All achievers

Robert D. Ballard, Ph.D.

Discoverer of the Titanic

I learned how to order my thoughts, and most important, learned how to develop a plan. I discovered the power of a plan. If you can plan it out, and it seems logical to you, you can do it. And that was the secret to success.

Commander Robert Ballard, USN, in command beneath the waves. (Photo by Emory Kristof, courtesy of the National Geographic Society)
Commander Robert Ballard, USN, in command beneath the waves. (Emory Kristof/National Geographic Society)

Robert Ballard was born in Kansas, but grew up in San Diego, California, where a childhood fascination with tidal pools and marine life led him to study marine geology. In 1962, when he was only 19 years old, his father, a missile scientist at North American Aviation, helped him get a job at the aerospace company’s Ocean Systems Group. The company was competing for a contract to build a three-man deep-ocean submersible. In later years, Ballard was to spend much of his career in such a vessel, known as ALVIN.

Young Ballard earned undergraduate degrees in chemistry and geology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. While at Santa Barbara he participated in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and earned an army commission. When he was called to active duty during the Vietnam War, he requested a transfer to the Navy, to make better use of his training as a marine geologist. The Navy assigned the young geologist to Woods Hole Oceanographic Research Institute in Massachusetts, where he continued his work in deep submergence. After leaving the Navy, he returned to Woods Hole as a research fellow. He earned a Ph.D. in geology and geophysics in 1974 and went to work at Woods Hole as a full-time marine scientist.

Every detail counts. Robert Ballard and his team study the floor plan of the sunken Titanic. (Photo by Emory Kristof, courtesy of the National Geographic Society)
Every detail counts. Robert Ballard and his team study the floor plan of the sunken Titanic. (Emory Kristof/NGS)

His first major expedition, Project Famous, was the first to perform successful field mapping underwater. For more than a decade he spent four months a year at sea, logging countless hours underwater, exploring the uncharted mountain ranges of the ocean floor. Ballard and his team explored the undersea mountain range known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and descended 20,000 feet in the Cayman Trough.

In these expeditions, Ballard discovered that the entire volume of the earth’s oceans is, over a period of years, recycled through the earth’s crust. This phenomenon explained the mineral composition of sea water for the first time. This stage of Ballard’s career climaxed with the landmark discovery of thermal vents off the Galápagos Islands. Ballard and his crewmates were astounded to find an abundance of plant and animal life in the deep-sea warm springs. Plants found here synthesize food energy chemically, rather than from sunlight, through photosynthesis, as all other vegetation on land and sea does. This discovery has enormous implications for the possibility of life on other planets, as well as here on Earth. Ballard was also among the first to see the “black smokers,” submarine volcanoes in the Pacific Rise, whose emissions are hot enough to melt lead.

1985: ALVIN is a manned deep-ocean research submersible owned by the United States Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. ALVIN was involved in the exploration of the wreckage of the Titanic.
1985: ALVIN is a manned deep-ocean research submersible owned by the United States Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. ALVIN was involved in the exploration of the wreckage of the Titanic.

Not satisfied with the possibilities of undersea research offered by the slow-moving submersible ALVIN, Ballard developed ANGUS (Acoustically Navigated Geological Underwater Survey), a submersible camera which could remain at the ocean floor for 12 to 14 hours, and take up to 16,000 photographs in a single lowering.

In 1980, Ballard took a sabbatical from Woods Hole to teach at Stanford University in California. While there, he conceived a new automated system, for undersea exploration: a maneuverable, remote-controlled photographic robot which broadcasts live images to a remote monitor, where a large team of scientists can survey the ocean floor continuously and maneuver the remote camera. By now, Ballard had earned tenure at Woods Hole, where he had the opportunity to assemble a top-notch team to build such a system. But like all team leaders at Woods Hole, he was required to find his own funding for the project. Ballard took his proposal to the U.S. Navy, and received the go-ahead from Navy Secretary John Lehman in 1982.

September 1985: Robert Ballard and his crew celebrate a successful mission, exploring the wreck of the Titanic. (Photo by Emory Kristof, courtesy of the National Geographic Society)
September 1985: Robert Ballard and his crew celebrate a successful mission, exploring the wreck of the Titanic.

Ballard and his crew embarked on a mission that was to make headlines around the world. Ballard had resolved to find the sunken hulk of RMS Titanic, the supposedly “unsinkable” ocean liner which had sunk, with massive loss of life, after she struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage in 1912. Drawing on all of Ballard’s accumulated expertise in undersea exploration, he and his crew located the wreck, more than two miles beneath the waves of the North Atlantic, on September 1, 1985. Ballard was then forced to wait an excruciating year for weather conditions favorable to a manned mission to view the wreck at close range. The next year, he and a two-man crew, in the ALVIN submersible, made the two-and-a-half-hour descent to the ocean floor to view the wreck firsthand. Over the next few days, they descended again and again and, using the Jason Jr. remote camera, recorded eerie scenes of the ruined interior of the luxury liner.

