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Raymond Wong/National Geographic Image Collection
Searching for the Titanic

Can the most famous shipwreck in history ever be found?

By Lauren Tarshis

Learning Objective: to identify key ideas in a nonfiction article about the search for the Titanic and to write a short essay

Lexiles: 920L, 780L
AS YOU READ

As you read the article and study the images, think about the obstacles that Robert Ballard faced in his search.

On the night of April 14, 1912, the Titanic sped across the Atlantic Ocean. The sky glittered with stars over a sea as still as glass. On board were more than 2,200 people—bejeweled millionaires and hopeful immigrants, passengers from all over the world. This was the Titanic’s first voyage, but the luxury passenger liner was already world famous. Built from the strongest steel, according to 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 doomed—and so were most of those on board.

Two hours and forty minutes later, the magnificent ship 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. The sea was still. On board were more than 2,200 people. There were bejeweled millionaires and hopeful immigrants, passengers from all over the world.

This was the Titanic’s first voyage. But already the ship 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 hit an iceberg. Icy seawater flooded the ship. It quickly became clear that the Titanic and most of its passengers were doomed. Two hours and forty minutes later, the magnificent ship 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’s demise shocked the world. Immediately, people demanded that the ship be found. Some families held out hope that their loved ones could still be alive, sealed off somewhere inside the wreck. But in truth, no one who went down with the ship could have survived. 

What’s more, there was simply no way to reach the wreck. The Titanic had come to rest on the ocean floor more than 10,000 feet beneath the surface. At that depth, the water pressure—the force that water puts on its surroundings—is incredibly powerful. (Water pressure becomes increasingly crushing the deeper you go.) The submarines that existed in 1912 could not venture that far down. Had one tried, it would have been crushed like a soda can. 

The Titanic was lost in a world as mysterious and unreachable as outer space. 

News of the Titanic’s demise shocked the world. People demanded that the ship be found. Some families held out hope that their loved ones could still be alive somewhere inside the wreck. 

But in truth, no one who went down with the ship could have survived. 

What’s more, there was no way to reach the wreck. The Titanic had come to rest on the ocean floor more than 10,000 feet beneath the surface. At that depth, the water pressure is very powerful. Water pressure is the force that water puts on its surroundings. As water gets deeper, water pressure becomes stronger and stronger. The submarines that existed in 1912 could not dive that far down. Had one tried, it would have been crushed like a soda can. 

The Titanic was lost in a world as mysterious and unreachable as outer space. 

IanDagnall Computing/Alamy Stock Photo

Ship of Dreams

When the Titanic set sail, it was the most luxurious ship ever built. It had a gym, a swimming pool, and a dining room where a live orchestra played during meals. In today’s money, a first-class ticket would cost upward of $100,000!

Human-Sized Worms

In the following decades, new inventions slowly opened the deep sea to exploration. The most important was a technology called sonar, which uses sound waves to create images of objects underwater. 

Then, in 1960, two researchers in a submersible—a tiny, submarine-like vehicle called the Trieste—reached the deepest known part of the ocean on Earth, a region in the Pacific Ocean known as Challenger Deep. They descended 7 miles down into the murky blackness. They didn’t see much, but their submersible withstood the water pressure and the men made it back to the surface alive. 

Their achievement inspired a new generation of undersea explorers. One of them was Robert Ballard. 

As Ballard was growing up in Southern California, his friends loved to surf. But Ballard was more interested in what was happening 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. 

In the following decades, new inventions allowed people to explore the deep sea. The most important was a technology called sonar. Sonar uses sound waves to make images of objects underwater. 

Then, in 1960, two researchers traveled 7 miles down into the deepest part of the ocean. This area is known as Challenger Deep. They traveled in a tiny, submarine-like vehicle called a submersible.They didn’t see much in the murky darkness. But their submersible withstood the water pressure and the men made it back to the surface alive. 

This journey inspired a new generation of undersea explorers. One of them was Robert Ballard. 

As Ballard was growing up in Southern California, his friends loved to surf. But Ballard was more interested in what was happening underneath the waves. He went to college 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. 

Solvin Zankl/NaturePL.com

Mysteries of the Deep

Oceans cover more than two-thirds of our planet, yet we know more about the surface of Mars than we know about the ocean floor. In fact, humans have explored only about 20 percent of Earth’s oceans. In recent years, however, new technologies have helped humans explore more of the deep ocean. We’ve discovered a world of near total darkness, where all sorts of creatures thrive—like this viperfish, which glows in the dark.

