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Searching for the Titanic

Could the most famous shipwreck in history ever be found?

By Lauren Tarshis
From the September 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will identify the problems Robert Ballard faced as he searched for the wreck of the Titanic and how he solved them.

Lexile: 600L-700L, 800L-900L
Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50
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Problem and Solution

Robert Ballard faced many obstacles as he searched for the Titanic. Look for what they were as you read.

On the night of April 14, 1912, the Titanic sped across the Atlantic Ocean. The sky glittered with stars, the sea was still as glass. On board were more than 2,200 people—bejeweled millionaires and hopeful immigrants, passengers from all around the world. 

This was Titanic’s first voyage. But already it was world famous. Built from the strongest steel, from the most modern designs, the Titanic was said to be “unsinkable.” Then disaster struck.

At 11:40 p.m. the Titanic collided with an iceberg. As icy seawater flooded the ship, it quickly became clear that the Titanic was not unsinkable. It was doomed. And so were most of those on board. 

Two hours and forty minutes later, the magnificent Titanic disappeared into the inky black waters of the North Atlantic.

Would it ever be seen again?

On the night of April 14, 1912, the Titanic sped across the Atlantic Ocean. The sky glittered with stars. On board were more than 2,200 people—bejeweled millionaires and hopeful immigrants, passengers from all around the world. This was Titanic’s first voyage. But already it was famous. It was built from the strongest steel, from the most modern designs. The Titanic was said to be “unsinkable.” Then disaster struck.

At 11:40 p.m. the Titanic hit an iceberg. Icy seawater flooded the ship. It turned out the Titanic was not unsinkable. It was doomed. And so were most of those on board.

Two hours and forty minutes later, the Titanic disappeared into the inky black waters of the North Atlantic.

Would it ever be seen again?

Titanic Sinks! 1,500 people lost!”

News of the Titanic disaster shocked the world. Right away, people demanded that the ship be found. Some desperate families held out hope that their loved ones could still be alive, sealed off somewhere inside the wreck.

But the Titanic had come to rest on the bottom of the North Atlantic, more than 2 miles beneath the surface. Nobody could survive in such depths, even if there were air to breathe.

That’s because of water pressure—the force of water pushing against the body from all directions. As water gets deeper, pressure becomes more and more crushing. Lungs can’t inflate. Blood doesn’t flow. The heart can barely squeeze out a beat. Even strong metal submarines can be crushed like soda cans. 

In 1912, humans had never ventured into the deep sea. The Titanic was lost in a world as mysterious—and unreachable—as outer space.

News of the Titanic disaster shocked the world. People demanded that the ship be found. Some families hoped that their loved ones could still be alive inside the sunken ship.

But the Titanic had sunk to the bottom of the ocean, more than 2 miles beneath the surface. Nobody could survive in such deep water, even with air to breathe.

That’s because of water pressure. Water pressure is the force of water pushing against our bodies all directions. As water gets deeper, water pressure becomes stronger and stronger. We can’t breathe. Our hearts can’t beat. Even strong metal submarines can be crushed like soda cans.

In 1912, humans had never ventured into the deep sea. The Titanic seemed lost forever.

Human-Sized Worms

John B. Carnett/Bonnier Corporation via Getty Images

But in the coming decades, new inventions would slowly open the deep sea to exploration. The most important was a technology called sonar, which uses sound waves to create images of objects miles underwater.

Then, in 1960, two researchers in a submersible—a tiny submarine-like vehicle called Trieste—descended 7 miles down into the Pacific Ocean. The two men didn’t see much in the murky blackness. But their submersible withstood the water pressure, and the men made it back alive. Their achievement inspired a new generation of undersea explorers.

One of them was Robert Ballard. When he was a kid growing up in Southern California, Ballard’s friends loved to surf. But Ballard was more interested in what was happening deep underneath the waves. He went to college to become an oceanographer—a scientist who studies the sea.

