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If you like Robert Ballard's story, you might also like:
Lee Berger,
James Cameron,
Tom Clancy,
Sylvia Earle,
Jane Goodall,
Edmund Hillary,
Donald Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Kent Weeks and
Chuck Yeager

Robert Ballard's recommended reading: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Related Links:
National Geographic
Mystic Aquarium
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Robert Ballard
 
Robert Ballard
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Robert Ballard Interview

Discoverer of the Titanic

February 13, 1991
Woods Hole, Massachusetts

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  Robert Ballard

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 go 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."


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.

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

Robert Ballard Interview Photo
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 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?


Robert Ballard: 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 throught 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 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."

[ Key to Success ] Courage


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 is was 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.

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This page last revised on Oct 12, 2010 12:27 EDT