What wonders he saw! Eyeless fish. Worms the size of humans. Foot-long clams. Plants that thrived without a speck of sunlight and 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 its sinking, yet millions of people, like Ballard, remained entranced by the ship. Like an invisible hand reaching up from the bottom of the sea, the Titanic held tight to hearts and imaginations.

What amazing things he saw! Eyeless fish. Worms the size of humans. Foot-long clams. Plants that lived without sunlight. Strange plumes of boiling-hot liquid shooting up from the seafloor.

But there was something else that Ballard longed to find: the Titanic

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

Frozen Terror

What about the Titanic was so fascinating? There was the ship itself, of course. At the time it was built, the Titanic was the biggest moving object ever constructed and few ships were as luxurious. But more than the Titanic’s powerful engines or opulent first-class cabins, it was the heartbreaking tragedy of the sinking that captivated people like Ballard. More than 1,500 people perished when the Titanic went down—and most of those deaths could have been prevented.

Why was the Titanic so fascinating? There was the ship, of course. At the time it was built, the Titanic was the biggest moving object ever constructed. Few ships were as fancy too. 

But it wasn’t just the ship’s powerful engines or opulent first-class cabins that kept the Titanic in Ballard’s heart. It was also the tragic story of the people who had lost their lives. More than 1,500 people died when the Titanic sank. Most of those deaths could have been prevented. 

John B. Carnett/Bonnier Corporation via Getty Images

The Titanic’s crew had been warned that icebergs lurked in the ship’s path, yet the captain kept the ship steaming across the ocean at close to top speed. Even after the collision, it might have been possible to save all the passengers, but the ship carried only enough lifeboats for half those on board.

In the years following the disaster, survivors shared their terrifying memories: the haunting cries they heard as the ship sank, their hours of frozen terror in the lifeboats, their tears of relief when, at dawn, the ship Carpathia arrived to rescue them.

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

The Titanic’s crew had relayed the ship’s location after striking the iceberg—about 400 miles south of Newfoundland, Canada. But the ship had surely drifted during the more than two hours it took to sink. Ballard scoured historical records until finally settling on a 100-square-mile area 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 Ballard’s 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.

The Titanic’s crew had been warned that icebergs were in the ship’s path. Yet the captain kept the ship moving very fast. Even after the collision, almost all the passengers 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 haunting cries they heard as the ship sank. They remembered the hours they spent frozen with terror in the lifeboats. They remembered their tears of relief when they were rescued by the ship Carpathia.

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

The Titanic’s crew had sent the ship’s location after hitting the iceberg about 400 miles south of Newfoundland, Canada. But the ship had definitely drifted during the more than two hours it took to sink. Ballard searched historical records. Finally he chose a 100-square-mile area to search.

In 1977, he and a team set out for the North Atlantic. He was hopeful. But then, just days into the voyage, a large piece of Ballard’s ship came loose. Six hundred thousand dollars’ worth of borrowed equipment plunged into the sea.

Devastated, Ballard returned home.

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

He hired top scientists and purchased the best equipment. Ballard felt certain Grimm’s team would prevail. He tried to let go of his Titanic dreams.

Fortunately, he had other dreams to pursue. For years, Ballard had longed to create a better way to explore the deep sea. Submersibles enabled scientists like Ballard to glimpse the undersea world, but those journeys were perilous. Plus, submersibles could remain underwater for only a few hours at a time.

Ballard had an idea for a new kind of remote-controlled submersible, one he called Argo. It was essentially an underwater robot covered with cameras. Like an octopus with cameras and lights clutched in every tentacle, Argo would capture footage over large underwater areas that scientists on the surface could view 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 missions costing millions of dollars, Grimm ended his Titanic quest.

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 money on unusual missions. Over the years, he’d searched, without success, for Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. In 1980, Grimm decided to search for the Titanic.

He hired top scientists. He purchased the best equipment. Ballard felt certain Grimm’s team would prevail. He tried to forget his Titanic dreams. Luckily, he had other dreams to think about.

For years, Ballard had wanted to create a better way to explore the deep sea. Submersibles had let scientists like Ballard travel to the deep sea, but those journeys were dangerous. Plus, submersibles could remain underwater for only a few hours at a time.

