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Discovery of the Titanic Shipwreck

Found by Famous Ocean Explorer Robert Ballard in 1985

By Jennifer L. Goss, Contributing Writer

A picture of famous oceanographer, Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic.

Portrait of American undersea explorer, researcher, and author Dr. Robert Ballard. (1992)

(Photo by Frank Capri/Getty Images)
After the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, the great ship slumbered on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean for over 70 years before its wreckage was discovered. On September 1, 1985, a joint American-French expedition, headed by famous American oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard, found the Titanic over two miles below the ocean’s surface by using an unmanned submersible called Argo. This discovery gave new meaning to the Titanic’s sinking and gave birth to new dreams in ocean exploration.

The Titanic’s Journey

Built in Ireland from 1909 to 1912 on behalf of the British-owned White Star Line, the Titanic officially left its final European port of Queenstown, Ireland on April 11, 1912. Carrying over 2,200 passengers and crew, the Titanic began its maiden voyage across the Atlantic, headed for New York.

The Titanic carried passengers from all walks of life. Tickets were sold to first, second, and third class passengers; the latter group largely consisting of immigrants seeking a better life. Famous first class passengers included the Astors, the Strausses, J. Bruce Ismay, and Benjamin Guggenheim.

The Sinking of the Titanic

Only three days after setting sail, the Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, somewhere in the North Atlantic. Although it took the ship over two and a half hours to sink, the vast majority of the crew and passengers perished due to a significant lack of lifeboats and improper use of those that did exist. The lifeboats could have held over 1,100 people, but only 705 people were saved; nearly 1,500 perished the night the Titanic sank.

People around the world were shocked when they heard that the “unsinkable” Titanic had sunk. They wanted to know the details of the disaster. Yet, however much the survivors could share, theories about how and why the Titanic sank would remain unsubstantiated until the wreckage of the great ship could be found. There was just one problem -- no one was sure exactly where the Titanic had sunk.

Robert Ballard

Robert Ballard wanted to find the wreckage of the Titanic. Ballard had grown up in San Diego, California, near the ocean, where he began his life-long fascination with the ocean and learned to scuba dive. After graduating from University of California, Santa Barbara in 1965 with degrees in both chemistry and geology, Ballard signed up for the Army. Two years later, in 1967, Ballard transferred to the Navy, where he was assigned to the Deep Submergence Group at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Research Institution in Massachusetts, thus beginning his illustrious career with submersibles.

By 1974, Ballard had received two doctoral degrees (marine geology and geophysics) from the University of Rhode Island and had spent a lot of time conducting deep water dives in a manned submersible he helped design, called Alvin. During subsequent dives in 1977 and 1979 near the Galapagos Rift, Ballard helped discover hydrothermal vents. More importantly, though, were the amazing plants that grew around these vents; it was the scientific study of these plants that led to the discovery of chemosynthesis, a process in which plants use chemical reactions rather than sunlight to get energy.

Yet, however many shipwrecks Ballard explored and however much of the ocean floor he mapped, Ballard never forgot about the Titanic. Ballard has said, “I always wanted to find the Titanic. That was a Mt. Everest in my world -- one of those mountains that had never been climbed.”*

Planning the Mission

Ballard wasn’t the first to try to find the Titanic. Over the years, there had been several teams who had set out to find the wreckage of the famous ship; three of them had been funded by millionaire oilman Jack Grimm. On his last expedition in 1982, Grimm had taken an underwater picture of what he believed to be a propeller from the Titanic; others believed it was only a rock. The hunt for the Titanic was to continue; this time with Ballard. But first, he needed funding.

Ballard, who had a history working with the U.S. Navy, decided to ask them to fund his expedition. The Navy did decide to fund the project, but not because they had a vested interest in finding the Titanic; instead, the Navy wanted Ballard to create the technology needed to help them find and investigate the wreckage of two nuclear submarines (the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion) that had been mysteriously lost in the 1960s.

Ballard’s search for the Titanic provided a nice cover story for the Navy, who wanted to keep their search for their lost submarines a secret from the Soviet Union. Amazingly, Ballard maintained the secrecy of his mission even as he built the technology, used it to find and explore the remains of the USS Thresher, and the remains of the USS Scorpion. Plus, while Ballard was investigating these wreckages, he learned more about debris fields, which gave him an idea as to how to find the Titanic.

