Robert Ballard and the true story of the Titanic's discovery


A century after landing at the bottom of the sea, the Titanic continued to generate all sorts of conspiracy theories. But a series of declassified military documents confirmed the details of a real conspiracy: that of his finding as an incidental part of a covert mission of the Cold War.

In September 1985, the oceanographer and commander of the US Navy Robert Ballard surprised the world by finding the remains of the RMS Titanic. The one that had been the largest ship ever built rested in two parts at 3800 meters depth under the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

Although the Titanic had been searched by treasure hunters and rescue experts – often surrounded by great publicity and huge financial investments – it was a group of scientists aboard the Knorr ship of the United States Navy that finally found the ship .

Why did the Navy finance the Titanic's find? Ballard, the leader of the expedition, was silent for decades, but when the war secret was uncovered in declassified documents, he could tell the truth.

From the tragedy to the failure of the treasure hunters

The Titanic before leaving England in 1912

The Titanic was a floating palace with gym, swimming pool, library, restaurants and luxury cabins for first class travelers. It sank during the night of the 14 to the 15 of April of 1912 in its inaugural trip of Southampton to New York. 1514 people died of the 2223 that were on board, among them some of the richest men in the world and hundreds of Irish, British and Scandinavian immigrants who went to North America in search of a better life.

The ship had cutting-edge safety technology in the hull, but the collision with an iceberg opened a gap of ten meters on the starboard side. The watertight bow compartments began to flood and water spilled over the hermetic bulkheads, which did not reach above deck E. As the bow sank into the sea, the stern rose until the weight the ship left the two. In two hours, the ship sank.

Due to the obsolete safety regulations of the time, the Titanic only carried lifeboats to evacuate 1178 passengers. The majority of the survivors were women and children, especially first and second class. Among the men who died that night were the builder and financier John Jacob Astor IV, the industrial entrepreneur Benjamin Guggenheim, the railwayman Charles Melville Haysy and the co-owner of Macy's, Isidor Straus.

It was said that the Titanic was full of money and jewelry, including a diamond valued at seven million dollars at the time. It is no coincidence that treasure hunters devised elaborate plans to refloat their remains. At least four expeditions were organized and even The Walt Disney Company conducted a $ 70,000 study for a possible search for the sunken ship.

The man who made the most effort to find the Titanic was called Jack Grimm and was president of the Grimm Oil Company of Abilene, Texas. Grimm spent millions of dollars on underwater exploration between 1980 and 1983. In 1981 he published an alleged video of the ship's propeller, but the water was too murky and his critics did not believe him. Four years later, a scientist, Robert Ballard, found a trail on the seabed that took him to the Titanic.

The officer who dreamed of finding the Titanic

Roberg Ballard during a TED talk about his findings at the bottom of the sea
Photo: Erik Charlton (CC BY 2.0)

Bob Ballard had a degree in geophysics in Hawaii and was studying for a doctorate in marine geology at the University of Southern California when he was called to active duty. At his request, he was transferred from the Army to the Navy, where he began working as an oceanographer. The Navy assigned him as liaison between the Office of Naval Research and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a Massachusetts laboratory.

When he left active duty, Ballard continued working at Woods Hole where he tried to convince organizations and scientists to finance the submersible vehicle Alvin for underwater research. Ballard used the Alvin, a manned vessel, to map the soil of the Gulf of Maine in 1970 and to search hydrothermal vents over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and mid-Atlantic Ridge between 1975 and 1979.

But the scientist's dream was to one day find the remains of the Titanic, which rested under the crushing pressure of water in the North Atlantic, and could not do so until in 1982 he designed a new submersible called Argo. Argo, which is about the size of a car, was an unmanned robot with reflectors and television cameras that could survive the pressure and darkness of the deep ocean while its crew took refuge in a mothership thousands of meters away, on the surface of the sea.

Unlike the small submersibles that took one or two scientists to the depths of the ocean for a few hours, the Argo was able to roam near the seabed for weeks while scientists monitored their data in real time from the mothership. It was the ideal technology to find the Titanic, but the Navy had to give its authorization to do so.

