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This spring, it will be 100 years since the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage from Britain to New York.
When oceanographer Robert Ballard found the Titanic wreck 12,450 feet beneath the North Atlantic in 1985, most people didn’t realize what his mission was.
“The U.S. had just signed the SALT Treaty and was looking at disposing of nuclear weapons in the ocean,” says Ballard. “The Navy wanted us to check on two sunken nuclear submarines to see if they were making funny-looking fish. We didn’t want the Russians to know, so Titanic became our cover.”
Titanic was also part of Ballard’s deal: If he surveyed the subs within the allotted time, he had the remaining days to search for the luxury liner.
Since that epic discovery, Ballard, 69, has gone on to find other major wrecks: the German battleship Bismarck (1989), the U.S. carrier Yorktown (1998) -- even President John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 (2002). Like it or not, Ballard always will be defined by the Titanic.
I recently visited the explorer at his office in Mystic, Connecticut. He has a good sense of humor, at one point telling me that the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” is about amphetamine capsules, not giant hulks of metal.
Clash: What do you think about Titanic’s 100th anniversary on April 15?
Ballard: I’m looking forward to it being over (laughs), though I’m glad Belfast is embracing it. That community once was the epicenter of great ocean vessels. They built the White Star liners for 50 years. After Titanic, they went silent. There is no reason to be ashamed. (Titanic’s sinking) was the captain’s error. It had nothing to do with the ship. It’s like when an airplane goes into a mountain and they say, “bad aluminum.”
Clash: Do you consider Titanic your most important discovery?
Ballard: The hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic and the perfectly preserved ancient shipwrecks in the Black Sea are my most significant discoveries. With the vents, we didn’t know they existed. The Black Sea is the most amazing museum of human history because of its unique preservation by anoxic waters. People often ask, “What are you going to discover next?” I say, “You don’t understand. I can’t tell you.”
Clash: How did you become interested in the Titanic?
Ballard: I’m not a Titanic groupie. There was this “Mount Everest” that hadn’t been scaled, but in our world (oceans). Other teams had used sonar to scan the bottom for big signatures, say in the shape of a ship. While investigating the two sub wrecks, we found long debris trails because the hulls had imploded. I thought the Titanic had done something similar and would leave a trail. So I surveyed a wider area with an emphasis on finding spread out, smaller debris.
Clash: Take us back to Sept. 1, 1985.
Ballard: I couldn’t sleep, so I was reading. It was 2 a.m., and nobody should be coming up. Suddenly, there’s a knock on my cabin door, and it’s the cook. He said the guys think you need to come down. I sensed something was happening, so I flew out of my bunk.
Initially, they were seeing debris on the camera. But the moment I bolted in, the ROV (remotely operated vehicle) went over the boiler. We had a picture of the Titanic’s boiler on the wall, so everyone did a double-take. I think my exact words were, “The sucker really exists!” Then someone made the comment, “She sinks in 20 minutes,” because Titanic sank at 2:20 a.m. The mood suddenly went somber. There was this duality: as a professional, “Got it”; as a human, “Oh my God, they’re here.”
Clash: You went down later, for a first-hand peek in a submersible.
Ballard: Yes. At the bottom, we came to this wall of mud, so we went around it. In the deep sea, you can see only 30 feet. As we turned the corner, though, we came upon a 120-foot wall of steel. Imagine with a flashlight you come upon the walls of Troy. As we began to rise, we started picking up the ship’s portholes. Our light was bouncing off of them. It was like eyes looking at us --symbolically, the people who had perished.
Clash: Commercial Titanic dives now are routine --Deep Ocean Expeditions charges $60,000 -- and souvenirs are salvaged. Thoughts?
Ballard: When I went down in 2004, I was almost apologetic that I had found her. The submersibles, like cumbersome elephants, have done a lot of damage, clear when you compare photo mosaics from 1985 with today. The hull is rust brown. When you hit it, it knocks the rust off and exposes new surface -- yellow. There are yellow smacks all over the ship. The bridge is a shrine loaded with plaques. As for salvage, I have no problem with people visiting, but you don’t go to Gettysburg with a shovel. You don’t take belt buckles off the Arizona. I have no Titanic artifacts, nor do I want any. It’s about respect.
Clash: Some argue that the Titanic is deteriorating quickly and soon will be gone.
Ballard: I have discovered close to 100 wrecks, including Iron Age vessels dating to 750 B.C. When you put metal in the ocean, it begins to rust and develop a crust. Initially, there’s rapid attack. Then it becomes stable. The comment that the Titanic is quickly deteriorating is against science. James Cameron’s work has shown that much of the bow is still there. It snowplowed deep in the seafloor where the environment is anoxic. There’s no circulation, no oxidation -- and so excellent preservation.
Clash: What do you think of “Titanic,” which won 11 Academy Awards?
Ballard: I love “Titanic.” Jim showed me what a beautiful lady she was when she first sailed.
(James M. Clash writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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