Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s accomplished marine scientist and host of television’s “National Geographic Explorer” recently shared his thoughts with Naval History Editor Fred L. Schultz concerning the proposed raising of a hull section from the Titanic and the future of underwater archaeology and sea activity in general.
Naval History: As this issue of Naval Historyreaches readers, a group called RMS Titanic, Inc., ostensibly will have raised a section of the ship’s hull and brought it back to the United States. As the leader of the expedition that discovered the wreck of the Titanic, how do you feel about that?
Ballard: Pretty sad. It’s a carnival, that’s what it is. What more can you say? It’s as if the Titanic’s tragedy continues. We tried to put it to rest, but this perpetuates the tragedy.
Naval History: The people who are doing it obviously see it differently. They see value in preserving artifacts from the wreck and in offering something tangible for the public to see and experience.
Ballard: Yes, they see it very differently.
Naval History: What governs the claim on the ship and her artifacts?
Ballard: Admiralty Law—ancient, ancient Admiralty Law. There’s no law in the deep sea, because the law has not caught up with the times.
Naval History: If you are so much against all this, why did you publish the coordinates of the Titanic wreck in your book?
Ballard: The French were already aware of the coordinates, because the first expedition to the Titanic was a joint operation conducted by the French and U.S. governments, sponsored in my case by the Office of Naval Research and the Chief of Naval Operations for Submarine Warfare. I was on board a Navy research vessel, the Knorr (AGOR-15), using Navy assets. That’s about as French as you can make it.
The French expedition was not a French Navy operation. Even though the organization sponsoring this latest operation refers to the French Navy in its literature, the French organization supporting it, IFREMER [France’s national institute of oceanography], is not the French Navy. It’s like us calling NOAA [the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration] the U.S. Navy.
The French scientists, Jean-Louis Michel, Jean Jarry, and Bernard Pillaud, were standing next to me when we found the Titanic. Jean-Louis wrote down the coordinates and plotted them on his chart to see how close he had come. He missed it on his first run by 300 yards, and he banged his fist on the table. When I asked him why he was upset, he said, “They’re going to kill me.” I reminded him that we discovered the ship together, but he said it was on my watch, not his. The truth was we had done this together.
So who first carried the sponsor of this hull-raising down to the Titanic? The French. They had the coordinates. Of course they did, because we were on the same expedition. And they had all the rights to have those coordinates. The idea that I published the coordinates so the French could look them up in my book is absurd. My book wasn’t even published until after the French had already done subsequent dives on the Titanic. So what would have been the sense in not publishing the coordinates?
Have you found the coordinates of the Bismarck in my book on that subject? No. Why? Because I’m the only one who knows them. Have you found the coordinates of all the ships in Iron Bottom Sound [Guadalcanal] in my books? No. Why? Because I’m the only one who knows them. I just found a Roman fleet; have you found its coordinates? No. I can protect that. But I cannot protect coordinates that are already known to the public.
Naval History: What will happen when this expedition returns to the United States with a piece of the ship?
Ballard: That will be the first time that the Titanic has actually, officially, come into the country, and I’m not sure—if you read the Titanic Memorial Act of 1986—that that won’t present a legal problem for this organization. The gentleman in charge of this expedition may be testing the law. The Titanic Memorial Act of 1986 leaves a lot to be interpreted. It’s interesting that the hull is coming in, and not the artifacts.
What did they say five years ago? Didn’t they say they were not going to take anything from the ship? The ship’s crow’s nest has been destroyed. They acted astounded: “You’re kidding. It’s been destroyed? Then it must be serious, serious decay has set in,” they said. Well, I have photographs of their first expedition, one with a crow’s nest and one taken later in the same expedition without the crow’s nest.”
Naval History: Have you ever confronted the people involved?
Ballard: Yes, but most journalists have not. They won’t check up; they’re lazy. I told the story to The Boston Globe, but they didn’t check it. I told it to anyone who cared to listen, but none of them ran the checks. A number of historians associated with the Titanic have verified that the crow’s nest was destroyed.
