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How was the wreck of the Titanic discovered?


Over three decades ago the wreckage of the RMS Titanic, the former pride of the White Star fleet, was discovered – or, perhaps, re-discovered – two and a half miles below the surface of the Atlantic by the joint French-American expedition led by Dr. Robert D. Ballard, then the head of the Deep Submergence Laboratory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Massachusetts, USA) and Dr. Jean-Louis Michel, director of engineering and technology for IFREMER (French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea, Toulon, France). The ‘official’ part of the story is very well known and is widely described in literature and the media around the world. But was there something more to this well-known and oft-repeated story?

The discovery of the wreck of ill-fated Titanic on 1 September 1985 ascended Robert Ballard, already one of the world's leading marine geologists (at the time), to the Olympian glory and truly made him the international ‘star scientist’. However, as he himself admitted straight after the sensational finding, it was a joint achievement with the French: “We discovered the ship together”, Ballard said to Michel.[1] “Our agreement was with Ballard directly, not with Woods Hole”, recalled Michel in a phone interview in 1986. “It was started in late ’83, and went in several steps. We had to determine the feasibility of the whole thing. IFREMER decided to do a historical study, a computer study, an operational study, and a weather study. … In 1984 we told Ballard we were ready.”[2] 

The American team’s leader, who was also a Commander in the US Navy, was under strict instructions not to disclose anything related to the true background of the discovery expedition, for in fact the broken hull of Titanic was found as a mere side result of a classified (at the time) Cold War navy operation aimed at investigating the wreckage of the two US nuclear submarines, the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. Ballard was told by N. Ronald Thunman, then the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Submarine Warfare, that the prime focus of the mission was to study the remains of these submarines, both lost in the Atlantic ocean in the 1960s; once this part of the secret operation is successfully completed, if time was left, Ballard was free to do what he wanted (i.e. searching for the wreck of Titanic, the ‘Mt Everest’ of his world), using his cutting-edge underwater equipment developed at the WHOI’s Deep Submergence Laboratory on the funds granted by the Office of Naval Research. It is worth noting that, strictly speaking, he was never given explicit permission to look for Titanic. The quest for Titanic was used by the US Navy as a cover-up story to mislead the Soviets (who should not have known the location of the wrecked submarines).

It was already the fifty-seventh day of the sixty-day expedition, past midnight on Sunday, 1 September, a day celebrated as the National Day of Knowledge in the USSR/Russia. The expedition members aboard the US Navy-owned, WHOI-operated research vessel Knorr were nearing the north-western corner of their search area, scouring the Moon-like desert ocean floor with the deep-towed sonar and video camera system Argo. At 12:48 a.m. some strange ghostly shadows started to appear on the twenty flickering screens, transmitted from the ocean bottom by Argo: bronze porthole frames, twisted railings, chunks of shell plates and other “very angular bits of something” – unidentifiable, but definitely man-made objects.

Ballard had just stepped out of the control room when these first traces of Titanic were spotted. So it was Stewart Harris, Argo’s chief designer, William Lange, a young member of WHOI’s Graphic Services Department, and Jean-Louis Michel, the chief French scientist, who saw all this for the first time in 73 years. Suddenly a massive metal object appeared on the robot’s live video feed from 3,786m below the surface of the ocean: a vertically standing cylinder, thickly riveted and with three round hatch-like openings on its top. “They said you’d better go and get Bob and no one wanted to leave. So, finally, they got the cook to go and find me,” Ballard recalled later.[3]

This proved to be one of Titanic’s twenty-nine coal-fired boilers, single-ended of Scotch type, weighing 57 tons, with a distinct rivet pattern and three circular furnace doors; it sank and landed face up. To the north of the boiler ‘a really big target’ was soon detected with a surface-mounted echo sounder on Knorr, and at about 2 a.m. on the ship’s local time the main hull of the tragically famous liner was finally discovered on the southern tip of the Grand Banks, resting some 13 miles south-east from its reported distress position, approx. 350 miles south-east of the coast of Newfoundland, 715 miles east of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and due east of the institution at Woods Hole, at a depth of more than 12,000ft (3,795m).

Click to watch the moment of discovery

The discovery of Titanic – what the 11 August 1986 issue of Time magazine called “the most celebrated feat of underwater exploration” – changed Ballard’s life forever. None of his previous expeditions caused such a massive world response as this memorable seventieth voyage. “We had discovered plate tectonics and new life systems, but I didn’t receive one letter from a kid until I found a rusty old ship”; he then suddenly received an avalanche of 16,000 letters.[4]

It is rumoured, however, that in fact the wreck of Titanic could have been first found – and even photographed – much earlier than this (in the 1970s) and this information was at the disposal of Ballard prior to the 1985 search and discovery mission. This may very well be another long-classified mystery of the Titanic wreck exploration.

By Eugene Nesmeyanov

[1] ‘It’s a Carnival’: An Interview with Robert Ballard, Naval History Magazine. Vol. 10, No. 5, October 1996.

[2] Quoted from: Waldron, J. ‘Jean-Louis Michel Wants to Take French Technology to Titanic’, Underwater USA, October 1986. Courtesy of Joy Waldron.

[3] Quoted from: ‘Titanic’s Discoverers Welcomed’, The Reno Gazette-Journal. 10 September 1985.

[4] Dr Robert Ballard. University of Mount Union.

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