The Untold Story of the Titanic and Dr. Bob Ballard

If you thought you knew the story of how – and more importantly, why – the R.M.S. Titanic was found in the North Atlantic ocean in 1985, well, better think again. The story we have heard about the discovery of the Titanic by Navy Reserve Commanding Officer, oceanographer, and National Geographic Explorer-at-Large Dr. Bob Ballard, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Photograph by Mark Thiessen

It actually was completely coincidental that Dr. Ballard and his team ended up discovering the Titanic. Their mission was originally a Navy mission to find the remains of two nuclear submarines – the U.S.S. Scorpion and U.S.S. Thresher that had sunk in the 1960’s. Ballard’s expedition was a previously classified Cold War mission, a top secret naval investigation, and a race against time that came out of a Cold War thriller’s pages. Of course, what he and his team found, has gone down as one of the biggest discoveries of recent memory.

The National Geographic Museum has a new exhibition that will uncover the untold story’s iceberg, which will open to the public on May 30th. Ballard will also be giving a talk on May 30th and 31st, respectively.

As Kathryn Keane, VP of Public Experiences at National Geographic Society, expressed, the story of the Titanic is at the same time an epic tragedy as well as a story of exploration, and it is a reminder of the limits of technology and human achievement.

During Ballard’s long career he has conducted more than 150 deep-sea expeditions using the latest in exploration technology. In 2008, he secured the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus, which has become his flagship for exploration.

Here is a short Q&A we at National Geographic conducted with Ballard in preparation for the exhibition. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

National Geographic: How did you get involved in searching for the Thresher, the Scorpion, and then the Titanic?

Bob Ballard: I was a naval intelligence officer and an oceanographer. This was not my first rodeo, but it’s the only one I can talk about. I wanted to develop Argo [an unmanned deep-towed undersea video camera sled], but the Navy wanted to know about the status of the nuclear reactors on the two submarines [Scorpion and Thresher]. We found that both submarine reactors had automatically shut down so there was no radioactivity. We then went in the [Titanic] wreckage and captured fish, because multiple generations of marine organisms have come and gone around those submarines. Turns out the vessels had no impact on the ecology, which was good news. In the case of the Scorpion, they wanted me to do a forensic analysis so investigators could take all the data and determine what killed the Scorpion. I was in a very dicey situation because I had Frenchmen and National Geographic cameramen on board who weren’t supposed to know what I was doing. We headed to the Scorpion which was south of the Azores. The Titanic was west. Would they notice? No, they didn’t!

(SSN-593) Starboard bow view, taken at sea on 24 July 1961. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

NG: What is your favorite discovery and why?

BB: Our discovery of hydrothermal vents in 1977 was a massive game changer in science. Prior to that discovery, the scientific community believed all life was dependent upon the sun and that for a planet to support life it had to be located around a friendly star where the temperature is just right. That all changed when we discovered a complex ecosystem with large animals in large numbers and with great diversity that were not living off the sun, but off the energy of Earth itself. We always knew that life on Earth began in the sea but we did not know where and how it got a foothold. This discovery answered that question.

Photo by Emory Kristof

NG: What’s it like to be on the E/V Nautilus?

BB: Imagine Lewis and Clark with a flashlight. That’s the Nautilus: It can go to great depths. Its vehicles are flying along the bottom, and it comes across something—like a crazy creature no one’s ever seen—that’s very common. We might get on the phone and call an expert at home. That expert can boot up their laptop computer and see what we’re seeing on www.nautiluslive.org. They can even drive the vehicle (although it’s easier to navigate from the back seat).

The exhibition which is a collaboration of National Geographic with the National Archives and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, will present the recently disclosed truths behind the iconic expedition, artifacts and other memorabilia present from the wreckage of what sank in 1912, and a look into the future of ocean exploration.

Photo by Emory Kristof

Human Journey

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Camilo is a digital editor, multimedia producer, and staff writer at the National Geographic Society. He is often writing about our human journey, our changing planet, our wildlife, and the Explorers that are helping us reach a planet in balance. Some of the topics that he is interested in often appear in his pieces, such as: exploration, science, humanitarian aid, social justice, human rights, conservation, international affairs, international education, teaching, comparative literature, music, art, semiotics, philosophy, and religions.