Done with his secret mission, Ballard was finally able to turn to his search for the Titanic. However, while other teams had spent months looking in vain for the Titanic, Ballard now had only two weeks for his search.

Locating the Titanic

It was late August 1985 when Ballard finally began his search for the Titanic. Ballard had invited a French research team, led by Jean-Louis Michel, to join this expedition. Aboard the Navy’s oceanographic survey ship, the Knorr, Ballard and his team headed to the likely location of the Titanic’s resting place -- one thousand miles due east of Boston, Massachusetts.

While previous expeditions had used close sweeps of the ocean floor to search for the Titanic, Ballard decided to conduct mile-wide sweeps with the hope of being able to cover more area. Ballard was able to do this for two reasons. First, after examining the wreckage of the two submarines, he discovered that ocean currents often swept lighter pieces of the wreck downstream, thus leaving a long debris trail. Secondly, Ballard had engineered a new unmanned submersible (Argo) that could explore wider areas, dive deeper, stay underwater for many weeks, and deliver crisp and clear pictures of what it found. This meant that Ballard and his team could stay on board the Knorr and monitor the images from Argo, hoping to find small, man-made pieces of debris.

The Knorr arrived in the area on August 22, 1985 and began sweeps of the area using Argo. In the early morning hours of September 1, 1985, the first glimpse of the Titanic in 73 years appeared on Ballard’s screen. Exploring 12,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, the Argo relayed the image of one of the Titanic’s boilers embedded within the sandy surface of the ocean’s floor. The team on the Knorr was ecstatic about the discovery, although the realization that they were floating atop the graves of nearly 1500 individuals brought a somber tone to their celebration.

The expedition proved to be instrumental in shedding light on the Titanic’s sinking. Prior to the discovery of the wreckage, there was some belief that the Titanic had sunk in one piece. The 1985 images did not give researchers definitive information on the ship’s sinking; however, it did establish some basic foundations that countered early myths.

Subsequent Expeditions

Ballard returned to the Titanic in 1986 with new technology that allowed him to further explore the interior of the majestic ship. Images were collected that showed the remains of the beauty that so captivated those who had seen the Titanic at its height. The Grand Staircase, still-hanging chandeliers, and beautiful iron-work were all photographed during Ballard’s second successful expedition.

Since 1985, there have been several dozen expeditions to the Titanic. Many of these expeditions have been controversial since salvagers brought up several thousand artifacts from the ship’s remains. Ballard has been widely outspoken against these efforts, claiming that he felt the ship deserved to rest in peace. During his two initial expeditions, he decided not to bring any discovered artifacts to the surface. He felt that others should honor the sanctity of the wreckage in a similar fashion.

The most proliferate salvager of Titanic artifacts has been RMS Titanic Inc. The company has brought many notable artifacts to the surface, including a large piece of the ship’s hull, passenger luggage, dinnerware, and even documents preserved in oxygen-starved compartments of steamer trunks. Due to negotiations between its predecessor company and the French government, the RMS Titanic group cannot sell the artifacts; however, they can put them on display and charge admission to recoup expenses and create profit. The largest exhibition of these artifacts today is located in Las Vegas, Nevada at the Luxor Hotel.

Titanic Returns to the Silver Screen

Although the Titanic has been featured in numerous films through the years, it was James Cameron’s 1997 film, Titanic, that stimulated massive, world-wide interest in the ship’s fate. The movie became one of the most popular films ever made.

The 100th Anniversary

The 100th Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic in 2012 also fueled renewed interest in the tragedy, 15 years after Cameron’s film. The wreckage site is now eligible to be named a protected area as a UNESCO World Heritage site and Ballard is also working to preserve what remains.

An expedition in August 2012, revealed that increased human activity has caused the ship to break down at a faster rate than previously expected. Ballard has a plan to slow the process of degradation – painting the Titanic while it remains 12,000 feet below the ocean’s surface.

The discovery of the Titanic was a momentous accomplishment but now the world is conflicted about how to care for this historical wreck.

* Quote by Dr. Robert Ballard from National Geographic’s Titanic: Ballard’s Secret Mission (2008).

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