Discovery of Titanic, 1985-1987

We have covered the discovery of the wreck of Titanic before. Here are National Geographic’s coverage of the wreck in the early years of its discovery.

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 working for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution 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. Ballard partnered with the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (IFREMER). On September 1, 1985, Ballard and IFREMER’s Jean-Louis Michel found the wreck.

Ballard remembered the controversy surrounding photos being published:

On our way back to Woods Hole, we’d sent a small batch of photos to shore by helicopter, carried by one American and one French naval officer, to represent the partnership. I’d made a handshake deal that we’d wait to release our photos in the United States until theirs had arrived in Paris, so the announcement of our discovery could come in a simultaneous press release from both locations. Unfortunately, John Steele, my boss at Woods Hole, had buckled under pressure from U.S. news outlets and let them broadcast the images early. The French were outraged, and so was I.

…. Steele was planning to have his security officials seize all the Titanic photos and videos, and I was afraid he might dump a lot more of them to the media and turn everything into a circus. As the leader of the expedition, I had the sole right under federal law to control their release. Steele had already shown he didn’t care about that, so I donned my other hat as commander in the Navy Reserve and classified the remaining Titanic material “Top Secret.” I cited Navy sensitivities about wrecks that might hold human remains.

The French and other oceanographers blamed Ballard himself for releasing the photos early. Ballard was a publicity-seeking showman and did go on various talk shows including the Today Show to promote the discovery. The National Geographic published the photos in its December 1985 issue, and the next year, when Ballard went on subsequent expeditions to the wreck site (the French refused to join, still angry at the photo debacle), followed it up with more photos in December 1986 and October 1987 issues.



Full-sized images here and here

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