It’s September 1, 1985. For a week, researchers led by oceanographer Robert Ballard have been scouring the seabed, at a depth of some 12,000 feet, using the camera of the remotely controlled submarine craft Argo. Yet the team are beginning to lose hope of finding their target – the wreck of RMS Titanic. Then, however, early in the morning, the scientists start to see traces of debris. And suddenly, they know that they’re close.
We’ll shortly return to the momentous discovery that was made by Ballard’s team – and there’s a truly astonishing revelation to come about the truth behind their mission as well. First, though, let’s delve into the fascinating but tragic story of the RMS Titanic itself.
The building of the Titanic began in March 1909 when work commenced on its keel at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast. The ship had been commissioned by the White Star Line – a major player in the heyday of the passenger liner business. And indeed, one of the vessel’s designers, Thomas Andrews, was among those who tragically perished when the ship famously sank.
The Titanic cost the equivalent of about $193 million in today’s money to build and was completed in April 1912. Some 3,000 men had worked on the project, using around three million rivets in the gigantic ocean liner’s construction. Eight shipyard workers had met their ends during the building of the vessel, too.
Then on April 10, 1912, the Titanic – by now berthed at the English port of Southampton – embarked upon its maiden voyage. The ship’s first brief port of call was Cherbourg in France, and this was followed by a second short stop, at the Irish port of Queenstown – today known as Cobh.
After that final docking in Ireland, the ship had an approximate total of 2,224 crew and passengers on board. The Titanic then headed off into the open Atlantic Ocean on a course for its final destination: New York City. But as we know, it would never arrive there.
A short time before midnight on April 14, 1912 – fewer than five days after it had set off from Southampton – the Titanic hit a massive iceberg. The ship was far out to sea, nearly 400 miles from the coast of Newfoundland. And the collision dented the hull, allowing water to flood between the buckled steel plates into five of the vessel’s watertight compartments.
Since the Titanic had been designed to survive up to four, rather than five, of its compartments being flooded, the vessel’s fate was now inevitable. The great ship’s bow started to dip into the icy Atlantic waters. And less than three hours after the collision with the iceberg, the vessel began to split in two. The ocean liner then sank entirely beneath the waves.
The Titanic had been equipped with only sufficient lifeboats for about 50 percent of the crew and passengers on board. What’s more, the loading of the lifeboats was a chaotic affair, with undertrained officers unsure of what they were doing. The resulting death toll? In excess of 1,500 – with men, women and children dying from drowning or exposure to the freezing water.
Another passenger liner, the RMS Carpathia was first on the scene, arriving a little less than two hours after the Titanic had sunk. Mercifully, the liner’s crew managed to rescue around 705 survivors of the terrible calamity. And the Carpathia then sailed to New York, where it was met by a crowd of 40,000 who were anxious to learn news of the disaster.
The U.S. Senate subsequently set up an inquiry to investigate the catastrophe; the British Board of Trade held its own investigation, too. And the two probes came to more or less identical conclusions. There had been too few lifeboats; Captain Smith should have paid more attention to iceberg warnings; and the ship had been steaming at too great a velocity for the conditions. Yet nothing would bring back the 1,500 dead.
Soon after the disaster, people also came forward with plans to recover the sunken ship. Several wealthy families – the Astors and the Guggenheims, to name two – had lost people in the tragedy and were therefore prepared to fund such an attempt. But the shipwreck was far too deep underwater for the diving technology of the day, and the scheme came to nothing.
In any case, no one knew exactly where the shipwreck was located. As the years went by, then, various hare-brained schemes were proposed – and inevitably abandoned. The craziest proposals seem mostly to have been dreamt up in the 1970s. One idea was to pour 180,000 tons of Vaseline into the wreck, which would purportedly float it to the surface. Another plan was to fill the hull with table tennis balls to achieve the same goal.
