A century after its sinking, Titanic still fascinates and lures explorers to their doom. We look back at the week in 1985 when the wreck of the oceanliner was found:
It was “the Mount Everest of wrecks.” Both its distance from land and depth – under 12,000 feet of waters roughly 380 miles southeast of Newfoundland in international waters – made the wreck of RMS Titanic difficult to access.
In fact the location was so remote that it was not found for over seven decades. Unlike today, where the name Titanic was well-known thanks to the movie and glossy magazines it inspired, back in the 1980s, it was just a distant history and obsession among groups of oceanographers. The general public were aware of the ship through two sources: Walter Lord’s famous book about the sinking A Night to Remember and the film Raise the Titanic, which made people believe that the ship was raised already and was now sitting in a dock in New York.
Oceanographer Robert Ballard approached the U.S Navy in 1982 to request funding to develop the robotic submersible technology he needed to find the Titanic. The navy was interested because it would prove useful for investigating submarine wrecks.
Those were heady ways for sub-nautical adventures. Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October was released in October 1984 to critical acclaim (including praise from President Reagan). Earlier that summer, Ballard had begun his expedition, photographing USS Thresher, sank in 1963 off Cape Cod.
Realizing that his navy missions would give him not much time to hunt down the wreck of Titanic, Ballard sought a partnership with the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (IFREMER) the following year. In July 1985, IFREMER’s Jean-Louis Michel had started exploring the area where Titanic was believed to have sunk using a technique known as “mowing the lawn” – towing a sonar back and forth across the search zone to brute force detection.
Ballard and Michel refined their efforts together.
After wrapping up his navy-funded mission — tracking down USS Scorpion off the coast of the Azores – Ballard had just 12 days to look for Titanic. The Scorpion mission also gave him an idea – at both Thresher and Scorpion, the current dispersed small bits of wreckage, creating a debris chain. Ballard decided to search for this debris trail instead, which could stretch as far as a mile.
On September 1, 1985, Ballard and Michel found the wreck. They passed over a boiler (photo above) of the vessel which was split in two and was covered with a light layer of sediment. Ballard would immediately seized his ship’s navigation charts to keep the location of the Titanic a secret. For next four days, the crew circled around the wreck site, exploring and photographing using Ballard’s underwater video sled, the Argo, until the supplies and the contract for the ship’s time ran out.
The crew arrived back to Cape Cod to cannon fire and marine bands. TV vans waited and there were so many photographers that it looked “like a Nikon convention on the dock,” recalled Ralph Bradshaw White, one of the photographers on the expedition.
It was footage by White and another photographer Emory Kristof that would provide the world with its first look at the Titanic’s wreck. The initial photos from the Argo were poor quality and often forgotten now (see the coverage in the world’s papers below), but better photos were produced when Ballard returned the following summer to catch a firsthand glimpse of the wreck from inside a manned submersible. Both White and Kristof would also return more than dozens of times to film the wreckage, with White boasting that he spent more time on the Titanic than the captain had.
The 1991 footage by Kristof would result in IMAX film Titanica, which went on to inspire James Cameron to make his own movie about the ocean liner, the film where both White and Kristof’s footage were used, with Kristof advising on the videography and lighting.
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