Bob Ballard: The story behind the man who found the Titanic

Bob Ballard. You may have heard the name in middle school, read it in science textbooks, or seen him on a Nat Geo special. The legendary ocean explorer, most widely known for discovering the sunken Titanic in 1985, has conducted 157 expeditions in the deep sea.

As a companion piece to his 2021 memoir “Into the Deep,” National Geographic presents “Bob Ballard: An Explorer’s Life,” a deeper look into a long life of hard work, adventure, and historic breakthrough. 

National Geographic Explorer-at-Large, Dr. Robert Ballard, takes some time away from the sea to film interviews for an upcoming film about his extraordinary life. (National Geographic / James “Jim” Ball)

As a child, Ballard’s inspirations fostered through watching Captain Nemo traverse the ocean floor in the Disney film adaptation of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” It was his lifelong dream to be an explorer just like him. Years later in 2008, Ballard became the “captain” of his own Nautilus, traveling to new locations around the world in a research vessel named after the fictional submarine in Verne’s novel. He even continues to name all his undersea vehicles after Jason and his Argonauts. 

“I’m lucky to have lived a life where I’ve spent most of it going somewhere on our planet where I’m the first set of eyes. You can’t beat that,” Ballard said. “To be able to go through endless doors that have never been opened before — that’s as good as it gets.”

Dr. Robert D. Ballard surveys the progress of the Titanic expedition from the control center of the research vessel Knorr. Working in conjunction with the In stitut Francais de Recherches pour L’exploitation des Mers (IFREMER), Ballard and the Woods Hole team located the vessel in 13,000 feet of water in the North Atlantic Ocean. (National Geographic / Emory Kristof)

For two years early in his career, he trained in the Army, then requested to transfer to the Navy. There, he was able to further his dreams of exploring the ocean by working with submarines and submersibles. While he traverses the claustrophobic, dark, and dangerous depths of the sea, Ballard relies on his military training to keep a calm mind. 

“I draw upon my career of being trained as a combat infantry officer, when I had to keep calm. So I fortunately went through the experience of being in a situation where you could be killed. And it does calm you down,” Ballard said. 

Robert Ballard in control room of the E/V Nautilus while on expedition in the South Pacific. (National Geographic / Gabriel Scarlett)

Ballard spent 30 years at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) studying plate tectonics and activity at mid-ocean ridges. Then, in 1985, he discovered the RMS Titanic and switched his focus to finding lost pieces of human history in the ocean. He explored the Lusitania, found the battleship Bismarck, and searched for Amelia Earhart’s plane in 2019, to no avail, but hasn’t given up yet. At 78 years old, Ballard has “nothing but upcoming plans.” 

“Certainly we’re going to go after Amelia [Earhart] round 2. That’s a given. The big one we’re doing right now is mounting the second ‘Lewis and Clark’ or I call ‘Lois and Clark’ expedition to map and characterize 50% of our country that lies beneath the sea that’s never been explored,” said Ballard. “We’re in the heat of the battle on that.”

View through a porthole of the submersible Alvin exploring sea floor. (National Geographic / Emory Kristof)

Additionally, with the growth of technology over the past few years, Ballard looks forward to a new wave of “force multipliers,” a term used in military science that is defined as tools that help amplify the overall effort, like a hammer, or a screwdriver. In Ballard’s case, it’s a little more complicated.

“Another [future plan] is to bring into my world a whole new unmanned autonomous vehicle system … I can not only have one set of eyes on the bottom, I can have many many sets of eyes,” Ballard said. “I still have that itch to go back to the Mediterranean and go back to the ancient trade routes, and go back into the Black Sea. So, I’ve got a lot of things I want to do. We’ll see how many of them I can get done.”

Rusted bow of the R.M.S. Titanic ocean liner in the North Atlantic. (National Geographic / Emory Kristof)

Ballard grew up visiting the beach in San Diego, wondering what mysteries the ocean held. After decades of pursuing his dream as an oceanographer and explorer, he continually encourages others to do the same by establishing multiple educational programs such as the JASON project, which allowed students to follow various expeditions, and the nonprofit Ocean Exploration Trust in 2007. 

“What I can tell you in all honesty is follow your passion, it doesn’t matter which mountain to climb. Just climb up a big one,” Ballard said. “I think you have to realize that life is the act of becoming. You just constantly evolve and become and [take] on challenges. I take on big ones because there’s very few people on tall mountains so it’s not very crowded. I find it’s easier to climb a tall mountain than the one down the street.”

“Bob Ballard: An Explorer’s Life” premiers on National Geographic on June 14. 

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