t was 1985 and the U.S. had arrested so many Soviet spies that news magazines were referring to it as the “Year of the Spy.” Mikhail Gorbachev was assuming the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party and Ronald Reagan had just been sworn in for his second term. The world was feeling the last frigid blasts of the Cold War and in the midst of it, undersea explorer and U.S. Navy officer Robert Ballard needed funding for his quixotic search to find the wreckage of the Titanic. What he received instead was a top secret mission for the U.S. Navy that used as its cover the search for the Titanic.

In 1963, the U.S.S. Thresher, at the time the fastest, deepest diving, quietest submarine ever built, mysteriously sank off the coast of Massachusetts taking 129 souls to the depths below. It was the worst submarine disaster in history and shook the U.S. Navy to its boots. The Thresher was powered by a nuclear reactor.

Then, in 1968, the U.S.S. Scorpion, also a nuclear class submarine, mysteriously sank off the Azores coastline with 99 crewmen aboard. Subsequent investigations have pointed to a faulty steam pipe that failed at such a deep depth that the Thresher was unable to survive. To this day there is controversy about why the Scorpion sank, ranging from a possible onboard explosion to a malfunctioning torpedo.

In 1985 the U.S. Navy wanted to take photographs and map the wreckage of both ships and determine if their nuclear reactors were leaking or in the case of the Scorpion, whether its nuclear tipped torpedoes were intact. At the same time, the U.S. was trying to figure out what to do with its aging nuclear submarines that needed to be retired under the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). Maybe dumping them in the ocean would work, but first, they needed to figure out what damage the two nuclear subs might have caused on the ocean floor.

This impetuous explorer and reserve naval officer named Bob Ballard might just be the person to find the answers. But he needed a cover because the Navy did not want the Soviets snooping with their ever present spy satellites.

In news articles and press releases, Ballard told the world he had been “loaned” a Navy ship, the Knorr, and was setting out to find the Titanic. Instead he extensively observed and photographed the two wreckage sites determining in both cases that both subs imploded as they sank below 2000 feet and left debris scattered across the ocean floor.

Upon completing the mission, the Navy gave Ballard 12 days to find the Titanic or turn in his “loaner” ship.

In an interview with Coastlines from his Rhode Island office, Ballard explained that the secret to finding the Titanic was what he discovered while searching for the two submarines. In the case of both submarines the Navy knew where the submarines had gone down but was not sure of their exact resting place. While searching for the debris, Ballard stumbled on a methodology that led him to the Titanic.

Numerous expeditions to find the Titanic had tried to pinpoint its place on the ocean floor based on its last known location. (As it turned out, the Titanic wreckage was more than 13 miles away from where it last reported its location.) Searchers had started at the last known location and worked outward, in a tight circle. Ballard learned from his Navy mission that a sinking ship will drop its heaviest pieces directly to the bottom of the ocean, but the rest of the ship and its contents will “blow” with ocean currents over a long stretch of the ocean floor.

The key to finding the Titanic was to go as far out as the location of the last rescued lifeboat (to calculate the prevailing current drift that night) and then criss cross the ocean floor in grid patterns looking for signs of debris. “The debris field is shaped like a comet’s tail,” Ballard explained. “You look for the debris trail and then work back to the ship.” The search was worse than looking for a needle in a haystack because the region was littered with the remains of U.S. freighters sunk by the Germans.

On Sept. 1, 1985 the undersea robot on the Knorr spotted debris, “junk” as described by Ballard. But as the robot worked its way up the debris field something large came into sight. It was a boiler. On the wall of the control room in the Knorr's ship was a picture of the Titanic’s boilers. They matched. The Titanic had been found.

A UC Santa Barbara Legacy

It is the ocean that has made Ballard famous and it is the ocean that brought him to UC Santa Barbara as a first year student in 1960.

As a high school student who was fascinated with Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo and his Nautilus and who wanted to be an ocean explorer, Ballard boldly wrote to the nearby Scripps Institute in San Diego and asked for a scholarship to do ocean research. He won the scholarship and it brought him in to the area off of Santa Barbara where he met UC Santa Barbara marine biologist Robert Norris. It was Norris who convinced Ballard he should come study marine biology at UCSB.

For Ballard, the campus was like a huge buffet of intellectual, social and personal delights. When he was done four and a half years later, “there was nothing left to taste,” Ballard admitted. In a special program for undergraduates Ballard double majored in chemistry and geology, and double minored in physics and math. He joined the SAE fraternity where he has friends to this day. He played frosh football and was elected junior class president. Oh, and he was a member of the ROTC that later led him to an Army intelligence unit and then to the Navy as an oceanographic officer and second lieutenant.

“Santa Barbara poured the mold of what is Bob Ballard,” he said recently. The education he received “made me a generalist. I have an interest in just about everything because of my education at UCSB.”

The Ballard Tombstone

Ballard is a little wistful when he talks about his legacy. The day he returned to land from his discovery of the Titanic his mother called him. She said she felt sorry for him. Why, he asked. “It’s too bad you found that ship. Your father and I are very proud of our two boys. But now they will only remember you for finding the Titanic.”

He admitted that the day after he dies, the headline will read, “The Man Who Found the Titanic Died.”

Maybe. But based on his journey so far, there may just be one more greater discovery for Ballard’s tombstone. Of course, as an explorer, he wouldn’t know what that is. That is what discovery is all about.

A Modern Captain Nemo

It is no accident that the name of Dr. Bob Ballard’s research vessel is Nautilus. When Ballard was 10 years old his favorite hero was Capt. Nemo of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Today Ballard is the modern day Capt. Nemo as comfortable below the ocean as above.
On the Nautilus is some of the most advanced ocean research equipment in the world. But what makes it unique is that it is wired for instant exploration and discovery that can be shared in real time with some of the world’s greatest scientists.
What Ballard has built is a virtual laboratory with two undersea vehicles that can explore the deepest, most unknown parts of the world, then beam images and data back to a 24-hour command center at the University of Rhode Island’s Inner Space Center.
Ballard likens what happens next to the work in a hospital emergency room. While there are doctors on staff to assess what crisis an ambulance brings to the hospital, there are specialists on call that can be summoned on short notice.
Ballard has built a similar network. He has a chief scientist on board the Nautilus. When a unique find is displayed on his video screens he or she can call on scientists from multiple fields like archaeology and geology, who then are instantaneously hooked up online to the cameras recording discoveries in the ocean. Within minutes of one of his submersibles spotting a unique ocean feature, a specialist can be sitting in their home on a laptop, determining whether this find is worth deeper investigation.
A network of these quick response scientists is being built across the U.S. and in the near future Ballard hopes to add UC Santa Barbara scientists to his team. During his April visit he plans to meet with campus faculty and administrators to see if such a laboratory here is feasible.
Ballard is often asked what he plans to explore next. He has a stock answer: “I don’t know. When you go to where we have never been before [on the ocean floor] you don’t know what you are going to find.”
That makes it hard for his research efforts to get traditional funding. “They tell me that when I know what I’m looking for to come back.” But that is what a true explorer is, Ballard asserted. They don’t know what they will find, but they have to be ready to learn whether it is a meaningful discovery or not.
As he told the Los Angeles Times, “I’ve spent most of my life on pieces of the Earth where I was the first human being to be there, and I want to share that.”