On subsequent expeditions, Ballard perfected the ARGO/JASON system, using it to locate the German battleship Bismarck, sunk in World War II, and the passenger liner Lusitania, sunk by a German torpedo during World War I. In 2002, he located the wreck of John F. Kennedy’s PT-109, the craft commanded by the future president in World War II. To date, he has conducted more than 120 undersea expeditions, pioneering the use of the latest in submarine technology to plunge ever deeper into the mysteries of the ocean.

Dr. Robert Ballard speaks at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Veterans Day, 2002. Ballard found the wreck of Kennedy's boat, PT-109, off the Solomon Islands. The PT boat, of which the young Kennedy was captain, was sunk by the Japanese during World War II. (AP Images/Steven Senne)
2002: Ballard speaks at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Veterans Day. Ballard found the wreck of Kennedy’s boat, PT-109, off the Solomon Islands. The PT boat, of which the young Kennedy was captain, was sunk by the Japanese during World War II. (AP Images)

In 1989, Ballard founded the JASON Project to bring the wonders of the earth, air and sea to classrooms around the world. More than 1.7 million students have participated in JASON programs, learning about natural phenomena — from volcanoes to storm systems — and viewing live transmissions from JASON robots as they explore the undersea world. Dr. Ballard has received numerous awards and honors for his discoveries, including the Lindbergh Award, the Explorers Medal and the Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society. In 2003, President George W. Bush presented him with the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal in a ceremony at the White House.

Today, Robert Ballard is an Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society. He is also President of Ocean Exploration Trust, the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Connecticut; Scientist Emeritus at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; and Director of the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.

In recent years, much of his exploration has centered on the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and most intriguingly, the Black Sea, where a unique combination of fresh water and salt water has preserved sunken ships for centuries. In the Black Sea, Ballard has located ships lost at the time of the Roman Empire, some dating as far back as the second century AD. In some cases, entire deck structures have been found intact, along with cargo in the forms of amphorae — ceramic jars used to transport oils, wine or honey. Subsequent explorations, following through on Dr. Ballard’s work, have located more than 40 wrecked vessels of the Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman Empires.

In 2008, Dr. Ballard acquired the E/V Nautilus, his primary exploration vessel, operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust with partial funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The vessel spends four to five months at sea every year. A high bandwidth satellite link streams video of his explorations on Nautilus Live. Robert Ballard has conducted more than 150 deep sea expeditions, plumbing ancient mysteries, and uncovering the history that has been lost for centuries beneath the waves.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1990

“Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne is who I always wanted to be. Absolutely no doubt about it. I always had this dream of being inside his ship, the Nautilus.”

Like many young readers before him, Robert Ballard dreamed of becoming an undersea explorer after reading of Jules Verne’s 20,0000 Leagues Under the Sea. Unlike most of Verne’s readers, Ballard went on to realize his dream.

For more than ten years, Ballard spent four months of every year at sea, and much of that time miles of feet below the water’s surface, exploring the uncharted mountain ranges of the ocean floor. While his discoveries of undersea volcanoes and chemosynthetic life in the hydrothermal vents off the Galápagos islands have earned him a place in the history of science, his expeditions to discover the wrecks of such famous lost ships as the Titanic, the Lusitania and the Bismarck also earned him a place in the headlines.

His discoveries, and the amazing vehicles he has built to perform his explorations, are even more remarkable than the fanciful adventures of Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo.

Watch full interview

In the early 1980s you were already a veteran of many missions in the ALVIN deep-ocean submersible, and had begun developing the ARGO/JASON system you would eventually use to find the wrecks of the Titanic and the Bismarck. How did the Titanic come to be a part of this?

Robert Ballard: I began the development of the ARGO/JASON system, which was a seven-year development, to go from my dream to reality. Along the way I was building systems and testing them. So, from 1982 to 1989, I was developing a new mousetrap. I wasn’t ready to do what I had designed it for: a full-fledged scientific expedition. That takes place this August. August of 1991 is my first chance to do what I dreamed of doing ten years ago. For that ten years, I was building my equipment and testing it. So, the Titanic and the Bismarck were a part of my engineering test program. They weren’t designed to do science; it was designed to prove I could do science. It just turned out to be what most people got interested in. I did not do all this to find the Titanic and the Bismarck. They were a by-product, now very important to the public, but that isn’t what I set out to do. I set out to build this to do exploration. My reason for developing the ARGO/JASON system was to improve my ability to explore the mountains of the sea, which I have been doing all of my life. I wasn’t ready to take that tool down and do that scientific thing. But I could do other things. So I said, well, here we are at Woods Hole, we are building Argo, we’ve got to go and test it, and we will probably go out here in the deepest water that we can get to. Well guess who’s out there? The Titanic is out there. Now if the Titanic had been in the Indian Ocean, I probably would have never found it. But the fact that it was in my backyard, I went, “Let’s go find the Titanic.”

RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912.
RMS Titanic departing Southampton. The British passenger liner sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in the early morning of April 15, 1912 after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage. Of the 2,224 passengers and crew aboard, more than 1,500 died in the sinking, making it one of the deadliest maritime disasters in history.

Of course the Titanic couldn’t be more famous, right?

Robert Ballard: I didn’t know that at the time. I knew it was a neat ship, but I didn’t know that it could hit this magic chord. I was completely surprised by the world’s response to our discovery of the Titanic. I thought they would say “Hey, that’s sort of neat. Next.” But I still can’t get away from finding the Titanic. It’s going to track me to the grave.

What was the date when you found it?

Robert Ballard: September 1, 1985.

Front page of the New York Times, April 16, 1912. (© New York Times, 1912)
Front page of the New York Times, April 16, 1912. (© New York Times, 1912)

At some point in this project though, the poetry of the Titanic must have struck you.

Robert Ballard: That came later. When I first set out after the Titanic, it was sort of a mechanical, technical problem. My soul was not in it. My mind was in it. But in the course of getting ready, I had to study it, and I met a man by the name of Bill Tantum, who died just before I found the Titanic. Bill was the soul of the Titanic. He lived in Connecticut, and he started the Titanic Historical Society. He had been injured in Korea, always wanted to be a career Army officer, but he got hurt. His dream went away, and he needed a new dream, and it became the Titanic. This man lived and breathed Captain Smith. When you sat and talked with him, you talked with the past. He knew how many buttons the Captain had on his uniform. He knew everything about it. I was going after him in a very investigative reporter way, but in the course of asking those questions, I had to listen to all this other stuff. It enters your soul, that tragedy. I wasn’t terribly conscious of that, until I found it. Then it blew me right over, like a truck ran over the top of me. It was months before I could deal with it emotionally. It was a complete surprise.

When did you go back to dive on it?

Keys to success — Courage

Robert Ballard: After finding the Titanic in September of 1985, I had to wait an entire year before I could go back. The longest year of my life waiting to go back for the weather window to open up. We got back out there. We went out with ALVIN and our little JJ, the vehicle I wanted to send inside to investigate the Titanic. Beautiful weather — gosh, it was gorgeous. It was the summer season, the perfect time to dive. We went out. We had satellite navigation. We knew exactly where the Titanic was. We put in our tracking network, and I got into ALVIN, buttoned up, put it over the side, pulled the valves, to vent it, and down we went. We now began to fall like a big rock for two-and-a-half hours; we’re falling towards the Titanic with all this great anticipation. For the first time seeing it, landing on its deck, tasting it, having it pop into reality from the myth that it was living in, to make it real. Falling through total darkness, and then everything started to go to hell. Everything. We started to have our maiden voyage. The first thing that started to happen was the sonar stopped working, so we couldn’t sweep out and find the ship. Well, that’s okay, because I’ve got my tracking, and I know where I am, and I’ll just drive over there. Then the tracking went out. So now I don’t know where I am. I can’t reach out. All I am is a ball somewhere in the ocean, with a little window. Am I a mile from the Titanic? Is it behind me? Is it in front of me? Is it right or left? Then the submarine starts to take on water into the battery systems, and the alarms start coming on. And, the pilot’s looking at me. We haven’t got sonar, we haven’t got tracking, we are becoming deaf, dumb, and blind down there, and on top of that, the submarine is taking on water, and it’s penetrating into the batteries, and it’s starting to short circuit the batteries. It’s just turning into a disaster, and the pilot says, “Look, we are going to have to abort.” “No! No, no, no. Come on, I’ve waited so long for this moment. Don’t abort the dive.”

He said, “We’re going to watch it, if it gets too much water, I’ve got to get us out of here. If we destroy the batteries, the expedition is over, and you will never see the Titanic.” We went down, and the batteries’ alarms are screaming; he is turning it down so it doesn’t blast in our ears. The bottom comes into view, and it’s just mud. I’m sitting there, and he says, “Well, now what?” All that three-dimensionality in my brain is taking in all this limited data. I’m looking at the currents, I’m looking at everything and my brain just said, “It’s over there.”