Needless to say, neither of these bizarre schemes nor others like them came to fruition. And still nobody was in a position to pinpoint the site of the ship in its watery grave, more than 12,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. That was the key point. Any plan to salvage the Titanic would be pointless unless its location in the Atlantic depths were discovered first.
Then in 1977 Robert Ballard – a former U.S. Navy officer who was working with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – decided to try and locate the famous wreck. Ballard needed backers for this enterprise, however. And the first group that he approached wanted to turn parts of the wrecked ship into commercial merchandising. This was not to Ballard’s taste.
Ballard found less rapacious backers, though, and in October 1977 he set sail on the Seaprobe. This was a salvage ship owned by the Alcoa Corporation and equipped for deep ocean work. The vessel had a set-up involving a camera fixed to the end of a drill pipe. Unfortunately, however, the pipe fractured, sending more than $500,000 worth of specialist equipment to the bottom of the ocean. The mission was therefore aborted.
The next serious attempt to pinpoint the wreck’s location came in 1980. A Texas oilman called Jack Grimm had the sensible idea of searching for the site by using sonar. To this end, he gifted $330,000 to the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory. And officials there in turn bought sonar equipment with the cash and agreed that Grimm would be able to use it for five years.
Yet although Grimm’s idea of searching using sonar was rational, the description did not necessarily apply to the man himself. Splendidly eccentric might have been nearer the mark. Previous projects that Grimm had pursued included hunting for the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and Noah’s Ark. He had not found any of them, mind you. Perhaps, then, he would have better luck with the Titanic.
But perhaps not – since one of Grimm’s methods of locating the wreck was to use his pet monkey, named Titan. The oilman claimed that the monkey could indicate a point on a map where the wreck would be. And by all accounts, the scientists hired to work with Grimm – Dr. William B. Ryan of Columbia University and Dr. Fred Spiess of Scripps Institution of Oceanography – did not see the funny side.
According to Ballard in his later book The Discovery of the Titanic, the scientists told Grimm that he would have to choose: it was them or the monkey. And so apparently, with some reluctance, Grimm agreed to get rid of the primate. The team then set sail on a research ship called the H.J.W. Fay.
The crew subsequently spent three weeks surveying an area of the Atlantic 500 square nautical miles in extent. But the sonar equipment that they used only worked at low resolutions, and they made no definite discovery. The researchers did, however, identify 14 features worthy of further examination.
The team then returned the following year, in 1981, this time aboard a boat called the Gyre. On this occasion, they came equipped with a superior sonar machine, too: the Scripps Deep Tow. But the researchers’ investigation of the 14 objects of interest showed that none of them were connected with the Titanic.
On the final day of the expedition, the team did, however, discover something that might just have been a propeller. And indeed, once the Gyre got back to Boston, Grimm claimed to the media that – on the strength of the possible propeller – he’d found the Titanic. The expedition scientists refused to back him up, though.
Still, undeterred, Grimm returned again, in 1983, this time aboard the ship Robert D. Conrad. The oilman was keen to take a closer examination of the supposed propeller. However, nothing was found on this trip, and it had to be curtailed because of rough seas. It later emerged, though, that the sonar had crossed over the Titanic’s remains but had failed to register them.
At this point, then, Grimm’s efforts to find the wreck of the Titanic came to an end. And yet despite his own previous failure, Robert Ballard had not lost his appetite for the hunt. So it was that in 1985 he returned to the fray with far more technologically advanced equipment – in the shape of the Argo and Jason.
The Argo was an underwater vessel that could operate in the deep ocean while being controlled remotely from the surface. And attached to the Argo was Jason – a sophisticated robot capable of moving across the ocean bed, taking photographs and collecting samples. The images would then be inspected by personnel on board a ship on the surface – in this case the Knorr.
The U.S. Navy even agreed to sponsor the equipment. But the Navy wasn’t, it’s worth noting, particularly interested in finding the Titanic. No, it had its own uses for this highly specialized equipment. We’ll learn more about the Navy’s actual motivation a little later. But back in 1985, Ballard now had some of the best technology available to help in his search for the famous wreck.