By the late 1970s, Ballard had spent more time in deep-sea submersibles than almost any other human. What amazing wonders he saw! Eyeless fish. Human-sized worms. Foot-long clams. Plants that thrived without a speck of sunlight. Mysterious plumes of boiling-hot fluid shooting up from vents in the seafloor.

But there was another undersea wonder that Ballard longed to find: the Titanic.

Decades had passed since the sinking. But millions of people, like Ballard, were entranced by the ship. Like an invisible hand reaching up from the bottom of the sea, the Titanic held tight to hearts and imaginations.

But as time went by, new inventions allowed people to explore the deep sea. The most important was a technology called sonar. Sonar uses sound waves to make pictures of objects miles underwater.

Then, in 1960, two researchers took a trip 7 miles down into the Pacific Ocean. They went in a kind of tiny submarine. These small submarines are known as submersibles. The two men didn’t see much in the murky black water. But their submersible withstood the water pressure. The men made it back alive. They inspired many young people.

One of them was Robert Ballard. He had grown up to become an oceanographer. That’s a scientist who studies the sea.

By the late 1970s, Ballard had spent more time in deep-sea submersibles than almost any other human. What amazing things he saw! Eyeless fish. Human-sized worms. Foot-long clams. Plants that lived without sunlight.

But there was still something Ballard was eager to find at the bottom of the sea: the Titanic.

Frozen Terror

What about the Titanic was so fascinating?

There was the ship, of course. At the time, the Titanic was the biggest moving object ever built. Few ships were as luxurious. But more than its powerful engines or beautiful first-class cabins, it was the heartbreaking tragedy of the sinking that captivated people like Ballard.

More than 1,500 people died in the sinking. And most of their deaths could have been prevented. The Titanic’s crew had been warned that icebergs were lurking in its path. Yet the Titanic’s captain kept the ship steaming across the ocean at close to top speed.

Even after the collision, almost everyone could have survived. But there were only enough lifeboats for half of those on board. 

In the years after the disaster, survivors shared their terrifying memories—the haunting cries they heard as the ship went down, their hours of frozen terror in the lifeboats, their tears of relief when, at dawn, the ship Carpathia came to rescue them.

Reading these poignant [POY-nyuhnt] stories, Ballard became more determined to find the ship. But where exactly was the Titanic? Nobody was sure.

Titanic’s crew had relayed its location after it hit the iceberg —about 400 miles south of Newfoundland. But the Titanic had most certainly drifted in the more than two hours before it finally sank. Ballard scoured historical records. Finally he settled on a 100-square-mile area of ocean to search. 

In 1977, he and a team set out for the North Atlantic. Hopes were high. But then, just days into the voyage, a 50-ton piece of his ship came loose and crashed down. Six hundred thousand dollars worth of sonar and other borrowed equipment plunged into the sea. Devastated, Ballard returned home.

Many years had gone by since the sinking. But millions of people, like Ballard, were entranced by the ship.

What about the Titanic was so fascinating?

There was the ship, of course. At the time, the Titanic was the biggest moving object ever built. Few ships were as fancy. But it wasn’t just the ship that kept the Titanic in Ballard’s heart. It was the tragic story of the people who had lost their lives.

More than 1,500 people died in the sinking. And most of their deaths could have been prevented. The Titanic’s crew had been warned that icebergs were in its path. Yet the Titanic’s captain kept the ship moving very fast.

Even after the accident, almost everyone could have survived. But there were not enough lifeboats for everyone on board.

In the years after the disaster, survivors shared their terrifying memories. They remembered the cries they heard as the ship went down. They remembered their hours frozen with terror in the lifeboats. They remembered their tears of relief when they were rescued by a ship named Carpathia.

Reading these poignant [POYnyuhnt] stories, Ballard became more determined to find the ship. But where exactly was the Titanic? Nobody was sure.

