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.
“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.