They claim that severe decay has set it on the ship, and they’re doing this out of a fear that something awful is going to happen if they let the ship sit there just another day. To illustrate this, they say that the ship’s gymnasium has collapsed.
Well, isn’t it odd that our discovery pictures show a collapsed gymnasium? The gymnasium probably collapsed on impact just after the ship sank. Yes, it did, indeed, collapse. Do you want to see a photograph of it? Now, they say that all these changes are taking place at a rapid pace and that they must do what they said they weren’t going to do, because they need to save the ship.
They’ll tell you that Bob Ballard picked up some artifacts from the bottom of the ocean and the Mediterranean. But there’s a huge difference. I did it under the direction of archaeologists and only at their request.
Does the world of history and archaeology need specialists? They do have a conservationist/preservationist on board for the expedition, but there’s a huge difference between a conservationist and a historian or archaeologist.
Naval History: It seems that all this points back to the Admiralty Law.
Ballard: It’s a free-for-all law. And not until we destroy enough pyramids, I guess, will we realize that this is antiquated. How many destroyed Titanics will it take?
Naval History: Let’s go back to those who say that raising these artifacts makes them more easily accessible to the public.
Ballard: I’m looking beyond that now. I’ve actually been practicing this for 30-some years. I see the day coming when it will be technologically easy to visit the Titanic on the information highway.
Imagine you’re accompanying the British explorers who found King Tut’s tomb, when some guy says, “Box it!” You ask what he means. “Get it out of here,” he says. “No one would ever come to this place to see it. Get it back to London.” You try to stop him, saying that someone will be standing here someday, the tomb won’t be here, and they’re going to ask why. It’s the whole Elgin Marble issue. Why are the Elgin Marbles in London? They should be hanging on the Acropolis. But they are in London—beautifully presented, but completely out of context.
Imagine 12,000 feet down, driving along the bottom of the ocean and finding two shoes, side by side, toes pointed upward. A few feet farther up is a belt, and farther up still a hat, with a wristwatch off to one side. Would you pick those up?
Naval History: No.
Naval History: It seems obvious.
Ballard: If you were to go into a museum and see one shoe and someone said it’s from the Titanic, would that have the same power?
Naval History: No.
Ballard: Of course not. Then, what right does anyone have to destroy that future experience? Those shoes have been there for 80 years. Are they all of a sudden going to go somewhere? It’s like the difference between walking the battlefield at Gettysburg or having Disney show it to you.
Naval History: Why do you think relatively few people have expressed an opinion on this?
Ballard: Because we’re McDonald’s. We devour things fast and throw the paper and the Styrofoam cups away. Another reason is that we haven’t been able to get out and document what has been done. We haven’t been able to go back and show you the before and after pictures.
Naval History: You’ve said that there is no debate on this issue. Would you participate in one?
Ballard: What’s the point? The question is, in the end, whether it matters. I mean, would you debate O.J. Simpson? I think it’s important to have a debate. The people at The Globe said that the American people are enjoying this. And I said, yeah, and they used to enjoy public executions, too.
Naval History: Does this organization need to do this to maintain its claim?
Ballard: Admiralty Law requires you to bring it home. You can’t say I found something and left it—which is what I did—and still claim it. I put a plaque on it and said leave it alone. But it’s not mine. I didn’t bring it home.
So here’s a guy who claimed it, who’s brought back items from it, but hasn’t brought back any of the actual ship. 99.9% of the ship is still there, but he maintains his claim. He has excursions. Did you get your invitation from Burt Reynolds? I have mine. Did you know “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” will be there? Yes, Debbie Reynolds is going, too. The selling of the coal on the Internet was just too much.
Naval History: The selling of what?
Ballard: You can buy Titanic coal through the Internet. You didn’t know that? They’re selling coal right now for 25 bucks. Didn’t you catch the USA Today ad for Christmas?
So someone else is paying this time. It’s the little old lady from Pasadena who wants to see Debbie Reynolds. People are going on a “love boat” to watch it on closed-circuit television, which I think is a kick. It’s a carnival.