Titanic’s crew had sent its location after it hit the iceberg. But the Titanic had definitely drifted in the more than two hours before it finally sank. Ballard scoured historical records. Finally he chose a 100-square-mile area of ocean to search.

In 1977, he and a team set out for the North Atlantic. He was excited. But then, just days into the voyage, there was an accident on board. A big piece of the ship came loose. Six hundred thousand dollars worth of borrowed equipment plunged into the sea. Devastated, Ballard returned home.

Emory Kristof/National Geographic Image Collection

Super Submersible

In his second search for the Titanic, Ballard used a new kind of remote-controlled submersible called Argo. It was loaded with TV cameras, sonar equipment, and powerful lights. It was lowered to the seafloor and towed like an underwater kite.

Other Dreams

Ballard’s failure made it hard for him to get support for another search. And soon he had a rival: a millionaire named Jack Grimm.

Grimm loved spending his money on attention-grabbing quests. Over the years, he’d searched, without success, for Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster. In 1980, he set his sights on the Titanic.

Grimm hired top scientists and bought them the best equipment. Ballard felt certain the team would succeed. He tried to let go of his Titanic dreams. Fortunately, Ballard had other dreams to focus on.

For years, Ballard had wanted to create a better way to explore the deep sea. Submersibles had let scientists like Ballard glimpse the undersea world. But those journeys were perilous. Plus, the submersibles could stay down only for a few hours at a time.

Ballard had an idea for a new kind of remote-controlled submersible, one he called Argo. It was basically an underwater robot covered with cameras. Like an octopus with cameras and lights clutched in every tentacle, Argo would capture thousands of images over large areas. Scientists on the surface would be able to see the images on TV screens.

With money provided by the U.S. Navy, Ballard and a team got to work on Argo. Meanwhile, Grimm’s Titanic search went on and on, without success. Finally, after three separate missions costing millions of dollars, Grimm ended his Titanic quest.

Ballard’s failure made it hard for him to get money for another search. And soon he had a rival: a millionaire named Jack Grimm.

Grimm loved spending his money on unusual quests. Over the years, he’d searched, without success, for Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster. In 1980, he decided to search for the Titanic.

Grimm hired top scientists. Ballard felt certain the team would succeed. He tried to forget about his Titanic dreams. Luckily, Ballard had other dreams to think about.

For years, Ballard had wanted to create a better way to explore the deep sea. Small submersibles had let scientists like Ballard travel far down in the sea. But those journeys were perilous. Plus, the submersibles could stay down only for a few hours at a time.

Ballard had an idea. He wanted to invent a new kind of submersible, one he called Argo. It would not need a human inside. It would be an underwater robot covered with cameras. Scientists on the surface would be able to see the images on TV screens.

Ballard and a team got to work on Argo. Meanwhile, Grimm’s Titanic search went on and on, without success. Finally, after three separate missions, Grimm ended his Titanic search.

Bomb Craters

By 1984, Ballard was ready to try again. This time would be different, though, because Ballard could use Argo.

The new video submersible worked just as Ballard had imagined it would. In one of its first tests, Ballard used Argo on a secret U.S. Navy mission to explore two sunken submarines. Both subs had disappeared in the Atlantic in the 1960s.

Using Argo, Ballard quickly found the subs. And those searches taught him an important lesson. The submarines had broken up as they were sinking. Debris was scattered for more than a mile. Argo—and Ballard—spotted the debris first, and that’s what led Ballard to the submarine wrecks.

Surely the Titanic had also broken apart as it sank, Ballard realized. Its metal would have been crushed by water pressure. Furniture and china and other objects would have spilled out and been carried by ocean currents. Like a trail of breadcrumbs, Titanic’s debris could lead right to the main part of the wreck.

Or so Ballard hoped.

On August 24, 1985, Ballard and his team were back in the North Atlantic. They directed Argo to the area near where the Titanic most likely sank. Argo’s images started to flash onto TV screens. Just as Ballard had envisioned, Argo provided a window into the deep sea.