We brought the submarine around, and started driving. The alarms are getting worse, and he says, “We’ve got minutes, Bob. We’ve got to get out of here.” “Keep going. Speed up, go faster.” Then I saw a clump of mud, like a mud ball. Like someone had a snow fight. Well, they’re not supposed to be down there. And then there were a few more. I said, “Turn over towards those mud balls.” What it was is the Titanic had hit with such force, it just threw mud balls everywhere, and we were seeing the splatter. I said, “Follow that splatter,” and the mud balls got bigger and bigger and bigger. Finally, out of my window on the starboard side, there is a wall of mud, like a giant bulldozer had just been down there bulldozing the bottom of the ocean. And I said, “Ralph, it’s right around the corner.” We came around the corner and it was in my view port. There was this wall of steel. Like the slab in 2001, like the walls of Troy at night. It was just big, the end of the universe. It just was there as a statement. We came in and I just looked out of my window — I had to look up — because the Titanic shot up a hundred and some feet above me. I’m down at the very keel, and I just went “My God.”

Then we aborted the dive, and we were out of there. I saw it for 12 seconds.

Using the Jason Jr. remote camera system, Dr. Ballard and his crew explore the ruined interior of the sunken Titanic. (Photo by Emory Kristof, courtesy of the National Geographic Society)
Using the Jason Jr. remote camera system, Ballard and his crew explore the ruined interior of the sunken Titanic.

You and your crew were the first people to see the Titanic for how many years after it hit that iceberg?

Robert Ballard: Well, the Titanic hit the iceberg April 14, 1912, at 11:40 p.m. It sank the next morning at 2:20 a.m., April 15. And we were there on September 1, so it was over 73 years since it had vanished.

Did you feel at that point that history kind of struck you in the face?

Robert Ballard: Of course. You know, it’s interesting, when you look back into time. In 1912, the very early moving picture cameras were around, but the world was black and white. When you think of the past, you think of it as if there was no color, and it sort of distances you from that. Black and white always sort of distances you. Even when we first found the Titanic in 1985, our cameras were black and white cameras. So it was still black and white. It wasn’t until I saw it in color that it zoomed from the past to the present, like a lightning bolt, and there it was in today’s reality.

Keys to success — Passion

The real thing that got me, when the goose bumps were having goose bumps, was after we fixed the submarine and came down on the second dive. That’s when we made love. Because we came in on the bow and landed, and it was clunk, clunk. It was like Armstrong on the moon. And you took on the ten-degree list of the Titanic. It was listing to the starboard, and you listed. You just sat there. “We… are… on… the… deck of the Titanic. Oh my God!” And you just looked out the windows and just looked at it.

Did the discovery of the Titanic change your life in any way?

Robert Ballard: Dramatically, in good ways and bad ways. Mostly good ways.

Keys to success — Integrity

I had a chance to warm up to success. I had that ego thing that you go through of being on television and newspapers, and all of that sort of thing when the media has their meal with you. I had done that on a smaller scale. So, when this big thing came, I think I had a proper frame of mind about it. A lot of people who succeed, the ones that do it overnight, it can ruin them. But the ones that work at it for a long, long time, like some stars who get discovered after a 30-year career, they tend to handle it better than the people that are a star in their first movie. I’m thankful that I was prepared, as much as you could be, for something like that. It still was quite an experience, but I think I kept my feet on the ground through it all. You can’t take it too seriously when the spotlight, to some degree arbitrarily, says “Now you are famous.” You say, “Well, I don’t feel any different.” The key is: don’t act any different then.

Dr. Robert D. Ballard, undersea explorer. (© National Geographic Society)
Dr. Robert D. Ballard, undersea explorer. (Nat Geo)

It’s one thing to climb to the top of the mountain, it’s another thing to stay there. To stay there, you have to be pretty stable about it, and know what you are up against, and use it in a productive way. I think finding the Titanic has helped my career because people believe me when I say I have a new dream. Some people say “Why did you find the Bismarck?” To some degree, to prove it wasn’t luck.

Was it anticlimactic, in a way, going for the Bismarck?

Robert Ballard: The Bismarck was more difficult technically, not anticlimactic. I didn’t expect the Bismarck to be on the Richter scale of the Titanic, but it registered pretty strong. I think the television special we created on the Bismarck — which won an Emmy for the best documentary — was a better film. I think the book we did on the Bismarck was a better book. It was more difficult, but I accept the fact that it isn’t the Titanic.

I don’t want on my gravestone: “Bob Ballard, Discoverer of the Titanic.” I want “Bob Ballard, Explorer.” I’ve got many years to prove that point still left ahead of me. The Titanic is going to help me, but I don’t want to stop right now.