National Geographic

The Untold Story

PERMITTED USE: This image may be downloaded or is otherwise provided at no charge for one-time use for coverage or promotion of National Geographic magazine dated April 2012 and exclusively in conjunction thereof.  No copying, distribution or archiving permitted.  Sub-licensing, sale or resale is prohibited.REQUIRED CREDIT AND CAPTION: All image uses must bear the copyright notice and be properly credited to the relevant photographer, as shown in this metadata, and must be accompanied by a caption, which makes reference to NGM.  Any uses in which the image appears without proper copyright notice, photographer credit and a caption referencing NGM are subject to paid licensing.Photo by Emory Kristof/National GeographicBob Ballard with crew of a research vessel celebrates finding the wrecked Titanic.
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Bob Ballard with crew of a research vessel celebrates finding the wrecked Titanic. "Titanic: The Untold Story”, National Geographic Museum, Washington, D.C.

Photograph by Emory Kristof/National Geographic

Behind the Search

You know the story. In the early hours of April 15, 1912, the unimaginable occurred. The R.M.S. Titanic, the largest, grandest ship of its time, struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank beneath the waves of the North Atlantic Ocean, taking with it more than 1,500 souls. The ship’s final resting place lay undiscovered for 73 years. And then, in 1985, Dr. Robert Ballard stunned the world when he announced that he had found the Titanic. But how?

The true tale of how Ballard located the long-lost ship remained a classified secret until 2008. Finally, he was able to reveal that he was actually on a top secret mission for the U.S. Navy to conduct surveillance on two lost nuclear subs: the Thresher, which sank off the coast of Boston in 1963; and the Scorpion, which disappeared under suspicious circumstances near the Azores in 1968. Since it was the height of the Cold War, the Navy needed a cover so Ballard’s activities wouldn’t draw suspicion. The perfect story? Searching for the Titanic.

Ballard made a bargain. If there was time and money left over after he located and studied the Scorpion in the summer of 1985, he could actually look for the Titanic. The Navy never dreamed Ballard and his colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution would find the lost ship. With only 12 days to search, Ballard used lessons he learned from the submarine wrecks to modify his tactics. He started looking for a debris field rather than the famous ship’s hull. Nine days later, the switch paid off. The Titanic was found.

National Geographic on the Scene


Two men with connections to National Geographic were instrumental in finding the Titanic. Dr. Robert Ballard, today a National Geographic Explorer-at-Large, was the driving force behind the discovery. He grew up in Southern California, where he developed an interest in ocean exploration. He went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in ocean-related subjects. He became a naval intelligence officer and went on to work with the Navy on several top secret missions.

A pioneer of underwater exploration technology, Ballard helped develop Argo, a 15-foot unmanned tow sled with cutting-edge imaging capabilities that helped locate the Titanic, alongside renowned photographer Emory Kristof. Kristof was a National Geographic staff photographer from 1964 to 1994. An innovator of high-tech underwater photography, Kristof created the preliminary designs for Argo’s electronic camera system. Together and separately, their work on the Titanic has appeared in the pages of National Geographic many times.

Image by Emory Kristof, courtesy National Geographic

"Titanic: The Untold Story”, National Geographic Museum, Washington, D.C.

Photograph by Emory Kristof/National Geographic

Ocean Exploration

“There’s probably more history now preserved underwater than in all the museums of the world combined,” says Ballard. Unfortunately, the seafloor is inhospitable to humans. Most recreational scuba divers dive to only 130 feet. The deepest scuba dive ever recorded was to 1,090 feet. But the Titanic is roughly 12,500 feet down. So how can it be observed?

There are two ways: HOVs (human-occupied vehicles) and ROVs (remotely operated vehicles). ROVs are unmanned and offer more flexibility, especially with advances in robotic technology. The first vehicle to observe the Titanic was Argo—an ROV with an array of cameras, lights, and sonar, which could send images back to the ship in real time. When the weather got rough, the discovery mission also used the ROV ANGUS—Acoustically Navigated Geological Underwater Survey—older tech than Argo, but more reliable.

In 1986, Ballard returned to the Titanic in the Alvin, an HOV carrying three passengers to a depth of 14,000 feet. From Alvin, Ballard used Jason Jr., a small ROV, to travel inside the wrecked hull of the Titanic. Jason Jr. captured the first photos of the inside of the wreck, traveling where humans cannot. Today, Ballard conducts his deep-sea research from E.V. Nautilus, a research ship fitted with state-of-the-art equipment.

Learn More About the Titanic

Remembering the Titanic

Remembering the Titanic  

Learn more about one of the greatest maritime tragedies in history.

Picture of rusted Titanic ocean liner in the North Atlantic

Titanic Was Found During Secret Cold War Navy Mission  

Read how National Geographic revealed the clandestine military project that led to the discovery of the famed shipwreck.



The R.M.S. Titanic:
Photo Gallery

The R.M.S. Titanic:  

The R.M.S. Titanic: One of History's Greatest Nautical Tragedies.

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