Ballard Discovers the Lost Ship

After numerous failed searches, the wreckage of the Titanic was discovered, on September 1, 1985, using a submersible and advanced radar technology. The event marked a milestone in deep-water recovery and a major achievement for deep-sea science and exploration.

Summary of Event

On April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic sank on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City after striking an iceberg. More than 1,500 people died that night and only 705 survived. The largest and most luxurious ocean liner in the world at the time, the Titanic was supposed to be “unsinkable,” with a double hull and sixteen watertight compartments to withstand the gales and icebergs of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Scientists and treasure hunters searched for years, unable to locate the shipwreck in the freezing black waters at thirteen thousand feet beneath the ocean surface. Titanic (ship)
Disasters;sinking vessels
Deep-sea exploration[Deep sea exploration]
[kw]Ballard Discovers the Lost Ship Titanic (Sept. 1, 1985)
[kw]Discovers the Lost Ship Titanic, Ballard (Sept. 1, 1985)
[kw]Ship Titanic, Ballard Discovers the Lost (Sept. 1, 1985)
[kw]Titanic, Ballard Discovers the Lost Ship (Sept. 1, 1985)
Titanic (ship)
Disasters;sinking vessels
Deep-sea exploration[Deep sea exploration]
[g]North America;Sept. 1, 1985: Ballard Discovers the Lost Ship Titanic[05790]
[g]United States;Sept. 1, 1985: Ballard Discovers the Lost Ship Titanic[05790]
[c]Archaeology;Sept. 1, 1985: Ballard Discovers the Lost Ship Titanic[05790]
[c]Science and technology;Sept. 1, 1985: Ballard Discovers the Lost Ship Titanic[05790]
Ballard, Robert D.
Michel, Jean-Louis
Grimm, Jack
Ryan, William

The shipwreck instantly captured the public’s interest, resulting in hundreds of books and several movies. No one was sure exactly where the ship had sunk because the survivors were rescued about eight miles east of the last radioed location. There was also a question as to why the Titanic sank in less than three hours. As early as 1914, proposals to salvage the ship were hampered by a lack of both financial support and the necessary technology to locate the wreck.

The first serious search for the shipwreck was launched in 1953 but failed to locate the Titanic. In the summer of 1980, Jack Grimm launched the next serious search for the wreck. Grimm, a wealthy Texan oilman, had the money to fund the expedition and used state-of-the-art scientific equipment and highly qualified scientists. He hired geologist William Ryan, of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory in Palisades, New York. Ryan relied on sometimes conflicting data to compute the Titanic’s probable location based on historical documentation. Ryan was developing advanced undersea mapping technology and large-area mapping sonar, the latter of which he was able to test while searching for the wreck. He was able to identify a 600-square-mile target area and, after using sonar readouts, selected fourteen potential sites.

On the second search, in July, 1981, Grimm chartered a U.S. Navy ship, and his team searched target area thirteen using the best oceanographic equipment available at the time. Cameras dropped at the site showed an object Grimm identified as the Titanic’s propeller, a claim that was later dismissed for lack of evidence. After writing a book about his search, Grimm undertook a third expedition with Ryan in 1983, which had to be abandoned because of gale-force winds.

Robert Ballard had been interested in locating the wreck of the Titanic for many years, while integrating new technology to develop deep-sea submersibles that could be remotely controlled. In 1982, he was working at the Deep Submergence Laboratory of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts when he sought and received funding from the Navy. Ballard developed Argo, Argo (submersible) a submersible robot vehicle about the size of an automobile that could be towed by a ship, descend to depths of up to 20,000 feet, transmit real-time images, and stay underwater for weeks at a time. The Navy was interested in the technology to find lost submarines, investigate enemy sonar arrays, and find sites for undersea missiles.

By the summer of 1985, Ballard had arranged a joint venture with the French Institute for Research and Exploitation of the Sea to find the Titanic. At the time, the French were recognized for their highly successful undersea exploration technology and techniques. Ballard’s friend Jean-Louis Michel was aboard the French vessel Le Suroit, which was in the search area testing the new sonar vehicle system called SAR, which Michel designed and built. SAR was towed over the ocean’s floor and took and transmitted excellent pictures with sound waves.

The French remained in the search area for about six weeks and left on August 6. Michel joined Ballard and his team aboard the research vessel Knorr and continued the search using the American video and sonar imaging systems. The French had to contend with rough seas and managed to cover about 70 percent of a 100-square-mile search area. They missed finding the shipwreck by only about 300 yards.