In the coming days, Argo would reveal deep undersea canyons, giant boulders, and enormous holes in the ocean floor. But mostly the team saw . . . nothing.

The days ticked by, and there was no sign of the Titanic, not a glint of metal. Ballard started to panic. The U.S. Navy was paying for this mission and had provided the ship and equipment. It had given Ballard a strict deadline, then he and his team would have to head home.

Was this mission going to end in failure?

By 1984, Ballard was ready to try again. This time would be different, though. Now Ballard could use Argo.

The new video submersible worked just as Ballard had imagined it would. In one of its first tests, Ballard used Argo on a secret U.S. Navy mission. The mission was to find two sunken submarines. Both subs had disappeared in the Atlantic in the 1960s.

Using Argo, Ballard quickly found the subs. And those searches taught him an important lesson. The submarines had broken up as they were sinking. Debris was scattered for more than a mile. Argo—and Ballard— spotted the debris first. That’s what led Ballard to the submarine wrecks.

Ballard was sure Titanic had also broken apart as it sank. Furniture and china and other objects would have spilled out and been carried by ocean currents. Ballard hoped Titanic’s debris could lead right to the wreck.

On August 24, 1985, Ballard and his team were back in the North Atlantic. They sent Argo to the area near where the Titanic most likely sank. The days ticked by. There was no sign of the Titanic.

Ballard started to panic. The U.S. Navy was paying for this mission. The Navy had provided the ship and equipment. It had given Ballard a strict deadline. Ballard and his team didn’t have much time before they’d have to end the search and go home.

Was this mission going to end in failure?

John Lamparski/WireImage (Cup); Michel Boutefeu/Getty Images (Binoculars); Joseph H. Bailey/National Geographic Image Collection (Coin); Bruce Dale/National Geographic Image Collection (Stopwatch)

Titanic Treasures

Ballard vowed never to remove anything from the shipwreck of the Titanic. For him, it was a memorial to those who died. But in later years, other explorers removed thousands of objects, including these.

Ship of Dreams

On September 1, Ballard went to his cabin to catch a precious few hours of rest. He was exhausted and deeply discouraged.

But then Ballard was called back to the deck. He hurried to the control room and found the team studying an image on one of the TV screens. It was a huge metal object covered in rust.

Ballard’s heart pounded as he realized what he was looking at: one of the Titanic’s boilers, a part of its engines. Soon came other images—a piece of twisted metal, portholes, a banister. Cheers erupted. They had done it!

In the coming days, they’d make more dazzling discoveries. They’d find that the ship had cracked in half just before it sank. The front part was a third of a mile away from the back. They’d see jewels and dishes and shoes scattered across the seafloor. Ballard would become world famous.

But in those first moments of discovery, a chill ran through Ballard’s heart. He thought of those people who had been on board. His mind filled with their voices, their cries.

He hadn’t just found an empty shipwreck. He’d found the final resting place of a magnificent ship of dreams—of the hundreds who lost their lives on that starlit night in 1912.

On September 1, Ballard went to his cabin to try to sleep. He was exhausted and discouraged.

But then Ballard was called back to the deck. He hurried to the control room. There, his team was staring at something on one of the TV screens. It was a huge metal object covered in rust.

Ballard’s heart pounded. He realized what he was looking at: one of the Titanic’s boilers, a part of its engines. Cheers erupted. They had done it!

Over the next few days, they’d make more dazzling discoveries. They’d find that the ship had cracked in half just before it sank. The front part was a third of a mile away from the back. They’d see jewels and dishes and shoes scattered across the seafloor. Ballard would become world famous.

But in those first moments of discovery, Ballard thought of those people who had been on board. His mind filled with their voices, their cries. He hadn’t just found an empty shipwreck. He’d found the final resting place of a magnificent ship of dreams—of the hundreds who lost their lives so long ago.

This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue.

This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue.

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