How Bob Ballard achieved ‘impossible’ feat of finding the lost Titanic

Ever since he was a boy exploring tidal pools on the California coast in the 1940s, Bob Ballard felt “called to the sea.” But the youngster who would grow into a famous oceanographer also had another dream: finding the Titanic. 

Almost no one believed it possible. Ballard’s scuba-diving club thought locating the lost ship was “a pipe dream.” The academic facilities where he studied, like Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, considered Ballard’s idea a publicity stunt and not “good science.” And the US Navy, which provides logistical and financial support for many deep-water explorations, considered the search unworthy of its resources. 

“We’re doing serious, top-secret missions here!” one admiral sneered in 1980 when Ballard asked him for Navy support to hunt for the long-lost luxury liner. “Titanic? We don’t have money for that.” 

Before scouring the ocean depths in search of the Titanic, Ballard went on lobster dives.
Before scouring the ocean depths in search of the Titanic, Ballard went on lobster dives.
Courtesy of Robert Ballard

But in the 1980s the United States was deep into a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and President Ronald Reagan enjoyed waging psychological warfare on the enemy. Ballard knew little would screw with the Russkies’ heads more than the American ability to find the lost passenger liner that sank in the Atlantic in 1912. Because he’d once been a Navy officer and then frequently worked with the Navy using his advanced under-water cameras, Ballard managed to get word of his Titanic idea all the way up the chain of command, where the White House heard and agreed. 

“Absolutely,” the Gipper said to Navy Secretary John Lehman during his first term. “Let’s do it!” 

Dr. Bob Ballard’s life is explored in “Into the Deep: A Memoir From the Man Who Found Titanic” (National Geographic), out Tuesday. Written by Ballard and Christopher Drew, the book details the struggles the oceanographer overcame to become a famed adventurer — and finally achieve his dream. 

Ballard first went to sea as a 17-year-old summer intern on a Scripps research ship. He was dangled over the side of the speeding vessel in the “hero’s bucket,” just above the spraying waves, gathering water samples to test ocean temperatures. During one shore leave the teenager was dragged to a Mexican strip club, and on another he found himself in the middle of a wild melee between an angry winch operator and a drunken cook waving a butcher’s knife. By the time he returned home and asked his mother at dinner to “pass the f–king butter,” young Bob’s fate as an “old salt” was sealed. 

Bob Ballard (left) knew a good way to stick it to the Russians was to find the Titanic first. This tactic pleased President Reagan, who pledged the Navy's support.
Bob Ballard (left) knew a good way to stick it to the Russians was to find the Titanic first. This tactic pleased President Reagan, who pledged the Navy’s support.
Emory Kristof/National Geographic Image Collection; Getty Images

Ballard double-majored in geology and chemistry at UC Santa Barbara, where the energetic youngster also joined the ROTC, pledged a fraternity, played on the freshman basketball team and “beat [Arthur Ashe] in a tennis tournament.” He got his Ph.D. in oceanography partly by training dolphins and whales at the Oceanic Institute and Sea Life Park near Honolulu. Ballard deferred, however, when asked by the Institute to participate in a highly classified Navy project training dolphins to kill “enemy divers in Vietnam.” 

“It didn’t feel right to put the animals in that position,” Ballard writes. 

Bob discovered his destiny in the late 1960s while working at the Office of Naval Research in Boston. As liaison officer, Ballard linked up with research scientists at places like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, which is where he first saw Alvin, a 21-foot-long submersible capable of carrying three people into the deep. Initially operating manned submersibles like Alvin, and later unmanned ROVs (remote-operated vehicles), Ballard began an unmatched career of marine discovery, using underwater cameras and sonar equipment to find ships thought lost forever. 

A radar scan of the Titanic's decaying deck.
A radar scan of the Titanic’s decaying deck.
Hanumant Singh, WHOI, and IFE/IAO

Alvin was a small sphere only about 6-½ feet in diameter, and Ballard described entering it as “climbing into a Swiss watch.” Between the pilot, engineer and research scientist Ballard, there was so little room that the men joked about “untying their legs” at the end of journeys normally 8 hours long. There was a small window for each passenger to look out, allowing Ballard to view an underwater world never before seen by humans. 

“Once on the bottom, Alvin’s lights illuminate the scene,” Ballard writes. “I’m all eyes.” 

In the 1970s, Ballard used Alvin to bring up rocks from the floor of the Gulf of Maine and rode a French submersible deep down to study the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. In waters near the Galapagos, Ballard’s team proved the existence of hydrothermal vents by discovering an entire ecosystem of large white clams in an environment thought uninhabitable. By 1979, when a Ballard mission found hydrothermal vents called “black smokers” off Mexico’s Baja California, the man was rewriting the textbooks he’d studied in college. 

Ballard found sunken ships, too. Off the Irish coast in 1993 he discovered the Lusitania, a British liner torpedoed by German U-boats in World War I, and in 1998, deep in the Pacific, he found the USS Yorktown, an American aircraft carrier lost at the Battle of Midway. Off the French coast in 1989, nearly 16,000 feet down, he found the Bismarck, a Nazi battleship sunk in World War II. 

But Ballard’s quest to find the Titanic was never far from his mind. He’d brought it up first to his scuba diving friends in the late ’60s, who scoffed, and then tried to convince Woods Hole in the early ’70s to use Alvin to search for the lost ship — but they refused. In 1977, Ballard gained access to a research vessel and tried to outfit it for a Titanic expedition, but somewhere along the way the $600,000 worth of equipment he’d borrowed sank to the bottom of the sea. Ballard’s dream seemed doomed. 

