean with none of the peril and discomforts of real submarines—and with no time limits.
During the watch, there was usually music playing—everything from reggae to Ravel—and often the van would be filled with the smell of fresh buttered popcorn from the galley. The only real problem was the amount of cigarette smoke. As many as half the members of any watch were smokers, and sometimes the cloud got so dense I had to ration cigarette time.
By late morning on Aug. 27, Argo was back on the fantail, having eliminated all possible targets from previous expeditions. Nine days to go and the crunch had come. Suddenly the ocean was huge and self-doubt loomed large. Now I began to feel a rising panic and others seemed to be feeling it too: The tension increased and the atmosphere became almost frantic. This thing was harder to crack than we’d allowed ourselves to believe.
At lunchtime on Aug. 31, we began the eighth pass. The weather was getting steadily worse; it seemed only a matter of time before the storm hit. Evening came and still nothing. All was quiet in the ranks, and I had begun to face defeat.
I stayed in the van until the midnight-watch change. Our coverage of the new search area was nearly complete. I noted that line nine would take us directly to the northeastern limit of previous coverage, overlapping the portion we had missed—that sliver of bottom one mile wide and five miles long. So began the graveyard shift of Sept. 1. “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” played softly on the stereo.
About 12 minutes before 1 a.m., [Argo chief designer] Stu Harris said simply, “there’s something” as he pointed at the TV screen. Suddenly every member of the sleepy watch became alive and alert.
Stu switched Argo’s camera from forward-looking to down-looking and a few seconds later, [Woods Hole apprentice oceanographer] Bill Lange exclaimed, “Wreckage!” A few seconds later Stu added his exultant note, “Bingo!” and the van echoed with a chorus, “Yeah!” followed by shrieks and war whoops.
Something new appeared amid the unrecognizable wreckage passing on the video screen. It was perfectly circular. “A boiler?” someone mused. Jean-Louis still wouldn’t believe what his eyes were telling him. He opened the book containing a facsimile of the now-famous 1911 Shipbuilder article on the Titanic and turned to the pictures of the boilers. He looked from page to screen and back again, as if to convince himself: “Yes, it ess a boiler.”
As the images on the video screen grew more and more vivid—large pieces of twisted hull plating, portholes, a piece of railing turned on its side—for the first time since I started on this quest 12 years before, the full human impact of the Titanic’s terrifying tragedy began to sink in. Here at the bottom of the ocean lay not only the graveyard of a great ship but the only fitting monument to the more than 1,500 people who perished when she went down. And we were the very first people in 73 years to come to this precise spot to pay our respects. Images from the night of the disaster—a story I knew by heart—flashed through my mind with painful intensity. Then, someone pointed up at the twin clocks and said something like, “Oh, my God!” It was approaching 2 a.m., very close to the exact hour of the Titanic’s sinking.
As we maneuvered the Knorr into position to make Argo’s first run across the main wreck on Sept. 2, a crowd began to gather in the back of the van. If Argo got caught in wires and wreckage, it would take a miracle to free it—likely, we’d have to cut the cable and kiss a half-million dollars of new technology goodbye.
Argo was passing directly over the main hull of the Titanic—the Golden Fleece was within our grasp at last. Not a word was spoken in the van as faint objects flashed on the video screens. If we’d miscalculated I’d know it soon.
Suddenly, out of the gloom, the boat deck of the ship came into view. As we crossed over its center axis, we could see the flattened rectangular outline of the bridge. Was this where Captain Smith had stood stoically to the end?
Before we knew it, Argo had safely passed out over the starboard bow railing and back into the featureless murk. All at once, the bottled-up excitement in the van exploded. People were whooping, hugging and dancing around while Jean-Louis and I stood quietly pondering the significance of the moment. As the celebrations continued around us, we were almost in tears.