The Man Who Found the Titanic: A Tale of a Secret Expedition

A hundred years ago tonight, the Titanic sank, taking more than 1,500 souls with it. Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck, tells Andrew Carter about the secret expedition to find it.

Rich Schmitt, Zuma Press / Newscom

Robert Ballard's life's dream was to find the most famous shipwreck in the world, but if not for the Cold War and two missing submarines, the Titanic might never have been found.

Ballard, who also discovered the wreck of the Bismarck and the USS Yorktown, became interested in ocean exploration as a child while reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. “From a very early age, I wanted to be Captain Nemo and I wanted to explore the ocean floor,” he says. With his parents’ encouragement, he joined the Navy, worked at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and became an oceanographer. After 53 years and more than 130 expeditions, the 69-year-old adventurer is “still at it and hoping for a new discovery.”

Ballard had long been fascinated by Titanic, and always dreamed of finding it. Back in the 1970s, he led a failed expedition to do just that. But it wasn't until 1985, while serving as a naval intelligence officer, that he was able to secure the technology and funding that helped him finally discover it 1,000 miles due east of Boston. Having helped the U.S. Navy develop unmanned submarines, Ballard thought the technology might be useful in finding the lost ship. The Navy had little interest in funding the search, but it was very interested in finding the USS Scorpion and the USS Thresher, two nuclear submarines that were lost in the 1960s on either side of where the Titanic went down. With the Cold War still in its final throes, the Navy had to keep the true nature of the submarine search a secret. They told Ballard that if he could find the subs, then afterward he could use their technology to search for the ship—but the world would think the expedition was about finding the Titanic from the beginning.

“The Navy didn’t want to disclose the location of those submarines, so we needed a cover story and Titanic was the cover story," says Ballard. "I wanted to find the Titanic. The Navy just wanted our expedition to deflect from the true mission.”

Of course, history would show that the expedition was successful on all fronts. Ballard was able to do reconnaissance on the missing submarines, and in the early-morning hours of Sept. 1, the image of a boiler in the sand 12,000 feet beneath the surface signaled the discovery of the Titanic.

“There were two reactions almost simultaneously,” says Ballard. “The first reaction was celebration, we all jumped up shouting because we were near the end of the expedition and we thought we were going to fail. But that was followed quickly by a realization of where we were, that we were on a gravesite. We started seeing where the bodies had landed, that this was a cemetery, and it changed our emotional wall. It went from pure joy to thoughtful reflection.”

Rumors have surfaced over the years that Ballard wanted to keep the location of the wreck a secret to protect it from salvagers. Not entirely true, he says. The expedition was a joint U.S.-French effort, which meant, “There was no hope of protecting it from the French; the French were aboard. Although initially they said they wouldn’t salvage it, they reversed their decision and they knew the location because they were aboard and could write it down. So there was no secret among them, and they’re the ones that actually founded the salvage operation.” Since then more than 5,500 artifacts have been taken from the wreck site.

Ballard, who has long been outspoken against the recovery of objects from the Titanic, is disturbed by the salvage operations, not only because they are disturbing a gravesite, but because human exploration is damaging the ship. “We went back in 2004 and did it all over again, and we can show you exactly where the submarines had landed, where they had crushed the deck, where they had knocked off the crow’s nest, where they pulled fixtures off the ship, and where they tried to break off the telemotor, all the debris, all the garbage that they left behind.”

Further, Ballard sees “no point” in salvaging items from the sunken ship. “The artifacts on the Titanic are identical to the artifacts on her sister ship, so there wasn’t anything to be gained.” He adds that when he initially discovered the ship, he went to the 24 remaining survivors and various museums around the world, and “there wasn’t a single person or organization who supported recovering artifacts.”

Whether because of humans or because of bacteria consuming the ship, there is a good chance Titanic will collapse completely within the next few decades. In the meantime, Ballard is determined to do his part to preserve the ship and prolong her life for as long as possible. He is currently applying for a permit to clean the rust off the hull and give the ship a fresh coat of paint. While the prospect of refurbishing a 100-year-old vessel lying 12,000 feet beneath the sea might seem daunting to anyone else, Ballard isn’t fazed. It’s the same technology they use to repair supertankers that are too big to go into dry dock. “They’ve actually developed underwater robots that are very simple, they have magnets, they attach to the hull and they can travel the length of the hull and clean the rust off. And then they actually have paint that can be applied underwater,” he says.

Still, Ballard does not want to give the impression that he is obsessed with the Titanic, or even that it is his favorite find. “I’ve done 135 expeditions. I’ve discovered things far more important than the Titanic,” he says. “The discovery of new life-forms in the Galapagos, the discovery of black smoke and mineral deposits that explain the chemistry of the world’s oceans. I’ve recently discovered ancient shipwrecks from 500 B.C. that are perfectly preserved in the bottom waters of the Black Sea. All of them have lessons to learn, they’re all important.”

But he certainly understands the enduring fascination. “Every generation has discovered the Titanic, whether it was the one that was alive when it sank, Walter Lord’s book, or my discovery, or Cameron’s movie, and now the 100th anniversary.” He also feels that the disaster has “all sorts of stories with heroes and villains, and I think everyone wonders what they would do if they were on the Titanic.

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The explorer shows no signs of slowing. This summer he plans to explore the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, before heading to America’s Territorial Trust Islands in the western Pacific.

Asked what his most important discovery is, he responds, “The one I’m about to make.”