(CNN) — In a career that’s spanned more than 60 years, Robert Ballard has conducted over 150 underwater expeditions and made countless significant scientific discoveries.
But the renowned oceanographer says he’s made peace with the fact that he will probably always be known as “the man who found Titanic.”
According to Ballard, his mother predicted he’d never be able to escape that “rusty old boat” when he called to tell her he’d located the famous shipwreck in 1985.
In his upcoming memoir, “Into The Deep,” Ballard recalls walking into the premiere of the 1997 movie “Titanic” with the film’s director James Cameron, who turned to him and said: “You go first. You found it.”
“Moms are always right,” he tells CNN Travel. “I’m sure my obituary is written ‘man who found the Titanic died today.’
“In many ways it’s sort of freed me up to dream other dreams. So I feel emancipated in many ways.”
And those “other dreams” are still evolving after decades of exploring the deep sea.
“When kids ask me ‘what’s your greatest discovery,’ I always tell them ‘it’s the one that I’m about to make,” he says.
Although Ballard accepts he’s unlikely to add another 100 expeditions to his tally, he plans to “keep knocking off a few” while he’s still able to.
Childhood dream realized
Oceanographer Robert Ballard celebrates the discovery of Titanic with photographer Emory Kristof in 1985.
Emory Kristof/National Geographic Image Collection
He delves into his astonishing career in the memoir released later this month, and also opens up about some of the most defining moments in his personal life, including the tragic death of his son.
“I turn 79 in June. This was just the perfect time [to tell my story,]” he says of the book, which was written with the help of New York Times investigative journalist Christopher Drew.
“And we had the pandemic, I wasn’t going to sea. I had a lot of time on my hands.”
Ballard’s fascination with the ocean began at an early age. By the time he was 12, he’d decided he wanted to be Captain Nemo from Jules Verne’s classic science fiction novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” when he grew up.
“That was the seminal moment when I decided I wanted to be not only an oceanographer, but a naval officer,” he says.
“Something which I’ve never really talked about a lot is that I’m dyslexic, and that I learn differently. I didn’t read ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,’ I watched the movie produced by Disney.”
Ballard went on to gain degrees in both chemistry and geology and a Master’s in geophysics from the University of Hawaii.
After being called for military action in 1965, he transferred to the US Navy and assigned to the Deep Submergence Group at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where he helped to develop Alvin, a three-person submersible with a mechanical arm.
He spent much of the seventies exploring the ocean in Alvin, reaching 2,750 meters to explore the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, as well as joining an expedition that uncovered thermal vents in the Galapagos Rift.
By now he was ready to take on the huge task of trying to locate the British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on 15 April 1912.
Although Ballard admits he was never a “Titanic fanatic,” he became fixated on finding the wreck after witnessing several unsuccessful attempts by other explorers.
“Titanic was clearly the big Mount Everest at the time,” he explains. “So many others had tried. Many that I thought would have succeeded, or should have succeeded but didn’t.”
He made his first attempt to locate the ship in October 1977, using deep sea salvage vessel Seaprobe, a drillship with sonar equipment and cameras attached to the end of the drilling pipe.
However, Ballard was forced to admit defeat when the drilling pipe broke.
Once he returned from the expedition, he began developing robots that could roam the ocean floor gathering images and information.
“The Titanic was actually the first time we introduced this kind of technology,” he explains. “In all of the expeditions leading up to it, I physically got into submarines.
“To get there [the deepest depth of the ocean] took two and half hours. So that’s a five hour commute. I once went down 20,000 feet, which took me six hours and almost got me killed.”
Once Ballard was confident with the robotic submersible technology, he knew he’d be able to return to the site and survey the ocean floor for several hours and hours without ever having to get into a sub.
But there was the small matter of raising the funding required to support such a costly and significant expedition.
Only in recent years has Ballard been able to be completely honest about the now-declassified events that led to his discovery of the infamous wreck.
The expedition was part of a secret US military mission to recover two wrecked nuclear submarines, the Thresher and Scorpion, which had sunk to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean.
In 1998, Ballard and his crew found the wreckage of aircraft carrier USS Yorktown 56 years after it sank.
David Doubilet/National Geographic Image Collection
Before agreeing to the mission, which was signed off by then US President Ronald Reagan, he asked if he could search for Titanic when he’d completed the top secret task.
While he was never explicitly given permission to look for the infamous wreck, Ballard says he was told he could pretty much do what he wanted once he’d found the nuclear submarines.
“I must say, it was hard for me because I couldn’t tell the truth for many, many, many years about who really paid for this,” he admits.
“It was a top secret mission I was on in the height of the Cold War. We were duking it out with the Soviet Union and this [the Titanic search] was a cover.”
The man who found the Titanic is on a new quest
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