WASHINGTON–Nearly 20 years after making the world’s most famous underwater discovery, acclaimed oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Robert D. Ballard returned to the Titanic in May/June 2004 to record the most dramatic images of the wreck yet seen — and to document evidence of plunder, damage and natural decay that imperil the legendary ship.
Ballard describes his latest Titanic expedition and his findings on the ship’s deteriorating state in a new book from National Geographic, RETURN TO TITANIC: A New Look at the World’s Most Famous Lost Ship (National Geographic Books, ISBN 0-7922-7288-9, November 2004, $30), written with Michael Sweeney. Ballard also shares his vision that the Titanic be turned into a museum one day, accessible not by underwater visitors and salvagers but through telepresence, allowing anyone with a computer to tour the ship in real time.
“The two main camps that argue about Titanic’s future seem to divide between the ‘Rest in Peace’ and the ‘Wrest a Piece’ contingents,” writes Ballard, as he calls for an internationally recognized protocol for preserving and exploring the wreck. “As deep-sea technology becomes more widespread, the risk to Titanic and other precious shipwrecks grows ever greater. Damaged and picked over, Titanic is less of a ship now than two decades ago.” Arguing that the Titanic and other great wrecks should be preserved as historic sites, he asserts, “The deep sea is the earth’s biggest museum, yet there is no lock on the door.”
About 6,000 artifacts have been removed from the Titanic and its debris field since Ballard discovered the ship 13,000 feet below the surface of the North Atlantic in 1985. During the 2004 expedition Ballard and his team used a remotely operated vehicle to take thousands of digital images to create a detailed photomosaic of the ship, which will be compared against a mosaic of images taken during the 1985 expedition in order to chart two decades of change in the condition of the wreck. Both mosaics appear in the book.
The 2004 expedition team noted many impact marks where submersibles have bumped or landed on the ship. Titanic’s promenade deck has noticeably deteriorated since 1985. The ship’s mast has been stripped of its bell and its brass light is missing. There is a recent gash on the bow section, near where the name Titanic used to be. Part of the brass telemotor, which once held the ship’s wooden wheel, is twisted, and a hole yawns under the bolts of its base, as if someone had yanked it.
Ballard did not see as much biological decay as he had expected, although nature has taken a certain toll. Much of the ship is covered with “icicles” of rust. Scientists estimate that these “rusticles,” as Ballard calls them, leech several hundred pounds of iron from the ship every day.
In addition to documenting the threats facing the Titanic, the book chronicles the history of the ship, recalling in graphic detail the night of April 14, 1912, when tons of icy water inundated the huge vessel and dragged it and 1,523 souls to a deep-sea grave. Ballard explores the natural events and human misjudgments that led to the catastrophe, the drama that contributes to the myth surrounding the ship, and the people who make Titanic’s story live on, from Capt. E.J. Smith, who perished with the ship he ardently proclaimed safe, to a retired London justice of the peace, who recalled playing with a teddy bear on Titanic’s decks — then pulling away in a lifeboat, leaving her father on board the sinking vessel.
Ballard also tells of early attempts to find the Titanic, including a 1953 mission using echolocation, a precursor to the sonar imaging of today, and he describes the sophisticated exploration equipment and vehicles used to carry out the 2004 expedition.
With more than 125 vivid photographs — both period pictures and the latest underwater images made with new, high-tech cameras — maps, diagrams and sidebars, RETURN TO TITANIC is a must-have book for the millions of individuals fascinated by the world’s most infamous maritime tragedy.
Ballard will present two lectures on the 2004 Titanic mission at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 30 at 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., as part of the National Geographic Live! program of speakers, films and performances. He has written an article on this year’s expedition for the December 2004 issue of National Geographic magazine. National Geographic Channel will air a new, hour-long special on the Titanic expedition, “Titanic Untold,” on Thursday, Dec. 16, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
Ballard is director of the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, president of the Institute for Exploration and the author of several books, including “The Discovery of the Titanic,” “Collision with History: The Search for John F. Kennedy’s PT109,” “Mystery of the Ancient Seafarers” and “The Discovery of the Bismarck.” He lives in Mystic, Conn.
Michael Sweeney is a professor of journalism at Utah State University. He is co-author of “On the Move: Transportation and the American Story” and author of “From the Front” and “Secrets of Victory,” a 2002 “choice” academic title. He lives in Logan, Utah.