A secret agreement with the Navy

The submarine USS Scorpion before sinking in 1968 with 99 crew on board

Ballard had done several secret missions for the Navy during the Cold War when he built the Argo. Unable to obtain a scientific scholarship to search for the Titanic, he decided to ask the Armada itself to finance the search. Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Ronald Thunman still remembers the conversation. "He said: 'All my life I've wanted to go and look for the Titanic.' And that surprised me, "Thunman told CBS. "I told him: 'Please, this is a serious, top secret operation. Find the Titanic? It's crazy! '"

The military ended up accepting, but with one condition: that the scientist first explore a nuclear submarine that had sunk in the 60s: the USS Scorpion. It would be a covert mission: for the public, Ballard would be looking for the Titanic to test the capabilities of a submersible vehicle financed by the Navy to locate lost submarines and places to park missiles. Inside, the mission consisted of recovering the Scorpion's nuclear weapons (and, in a parallel mission, of the USS Thresher, another submarine sunk in the 60's) without the Russians knowing.

"We knew where the submarines were," Ballard told CNN. "What they wanted was for me to return there without the Russians following me, because we were interested in the nuclear weapons that were in the Scorpion and also in what the nuclear reactors were doing to the environment."

The end of the Cold War was near and the military did not want the Russians or other adversaries to trip over the submarines, so they hid a plan in full view with the excuse of the Titanic. But the Titanic was not an excuse for Ballard, who was genuinely interested in the ocean liner. When he finished exploring the Scorpion, he had 12 days to find it.

12 days to search the Titanic

A pair of scientists works on a submersible Alvin near the ship Atlantis II
Photo: NOAA

Ballard successfully completed the reconnaissance mission of the USS Scorpion and headed to the area where the Titanic had sunk. His team had barely 12 days to return the research vessel from which he worked, the Knorr, but it took only eight to find the sunken ship.

"I had learned something from the Scorpion mapping that helped me find the Titanic: find its debris trail," said Ballard. On August 22, 1985, the scientist and his team deployed the Argos, and on September 1 they realized that the bottom of the ocean, generally monotonous, had changed. The trail took them to a boiler and then to the Titanic. When the ship sank, debris rained down on the ocean floor; 73 years later, that debris trail led to the discovery of the 40,000-ton ocean liner.

Ballard woke up the entire team and burst into celebrations, but the expression on their faces changed when they realized that they were celebrating over the tomb of 1514 people. "Naturally we were very excited. We had achieved it, we had scored the winning goal on the hour, "he said. "But we realized that we were dancing on someone's grave and we felt ashamed. It was as if they had clicked on a switch. We calmed down and promised that we would not take anything from the shipwreck. "

Ballard had four days to record the shipwreck. He checked that the Titanic had split in two, as the survivors had, and that the stern was in worse condition than the rest of the ship. Then he returned home as a hero and tried to keep the wreck location secret. A spokesman for the Navy said a few days later to the New York Times that the military had only financed the project because he was interested in trying new equipment.

The archeologist who did not loot any tomb

Survivors of the wreck of the Titanic in a lifeboat

On July 12, 1986, Ballard and his team of marine archaeologists returned to do the first detailed study of the Titanic wreck. This time, Ballard took the Alvin and a small remote control vehicle called Jason Junior that could pass through small openings and investigate the interior of the ship. The dives produced a detailed photographic record of the conditions of the Titanic. By then, the filmmaker James Cameron was already in contact with the scientist to produce what would be the highest grossing film in history.

Ballard kept all his promises. He did not reveal the location of the wreck (although a private plane surprised him at the site of the find). He did not talk about the covert mission for the Navy until the secret documents were declassified (National Geographic mounted an exhibition about deception last year). And he did not take any relics of the Titanic. "We made a promise not to take anything from the ship and the agreement was respected," he told CBS.

That does not mean that nobody else did. Several groups looted the ship that Ballard considers a cemetery. In 2016, Premier Exhibitions, which had acquired more than 5500 artifacts recovered from the Titanic, filed for bankruptcy. Now these relics could pass into the hands of museums in England and Northern Ireland with the help of James Cameron and National Geographic.

107 years later, the history of the Titanic has not ceased to fascinate us. The steamboat that pushed the limits of technology left us stories of heroism and survival, but also a moral about the risks of ambition. The last survivor of the shipwreck died long ago and the remains of the ship are disappearing at the mercy of bacteria and the corrosion of the sea but there are still stories to tell about one of our greatest naval disasters. Unless they continue to be a secret of war in some file.