In a career that’s spanned more than 60 years, Robert Ballard has conducted over 150 underwater expeditions and made countless significant scientific discoveries.
But the renowned oceanographer says he’s made peace with the fact that he will probably always be known as “the man who found Titanic.”
According to Ballard, his mother predicted he’d never be able to escape that “rusty old boat” when he called to tell her he’d located the famous shipwreck in 1985.
In his upcoming memoir, “Into The Deep,” Ballard recalls walking into the premiere of the 1997 movie “Titanic” with the film’s director James Cameron, who turned to him and said: “You go first. You found it.”
“Moms are always right,” he tells CNN Travel. “I’m sure my obituary is written ‘man who found the Titanic died today.’
“In many ways it’s sort of freed me up to dream other dreams. So I feel emancipated in many ways.”
And those “other dreams” are still evolving after decades of exploring the deep sea.
“When kids ask me ‘what’s your greatest discovery,’ I always tell them ‘it’s the one that I’m about to make,” he says.
Although Ballard accepts he’s unlikely to add another 100 expeditions to his tally, he plans to “keep knocking off a few” while he’s still able to.
Childhood dream realized
He delves into his astonishing career in the memoir released later this month, and also opens up about some of the most defining moments in his personal life, including the tragic death of his son.
“I turn 79 in June. This was just the perfect time [to tell my story,]” he says of the book, which was written with the help of New York Times investigative journalist Christopher Drew.
“And we had the pandemic, I wasn’t going to sea. I had a lot of time on my hands.”
Ballard’s fascination with the ocean began at an early age. By the time he was 12, he’d decided he wanted to be Captain Nemo from Jules Verne’s classic science fiction novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” when he grew up.
“That was the seminal moment when I decided I wanted to be not only an oceanographer, but a naval officer,” he says.
“Something which I’ve never really talked about a lot is that I’m dyslexic, and that I learn differently. I didn’t read ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,’ I watched the movie produced by Disney.”
Ballard went on to gain degrees in both chemistry and geology and a Master’s in geophysics from the University of Hawaii.
After being called for military action in 1965, he transferred to the US Navy and assigned to the Deep Submergence Group at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where he helped to develop Alvin, a three-person submersible with a mechanical arm.
He spent much of the seventies exploring the ocean in Alvin, reaching 2,750 meters to explore the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, as well as joining an expedition that uncovered thermal vents in the Galapagos Rift.
By now he was ready to take on the huge task of trying to locate the British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on 15 April 1912.
Although Ballard admits he was never a “Titanic fanatic,” he became fixated on finding the wreck after witnessing several unsuccessful attempts by other explorers.
“Titanic was clearly the big Mount Everest at the time,” he explains. “So many others had tried. Many that I thought would have succeeded, or should have succeeded but didn’t.”
He made his first attempt to locate the ship in October 1977, using deep sea salvage vessel Seaprobe, a drillship with sonar equipment and cameras attached to the end of the drilling pipe.
However, Ballard was forced to admit defeat when the drilling pipe broke.
Once he returned from the expedition, he began developing robots that could roam the ocean floor gathering images and information.
“The Titanic was actually the first time we introduced this kind of technology,” he explains. “In all of the expeditions leading up to it, I physically got into submarines.
“To get there [the deepest depth of the ocean] took two and half hours. So that’s a five hour commute. I once went down 20,000 feet, which took me six hours and almost got me killed.”
Once Ballard was confident with the robotic submersible technology, he knew he’d be able to return to the site and survey the ocean floor for several hours and hours without ever having to get into a sub.
But there was the small matter of raising the funding required to support such a costly and significant expedition.
Only in recent years has Ballard been able to be completely honest about the now-declassified events that led to his discovery of the infamous wreck.
The expedition was part of a secret US military mission to recover two wrecked nuclear submarines, the Thresher and Scorpion, which had sunk to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean.
Before agreeing to the mission, which was signed off by then US President Ronald Reagan, he asked if he could search for Titanic when he’d completed the top secret task.
While he was never explicitly given permission to look for the infamous wreck, Ballard says he was told he could pretty much do what he wanted once he’d found the nuclear submarines.
“I must say, it was hard for me because I couldn’t tell the truth for many, many, many years about who really paid for this,” he admits.
“It was a top secret mission I was on in the height of the Cold War. We were duking it out with the Soviet Union and this [the Titanic search] was a cover.”
After completing the assignment with 12 days to spare, Ballard and his team set out in search for Titanic on Argo, a deep-sea vehicle with a remote-controlled camera that transmitted live images from the bottom of the sea to a control room on Knorr, the towing research vessel they were on board.
On September 1, 1985, they realized they’d located debris from the sunken ship that hit an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland during its maiden voyage.
While he initially celebrated the discovery, the enormity of the tragedy, which brought about the deaths of over 1,500 people, quickly overwhelmed Ballard and everyone onboard Knorr.
“Around 2 a.m., someone remarked that we were approaching the time of night when Titanic had sunk into a sea as calm as the one we had now,” he writes in “Into the Deep.”