‘The site itself took hold of me. Its emotion filled me and never let me go.’

Bob Ballard, upon finding the Titanic on the ocean floor

But after President Reagan indicated his support for the hunt for the Titanic, the Navy offered a quid pro quo: If Ballard would investigate the Atlantic crash sites of two American submarines mysteriously sunk during the 1960s, he could piggyback a Titanic search on the end of those missions. Ballard enthusiastically agreed, of course, but knew it wouldn’t be easy. 

First, the exact location of the wreckage wasn’t known. When the ship went down south of Newfoundland in 1912, its crew was navigating by stars, so precise coordinates weren’t clear. Searchers could narrow the target area down to 100 square miles, but those waters had strong tides and great depths. 

Worse, Ballard had competition. Titanic was the holy grail for oceanographers, of course, but treasure-seekers, too. In the summer of 1985, French explorers using sonar systems superior to Ballard’s crisscrossed the ocean floor where the Titanic’s wreck was thought to be, but after 30 days of high winds and rough seas they quit. After completing his classified work at the sunken Navy submarine sites that August, Ballard rushed his research vessel toward Newfoundland. He would have ten days before the time and money the Navy had allocated ran out, but Ballard had calm weather and high hopes. 

The Titanic's wreckage including trinkets and shoes.
The Titanic’s wreckage including trinkets and shoes.
IFE/IAO, University of Rhode Island

Aided by a crew of 49, Ballard’s plan was to tow a submersible behind his ship on a cable nearly 2-½ miles long. Outfitted with two sonars and three video cameras, the unmanned vessel would drop to depths of nearly 13,000 feet, with its video feeds viewable on screen in the research vessel’s command center. Because Ballard’s submersible had great cameras but only so-so sonar, his only hope was to find Titanic by sight, not sound, which had never before been attempted in underwater research. 

For days they dragged the submersible back and forth across the ocean floor, through the murky depths, and after seemingly endless hours of looking only at mud, Ballard’s optimism began to wane. Then the long cable dragging the submersible got tangled and nearly destroyed, which would’ve doomed the mission. 

Finally, despondent in his bunk late one night, Ballard was called to the command center with the word he’d longed to hear: 

The dark ocean floor revealed the bow of the Titanic, the site of the most famous scene in James Cameron's 1997 movie, "Titanic," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
The dark ocean floor revealed the bow of the Titanic, the site of the most famous scene in James Cameron’s 1997 movie, “Titanic,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
Robert Ballard and Martin Bowen/WHOI


He rushed down to see debris on each of the three video screens. It was, Ballard writes, an “oh, my God moment.” 

“There it was, one of 29 boilers that had created steam for Titanic’s engines. It was a signature piece . . . Bull’s-eye!” 

The submersible continued scanning Titanic’s debris field, 12,500 feet below the surface of the North Atlantic, revealing tea cups and bath tubs, boots and luggage, champagne bottles with their corks still in. From the darkness at one point a face clearly appeared, fortunately not human remains but a child’s long-forgotten doll. 

“Now the site itself took hold of me. Its emotion filled me and never let me go,” Ballard writes. 

They followed the trail of debris to the sunken ship itself, floating over its bow to see the “toppled foremast, with the crow’s nest” where the watchman would’ve first spotted the fearsome iceberg on that fateful night; to the boat deck, where the Titanic’s lifeboats would’ve been launched; to the entrance above the Grand Staircase, theoretically one of the ship’s crowning achievements. There was a hole where the ship’s bridge should’ve been, and another at the raised foredeck where the crew would’ve slept, but it was all quite clearly the famous missing ship. 

At almost 80, Bob Ballard is still seeking adventure, including in Pacific waters off the island of Nikumaroro, where he looked for any sign of Amelia Earhart’s lost plane.
At almost 80, Bob Ballard is still seeking adventure, including in Pacific waters off the island of Nikumaroro, where he looked for any sign of Amelia Earhart’s lost plane.
Gabriel Scarlett/National Geographic Image Collection

Bob Ballard had found the Titanic. 

Having discovered the wreck, Ballard could have claimed “salvage rights,” but he considered that grave robbing and chose to leave the Titanic as he found it. But by the time he returned 18 years later, other companies had swooped in and swept up more than 6,000 artifacts, either selling them — $25 for a hunk of Titanic coal, for example — or putting them in a Titanic museum. It may have been Ballard’s only regret about the whole experience. 

“It had turned into an ugly carnival, an affront to the fate of Titanic and all those who had lost their lives in her final hours,” he writes. 

"Into the Deep"

Though Ballard was already a legend for his scientific discoveries, finding the Titanic led to wider fame. He was invited to dinner at The White House in 1985 (on the famous night Princess Di boogied with John Travolta), and when President Reagan met him in the receiving line, he peppered him with questions about his exciting discovery. Director James Cameron called Ballard regularly for information and advice throughout the filming of his 1997 movie “Titanic,” and later dragged him to the film’s DC premiere. 

In 1998, Ballard was awarded the National Geographic Centennial Award as a “pioneer of discovery,” but his career didn’t end there. As recently as 2019 he searched through the waters around American Samoa for the wreckage of Amelia Earhart’s plane. Though he failed to find it, he still declared the mission a success. 

“At least now we know where she isn’t,” he writes. 

Ballard is almost 80 now, living happily in Connecticut with his family in semi-retirement, but he plans to continue the Earhart search in 2022. After all, even to this day, the man remains “called to the sea.” 

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