It was also in 1985 that Ballard and his team finally and conclusively discovered the wreck of the Titanic more than 12,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic. To do so, Ballard had called in help from France’s national oceanographic organization. The institute possessed, you see, an especially high-definition side-scan sonar. And so Le Suroît, a French research ship equipped with the technology, joined the expedition.
Over a period of five weeks, Le Suroît methodically scanned the 150-square-mile area where the wreckage of the Titanic was thought to be located. Unfortunately, though, the sonar drew a blank – although it later emerged that the boat’s very first scanning run had come within just a few hundred yards of the wreck.
Ballard, meanwhile, switched tactics. He decided that the best way to find the sunken ship was to look for the trail of debris that it had left rather than for the hull itself. And to do this, he would deploy Argo with its camera. After all, although sonar could not tell natural objects apart from ship debris, using Argo’s camera as a remote “eye,” a human could.
Ballard also believed that the stretch of debris that the Titanic would have left would be in the order of at least a mile long – and perhaps more. This would therefore provide something much larger to search for than just the main body of the sunken ship.
Still, this search with human eyes was no trivial task. For one thing, it required the team to spend 24 hours a day monitoring the pictures that were brought back to the surface. But on September 1, 1985, after a week of personnel peering at the monitors, fragments of debris began to become visible. Then, what looked like a boiler, just the same as one of the Titanic’s, came into view.
The very next day, 73 years after the unfortunate ship had sunk, the team found its holy grail: the wreck of the Titanic. The news of the find subsequently sped around the world and caused a sensation. But what hardly anybody knew at the time was that Ballard’s principal mission had not actually been the search for the shipwreck.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2008 – 13 years after the discovery of the wreck – that the true purpose of Ballard’s Atlantic expedition was revealed. As indicated earlier, the U.S. Navy had negligible interest in spending large amounts of money on finding the Titanic. Yet there were other vessels lying at the bottom of this section of the Atlantic Ocean that the Navy was, on the other hand, extremely concerned about.
In the 1960s two U.S. nuclear submarines had sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic not all that far from where the Titanic had met its tragic end. In April 1963 the submarine USS Thresher sank with all 129 on board – and it remains the worst submarine disaster ever in terms of loss of life.
Then in May 1968 another nuclear sub, USS Scorpion, disappeared along with all 99 hands on board. A research vessel located parts of Scorpion’s hull five months later. Yet an inquiry could not determine the reason behind the submarine’s loss. The wreckage of Thresher, meanwhile, was discovered not long after the sub had been lost, with the cause of the sinking believed to have been weak pipe joints.
Two decades later, the Navy was, in any case, still anxious to find out more about the sinking of the two submarines. For one thing, there was understandable anxiety about the environmental impact of the nuclear reactors aboard the two vessels. And then there was the suspicion that the Soviets might have had a hand in the demise of the subs. As it turned out, though, Ballard’s team found no evidence of either environmental harm or Soviet involvement.
The deal that the Navy had made with Ballard was that it would pay for four expeditions over four years using the Argo/Jason equipment. Each expedition would be slated to last one month. And if there were spare time at the end of an individual mission, Ballard would be free to use the equipment to search for the Titanic.
In fact, when Ballard found the Titanic in 1985, it was on the second of the four missions that he was slated to undertake for the Navy – with the first assignment having happened the year before. On that 1985 mission, Ballard had actually only been allowed 12 days to hunt for the lost liner. And yet thanks to his previous work on locating the wrecks of the two submarines, he’d already learned his fruitful technique of searching for a debris trail instead of the whole vessel.
The Navy, meanwhile, had been very keen to conceal the fact that it was surveying for the wrecks of two nuclear submarines. After all, in 1985 the Cold War was still very much part of the political landscape – so sunken nuclear subs were a highly sensitive subject. But what better cover for its wider mission could the Navy have found than the hunt for the Titanic – even if it was ultimately successful?