“It wasn’t until this point that the emotion of the tragedy fully hit me. I know this sounds odd, but it was quite unexpected.
“I had never been a Titanic groupie. Sure, I’d wanted to find it, and I’d been very competitive about that.
“But a world tragedy had played itself out on this spot, and now the site itself took hold of me. Its emotion filled me and never let go.”
He goes on to describe his horror at the “Titanic mania” that ensued when the location of the wreck was made public and “investors saw dollar signs.”
“Without realizing it, we had opened all this up when we’d found the wreck, and it had turned into an ugly carnival, an affront to the fate of Titanic and all those who lost their lives in her final hours,” he writes.
Underwater museum plans
In the years after he found the ship, Ballard met several of the survivors, many of whom were just babies when it sank, and says he feels honored to be “part of that history.”
While he believes the site should be left alone, he understands why people are so desperate to see it.
It’s for this reason that he plans to set up underwater museums for both Titanic and its sister ship Britannic, which sank in the Aegean Sea in 1916, to allow visitors to travel to both wrecks electronically.
“We have the technology that makes it possible for you to literally hook yourself up to the Titanic,” he explains.
“So I’m very confident that within a decade we’ll be able to do it. Because it’s not going anywhere.
“They say it’s falling apart. But it really isn’t. It’s being loved to death by visitors more than mother nature is attacking it.”
After Titanic, Ballard went on to discover the remains of John F. Kennedy’s World War II patrol boat, the German battleship Bismarck, and a number of ancient ships in the Black Sea.
But he says he’s barely scratched the surface when it comes to all the sunken shipwrecks out there.
“If you really add it up, I’ve found maybe 100 [shipwrecks,] which is more than anybody,” he admits. “But the United Nations says they’re over three million shipwrecks in the ocean.”
Searching for Amelia
In 2019, Ballard led an expedition on a mission to solve the mystery of the disappearance of aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan in 1937.
He and his team, which now includes his daughter Emily, spent two weeks searching for the wreckage of the Lockheed Electra around Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island that forms part of the Micronesian nation of Kiribati.
While they were unable to unearth any sign of the plane, Ballard says he hasn’t given up, pointing out that he didn’t find the Titanic on his first attempt.
“National Geographic is sponsoring me to go at it [finding the wreckage] again next year,” he says.
“So stay tuned on that one. She’s there. It’s not like I’m looking for the Loch Ness monster, although I did do that.”
But Ballard admits that the vastness of Nikumaroro “presents a host of problems.”
“I’m waiting for newer technologies, a brighter day, a calmer sea,” he adds. “It might not be me who finds Amelia. It might be Emily [his daughter] or someone else in a coming generation.
“Or maybe Amelia will never be found, yet all we learned searching for her will lead to some other discovery.”
While his list of career achievements, which include helping to confirm the concept of plate tectonics, is pretty extraordinary, Ballard considers discovering hydrothermal vent ecosystems and ultimately redefining our understanding of the origin of life to be the most significant.
“That was clearly a seminal discovery,” he notes.
The next generation
Although he’s always looking for the “next door to open,” these days the 78-year-old is putting his energies into mentoring the next generation of explorers, and regularly gives talks on ocean exploration to schools.
“I love children,” he explains. “I can remember when I came home from finding the Titanic, I received 16,000 letters from children all around the world saying ‘Next time you go, can I go with you?’
“I tell the next generation, they will explore more of the Earth than all previous generations combined.
“So the age of exploration is just getting started with this technology. I’m sort of envious, because I’d love to live another 100 years. But I don’t think I’ll make it.”
However, he’s more than satisfied with his contributions and says he’s proud to have laid the foundations for upcoming ocean explorers to take on even bigger challenges.
“I was raised on sayings, and my favorite one from my grandmother was ‘great is the person who sits in a tree knowing they will never sit in its shade.’” he says.
“And that’s what I’m trying to do with the next generation of explorers. I will not sit in the shade of their trees.”
While he may be taking more of a backseat, Ballard is still very much in the thick of the action.
Over a decade ago, he made a decision to get his own ship after “using over people’s for many, many years” and now finally has the equipment and technology installed the way he originally envisioned.
“We call it the ‘corps of exploration’ and that team now is really in place,” he explains.
“I will be going to sea. The ship is in dry dock right now. I’m having an entire back end extended because I have a whole host of new toys I want to play with.”
Ballard’s 64-meter research ship is named Nautilus after Captain Nemo’s underwater vessel in the classic story that inspired him to “dream big.”
He and his team of explorers often livestream their encounters as they conduct scientific exploration of the seafloor with underwater vehicles.
“That’s my Nautilus right there,” he says, pointing to a satellite image of the ship behind him. “And it’s waiting for me.”
“You have to dream big to make a difference in this life, and I intend to keep on dreaming. A world of discovery still awaits.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Robert Ballard’s daughter.
•“Into the Deep: A Memoir from the Man Who Found Titanic” is released on May 11. National Geographic will premiere the one-hour documentary “Bob Ballard: An Explorer’s Life” on June 14.