Naval History: We’ve heard much about your dives on the ships of Iron Bottom Sound at Guadalcanal. What are your plans there?
Ballard: One of the reasons for doing Iron Bottom Sound was, again, trying to project into the future. One of the reasons we were on the Britannic—sister of the Titanic—last summer was to look at ways to learn more about maritime history and even ancient history, where it becomes archaeological history. The deep sea is a preserver of history.
That began to unfold in my life when I found the Titanic and then when I found chilling swastikas still painted on the deck of the Bismarck 50 years after she sank.
And then we went to Guadalcanal and saw the shine on the guns and went up to the bridge of the Quincy (CA-39), and all the camouflage paint was still there, perfectly preserved. Torpedoes were in their launches and depth charges in their racks. The guns were aimed at the last salvo, locked in combat. There was a battlefield. Guadalcanal was a battlefield.
More recently, during our work in the Mediterranean, we found a fleet of Roman ships that got caught in a storm. In a desperate attempt to save themselves, the crews began throwing their cargos overboard, leaving trails of debris to the ships. So there is a maritime disaster preserved from two millennia ago.
If you begin to look at the deep sea’s ability to preserve our history, you realize that a battlefield or the site of a maritime disaster place the artifacts in context.
When we went back to the Lusitania, we were able to resolve the issue of whether the magazine was full or not, because the magazine was still there. We were able to show that it did not explode. It was not because of war materials being struck by a torpedo. It had struck a coal bunker, an empty coal bunker, and it ignited coal dust that exploded and sank the ship.
The ability to go back and do forensic science, that’s what’s exciting. In the case of Guadalcanal, we have the capability of letting people visit it. When the Arizona went down, did anyone ever think we would build a memorial over top of her and that visitors would actually be able to go out there and watch oil bubbles rise to the surface? I’m sure when they buried [General George A.] Custer they never thought there would be tourism, that people would come and walk the battlefield of the Little Big Horn.
Naval History: As more sites are found, how are you going to keep people from making claims under the Admiralty Law?
Ballard: Well, how do you keep people from destroying Yosemite National Park? You finally convince the powers that be. But you have to show those people the place about to be destroyed. So it’s a question of getting it to that point.
We have made some progress, from Clive Cussler’s book, Raise the Titanic!, to people actually thinking that maybe it’s not a good idea. The Titanic may be the sacrificial lamb that does it. People may get disgusted with the carnival, because it will only get worse.
Naval History: Did you ever have any desire to find Amelia Earhart’s airplane?
Ballard: I’ve done a lot of homework on it, and there’s so much uncertainty. From what I can see, she probably ditched.
If the plane landed in shallow water, it would be so well oxygenated in the sunlight that it would be practically gone by now. The only way you’re ever going to have an Amelia Earhart airplane is if she ditched in deep water. But that would be by accident, I think.
Naval History: What are the major differences between working in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, if any?
Ballard: The Pacific is so big. It costs more money, generally, because you have to go greater distances. Guadalcanal was a lot of work. We sat in port waiting for parts that were being flown in from San Diego. There are no stores, nothing except malaria. It’s a jungle.
So it’s a logistics issue. But it turns out that most history is in the northern hemisphere. And most of the ocean is in the southern hemisphere.
Naval History: What most interests you at the moment?
Ballard: I’m very interested in the Black Sea because of its anaerobic conditions. That’s where I really want to work, because it would preserve Bronze Age history in beautiful condition. There’s no oxygen; there are no wood borers. The ships would be preserved, mummified. No one has ever done anything comprehensive in there because of the Cold War. So I know what I want to do, and it isn’t Amelia Earhart.
Naval History: In the 1960s, Sea Lab was very much a point of discussion. What role do you see a permanent-manner underwater sea station playing in the future?
Ballard: I’m an advocate of presence on the ocean floor, but I don’t think that ambient living is going to be pervasive. We just finished the Jason Project in Florida, where we were working with the Aquarius Habitat, NOAA’s saturation facility. There we saturated scientists for two weeks, living under ambient conditions.