Ballard had an idea. He wanted to invent a new kind of submersible. He called it Argo. It was essentially an underwater robot covered with cameras. Argo would capture footage over large underwater areas like an octopus with cameras clutched in every tentacle. Scientists on the surface could then see the footage on screens.

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

Bomb Craters

By 1984, Ballard had decided to try again to find the Titanic. This time would be different, though, because this time, he had Argo.

The new submersible worked just as Ballard had imagined it would. In one of the first tests, Ballard used Argo on a secret U.S. Navy mission to explore two sunken submarines. Both subs had vanished in the Atlantic in the 1960s. Using Argo, Ballard quickly located the missing subs— and gleaned a key lesson in the process. The submarines had broken up as they sank, and debris was scattered across more than a mile of the seafloor. Argo—and Ballard—spotted the debris and followed the trail to the wrecks.

Surely the Titanic had also broken apart as it sank, Ballard realized. Furniture and dishes and other objects would have spilled out and been carried by ocean currents. Like a trail of breadcrumbs, the Titanic’s debris could lead 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 where the Titanic had most likely sank. Argo’s images flashed 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 with no sign of the Titanic, not even 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, after which he and his team would have to head home.

Was Ballard’s quest to find the Titanic going to end in failure yet again?

By 1984, Ballard decided to try to find the Titanic again. This time would be different, though. Ballard had Argo

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

Using Argo, Ballard quickly located the missing subs, and he gleaned a key lesson in the process. The submarines had broken up as they sank. Debris was scattered for more than a mile. Argo—and Ballard—spotted the debris. That’s what led Ballard to the submarine wrecks.

Ballard was sure the Titanic had also broken apart as it sank. Furniture and dishes and other objects would have spilled out and been carried by ocean currents. Ballard hoped the 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 where the Titanic had most likely sank. Argo’s images flashed onto TV screens, providing a window into the deep sea.

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

The days ticked by. There was no sign of the Titanic. Ballard started to panic. The U.S. Navy was paying for this mission. They had provided the ship and equipment. The Navy had given him a strict deadline. Ballard and his team didn’t have much time before they’d have to end the search and go home.

Was Ballard’s mission going to end in failure yet again?

Joseph H. Bailey/National Geographic Image Collection (coin); Michel Boutefeu/Getty Images (binoculars)

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 few precious hours of rest. He was exhausted and deeply discouraged.

But then he was called back to the deck. He hurried to the control room and found his team studying an image on one of the screens. It appeared to be an enormous metal object covered in rust. His heart pounding, Ballard realized what he was looking at: one of the Titanic’s boilers—a part of the ship’s engines. Soon other images appeared: a piece of twisted metal, portholes, a banister.

Cheers erupted.

They had done it. In the coming days, Ballard and his team made more incredible discoveries. They found that the ship had cracked in half just before it sank; the front part of the ship was a third of a mile away from the back. They found jewels and dishes and shoes scattered across the seafloor. Ballard became world famous.

But in those first exhilarating moments of discovery, a chill ran through his heart. Ballard thought of the people who’d been on board. His mind filled with their voices, their cries. He hadn’t found just an empty shipwreck. He’d found the final resting place of a magnificent ship of dreams—and of the hundreds who lost their lives on that starlit night in 1912.

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

But then he was called back to the deck. He hurried to the control room. He found his team studying an image on one of the screens. It appeared to be an enormous metal object covered in rust. Ballard’s heard pounded as he realized what he was looking at: one of the Titanic’s boilers, a part of the ship’s engines. Soon other images appeared. There was a piece of twisted metal, portholes, and a banister.

Cheers erupted.

They had done it. 

In the coming days, Ballard and his team made more amazing discoveries. They found that the ship had cracked in half just before it sank. The front part of the ship was a third of a mile away from the back. They found jewels and dishes and shoes scattered across the seafloor. Ballard became world famous.

But in those first exhilarating moments of discovery, a chill ran through his heart. Ballard thought of the people who’d been on board. His mind filled with their voices and their cries. He hadn’t found just an empty shipwreck. He’d found the final resting place of a magnificent ship of dreams—and of the hundreds who lost their lives on that starlit night in 1912.

This article was originally published in the December 2020 / January 2021 issue.