Robert Ballard became famous as the explorer who found the wreckage of the Titanic. But what most people don't know about that expedition is that Ballard also secretly worked with the U.S. Navy to learn more about two lost nuclear submarines.
Ballard shared that nugget when he came to the Tampa Bay area last week for the Coastal Cities Summit, organized by the University of South Florida and other institutions. He spoke with the St. Petersburg Times about the Titanic and his underwater exploration career.
When you wanted to search for the Titanic, did you make an arrangement with the military?
I can only tell you now because they declassified this a few months ago. The Navy was not interested in the Titanic. … I mean, they funded the technology because it had so many military applications. And I was a naval intelligence officer for 30 years, and so I did a lot of missions for the Navy. Many remain classified, my best stuff. Rats …
Yes, the Titanic was a cover for a series of military operations. The Titanic was here, and over here was the Scorpion and over here was the Thresher (as he says this, he arranges three objects on a tabletop, roughly in a line, the center one depicting the Titanic).
And had that not occurred, I probably would not have found the Titanic because they wouldn't have funded me. I mean, if the Titanic was in the Indian Ocean, it'd probably still be in the Indian Ocean. But … it was straddled by two very interesting subs that we had lost — and the Scorpion was lost on war patrol … and it was carrying nuclear weapons. So it was a very hot sub to the Navy …
So the Navy said, look, we never actually tracked that all down, we never found the reactors, we never did environmental studies on them, nor did we ever find the weapons. We'll fund you to build all this stuff and we'll fund you to find the Titanic, although we don't expect you to find it because we're going to have you work most of the time on these subs and give you very little time to actually find the Titanic. I said, I'll take whatever I can get.
What was different about exploring the Titanic compared to other shipwrecks?
I've dove on wrecks and they get totally encrusted. The older they are, the more they don't look like wreckage. The Titanic was a museum piece. I mean, when you came down to it, you could look in the window and bounce your lights off the mirrors, and the chandeliers were hanging from the overhead. I mean, you went to a haunted house. And no one had ever seen a haunted house in the deep sea before. We'd seen some on military missions that we couldn't talk about, but they weren't that old. The Titanic was pretty old, three-quarters of a century at the time. I was surprised to see the manufacturer's name on everything … because of the deep sea. The deep sea is pitch black, you can't have photosynthesis, so you don't have all this marine life. It's freezing cold and deep pressure, no currents to abrade it to speak of, just enough to polish the brass.
Of all the explorations you have done, I wonder if there was a moment when you were … scared?
Oh, several times … I've had very close calls, enough that I don't want to play the statistical game. That's why I like robots. I had several (close calls). A fire at 9,000 feet in a 9-foot capsule when my emergency breathing system didn't work. That's scary. Right off of the Cayman Islands, I made a 20,000-foot dive and crashed on the way down into the side of a volcano, ruptured my flotation tanks, and barely made it back to the surface … so I really like telepresence. Trash the robot and go, "I'm so sorry."