One of the most famous and groundbreaking moments in 20th-century oceanography was the discovery of the Titanic in 1985. A team of explorers and oceanographers led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Robert Ballard used all aspects of oceanography to locate the ship—they studied the impact of deep-sea organisms on the wreck (biological oceanography), wave patterns and ocean currents (physical oceanography), bathymetry and features of the seafloor (geological oceanography), and the chemical composition of both the ocean and the ship itself (chemical oceanography). Here, Ballard (left) and his team study blueprints of the Titanic.

Photograph by Emory Kristof
  • On September 1, 1985, a team led by oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Robert Ballard found the wreck of RMS Titanic in the North Atlantic Ocean, about 600 kilometers (370 miles) off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. From a ship on the surface, the crew watched the seafloor using a submersible, the Argo, equipped with a camera. Observers first noted odd craters and debris littering the seabed. Ballard was thrilled when one of the ship’s massive boilers was sighted, and finally the hull of Titanic itself came into view.

    The Argo is a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). It allowed the team searching for Titanic to “look” at the seafloor from 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) above. The images Ballard and his crew collected allowed experts to reconstruct what had happened to Titanic, and determine how it had sunk—breaking into two large pieces as it drifted to the bottom of the ocean. The ship has been explored, photographed, and filmed several times since, but remains on the seafloor.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    coast Noun

    edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: coast
    crater Noun

    bowl-shaped depression formed by a volcanic eruption or impact of a meteorite.

    Encyclopedic Entry: crater
    debris Noun

    remains of something broken or destroyed; waste, or garbage.

    equip Verb

    to prepare or provide the right equipment.

    Explorer-in-Residence Noun

    pre-eminent explorers and scientists collaborating with the National Geographic Society to make groundbreaking discoveries that generate critical scientific information, conservation-related initiatives and compelling stories.

    hull Noun

    main body of a ship.

    oceanographer Noun

    person who studies the ocean.

    reconstruct Verb

    to build again or re-create from an original plan.

    ROV Noun

    remotely operated vehicle.

    submersible Noun

    small submarine used for research and exploration.

    Titanic Noun

    luxury cruise ship that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912.