The United States has a long history of saturation facilities for research, and I think there will always be a place for that. I don’t think there will be a pervasive use of it by the public. I don’t think it has a commercial visibility, even for entertainment, and certainly not for living, as far as moving large numbers of people under the ocean and having them live in ambient conditions.
I do see value in establishing presence in the ocean, particularly mobile presence. I worked for a long time during the Cold War trying to convince the Navy that it should build another kind of submarine. Naturally, no one wanted to hear that.
But I am an advocate of terrain-involved submarines. In fact, when I first came into the Navy 30 years ago, I came as a former Army officer. My original commission was in Army intelligence and terrain analysis, and my background as an earth scientist was in topography and terrain. I was amazed to find that the Navy’s attitude toward the bottom of the ocean was to avoid it at all risks, and not use it to your tactical advantage.
For some naïve reason, I thought nuclear-powered submarines could land on the ocean bottom. The only one that could in the early days was the Nautilus—not [Admiral Hyman] Rickover’s Nautilus (SSN-571), but Jules Verne’s Nautilus.
I was an advocate of modifying a submarine like the NR-1—the only deep-diving nuclear-powered submarine the Navy’s ever built—into a combatant that could work in rugged terrain. That would make more sense than trying to make a big 688 [Los Angeles-class] or 637 [Sturgeon-class] boat into a terrain-involved submarine.
I’ve had no luck with that yet. And I haven’t done a lot of work with MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and naval nuclear officers at MIT in looking at terrain-involved combatant submarines.
Naval History: The Navy’s new attack submarine, the NSSN, seems to be still undergoing a very fluid design process.
Ballard: We called it the NRX. In times of relative peace, I think we should experiment and not just continue to be preparing for the last war. We should make sure we have a model.
Naval History: What different design changes do you have in mind?
Ballard: A small sub. The wave length of the terrain in the ocean is about 200 to 220 feet. If you get much bigger than that, you can’t fit into the landscape. You have to remember that a lot of submarines are designed around their power plants. They’re designed to go great distances, shoot their bullets, and go great distances to get more bullets.
So the power plant dominates, which is no surprise. Look who was in charge: Admiral Rickover. What if you think of these as forward-deployed assets that are put into the field and resupplied in the field? They would not require long transits. They could even be towed into the field.
Naval History: Towed with what?
Ballard: A nuclear-powered submarine, or even a conventional one. I mean, either a ballistic-missile submarine or a fast-attack boat could carry these assets into the field.
Naval History: It would be a throwback to the Japanese midget submarines of World War II, right?
Ballard: Not that small. I remember when Vice Admiral Ron Thunman was Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Submarine Warfare, and I went into his office with a model of the Reykjanes Ridge that a group of graduate students had built based on Navy classified data of that area. I laid it on his office table in the Pentagon, and he said, “What’s this?” I said, “It’s your battlefield of the future.” I wondered why we positioned our submarines up at the choke points between Greenland and Iceland and Iceland and Norway and the British Isles. Why weren’t they in the terrain? I reminded him that it’s all magnetic, volcanic rock. It’s hard, it’s reverberating, it’s noisy, and it’s a perfect place to conceal forces. I told him I’d like to take the NR-1 into his battlefield and demonstrate its viability, operating with a traditional Navy crew. They gave me a cruise.
I published an article on it in National Geographic. We scaled 17 volcanoes and were never more than a few feet from the meanest, nastiest terrain you could ever hope to have on the face of the earth—primitive, volcanic terrain, no roads, caves, overhangs, lava tubes. And we worked comfortably, bottoming the submarine at various spots.
This began to make the Navy aware that there is a bottom to the ocean instead of only a three-dimensional fluid space, which, quite honestly, isn’t very thick. If you take a basketball and call it the earth, put it in a bathtub and lift it up, the water clinging to the basketball would represent the oceans of the world, in scale. That is close, hand-to-hand combat. The Navy needs to realize that there is a battlefield there. The Russians did it well, because the Russians were an army first, a navy second.
That’s the kind of thing I think we should be looking at now. In any future conflict, we will be trying to penetrate an adversary’s frontiers. And the best way to do that is from the sea.