Robert D. Ballard discusses his upcoming trip to the site of the Titanic in 1986. Behind him is Alvin, a three-person submersible.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In the early morning of September 1, 1985, Michel and two other team members, Bob Lange and Stu Harris, were watching instruments and guiding Argo, which was using sonar and photographic equipment to send pictures of underwater sand dunes. After more than three weeks spent scanning the seabed twenty-four hours a day, they were discouraged. The calm weather was ending and they had almost finished searching the designated area. Just before 1:00 a.m., the team saw a large circular shape on the monitor, which was identified as one of the twenty-nine boilers originally aboard the Titanic. Ballard was called back to the control room and saw the debris field from the wreck. The Titanic appeared to be well preserved, with debris spread over 800 feet. The stern was broken apart and surrounded by unbroken plates, wine bottles, and other materials, but there were no human remains. Increasingly bad weather forced the end of the expedition, but not before amazing pictures were produced that sparked even greater worldwide interest in the wreck.

Ballard returned to the site in 1986 aboard the Atlantis II. With two team members, Ballard descended to the wreck in Alvin, Alvin (submersible) a three-person submersible, and used a small self-propelled camera robot to capture incredible still pictures and video footage. The most startling discovery was that the wreck was in two pieces, with the bow intact and the stern badly smashed. Most experts had believed that the ship had gone down in one piece, even though several survivors had testified to seeing it break. Also, the pictures revealed that there was not a 300-foot continuous gash in the side; rather, a series of bumps and scraping had bent plates and opened seams. Although oceanographers and marine archaeologists had believed that the ship would be very well preserved because of the extreme cold and pressure, the Titanic was in an area where there was more oxygen and salinity than normal for the depth, so there was a great amount of decay.

After the location of the Titanic was revealed, the wreckage was visited numerous times. During these subsequent visits, damage was caused to the ship; more than six thousand artifacts were removed between 1987 and 2000. In 1998, an eighteen-ton piece of deck and cabins, which lay away from the main part of the wreck, was brought up and displayed in Tampa, Florida. Illegal salvagers, as well as researchers and curious visitors, caused significant damage to the ship and hindered other research efforts.


Ballard’s work demonstrated the advances in, and value of, deep-sea exploration and showed the effectiveness of both acoustic and visual imaging for searching for sunken shipwrecks. The second expedition to the Titanic, in 1986, marked the first time that a remotely operated vehicle was used in a deep-sea mission. Additionally, the knowledge gained from studying the ship helped form a strategy for future expeditions to other shipwrecks and for the management of shipwreck preservation. The question of who has the authority to salvage, or explore and protect, the more than one million shipwrecks in international waters, and the issue of the development of laws governing shipwrecks, have received much more attention since the discovery and subsequent activities at the Titanic site.

Public excitement about the discovery of the Titanic helped to fund scientific activity in deep-sea exploration and to raise awareness about the need to protect and preserve shipwrecks. There also remained emotional issues regarding the Titanic. Many people believe that, since the hull is a tomb for hundreds of people, the wreckage should be left undisturbed. Others believe that the best way to preserve the wreck is to retrieve the artifacts and make them available for public viewing. The Titanic shipwreck represents a preserved moment in history, and many scientists believe that retrieving the artifacts is not worth the cost of salvage or the potential damage to the wreck. Titanic (ship)
Disasters;sinking vessels
Deep-sea exploration[Deep sea exploration]

Further Reading

  • Ballard, Robert D. The Discovery of the Titanic. Toronto: Madison Press Books, 1987. A first-person account of Ballard’s research and expeditions. Includes photographs, glossary, index, and chronology.
  • _______. Return to Titanic: A New Look at the World’s Most Famous Lost Ship. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2004. Covers the history of the disaster, early attempts to find the wreck, and changes since the original discovery. Numerous color photographs, and an index.
  • Butler, Daniel Allen. “Unsinkable”: The Full Story of the RMS Titanic. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1998. History of the Titanic, from construction through the rediscovery and salvage efforts. Includes appendixes, glossary, and index.
  • Hill, Christine M. Robert Ballard: Oceanographer Who Discovered the Titanic. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 1999. Biography of Ballard, discussing his major achievements. Includes photographs, chronology, and index.
  • Holden, Constance. “Americans and French Find the Titanic.” Science 229 (September 27, 1985): 1368-1369. Brief article about the discovery and the French and American contributions.
  • Murphy, Joy Waldron. “The Search for the Titanic Is Over, but Now a Rush for the ’Gold’ Has Begun.” Smithsonian 17 (August, 1986): 56. Lengthy article about the efforts of various individuals following the discovery of the wreck. Includes photographs.

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