News & Politics

Robert Ballard, Who Found the "Titanic," Wants to Turn the Wreck Into a Museum (Pictures)

As the 100th anniversary of the sinking approaches, the explorer talks about his ambitious plans for the famous sunken ship.

A hand-built model of the Titanic, featured in the “Secrets of the Titanic” exhibition at the National Geographic Society museum. Photograph by Jeff Martin.

Robert Ballard, the explorer who found the wreckage of the Titanic, says he intends to return to the depths to clean and repaint the ship’s hull. He admits some people call the idea “crazy,” but he’s convinced it’s possible. “And so I’m going to do it. If you can’t protect the Titanic, you can’t protect anything.”

Ballard spoke at the National Geographic Society, where he is an explorer in residence. The occasion was the opening of an exhibition that marks the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking, which happened at 2:20 AM on April 15, 1912. Of the 2,224 passengers onboard, more than half–1,514 people–died. The story has been told in popular books and movies, the most celebrated version being the Oscar-winning 1997 film by James Cameron. Props from that movie, including a lifeboat, are included in the exhibition, which runs through July 8.

The guests Tuesday evening were NGS board members, supporters, and more than a few self-proclaimed ” Titanic groupies.” Before Ballard’s lecture, wherever he walked in the exhibition gallery and at an adjacent reception, he was surrounded by friends and admirers. But his lecture was the heart of the evening. He spoke as a life-long underwater explorer, “imprinted with the ocean,” whose passion was “just to find the Titanic,” which he did in the summer of 1985 in a race against two other blue water oceanographic institutions, one American and one French. He credits the French as “co-discoverers.” He’s candid now that his expedition was funded by the Navy under the guise of a search for sunken nuclear subs.

“We believe there’s a future to the Titanic,” he said. “There’s no reason to walk away from it. We see a future where you turn it into an underwater museum and are able to visit. It’s a historical site.” He said he’s applied to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association for a permit to clean and repaint the ship’s hull, an idea he got after noticing that the ship’s anti-fouling paint, which coated the hull below the waterline, was still protecting the material. He said the extreme decay is within the metal parts that weren’t coated with anti-fouling paint, and those are the parts of the hull he wants to clean and paint. Much of the ship’s exposed wood has been eaten away by wood bores, but that “the deeper you go into the Titanic the less it has been affected by Mother Nature.” Deep inside, he said, where there’s no oxygen, “the rooms are preserved.”

Ballard said the technology for fulfilling his goal already exists and is used regularly to clean and paint the underwater hulls of super tankers. It is essentially a system in which cleaning and painting equipment is built onto magnets that attach to the hull. “So I personally find it a piece of cake,” he said.

What worries Ballard is the damage done by people since the wreckage was discovered. He said salvagers take submarines down to the ship to remove parts of it for profit. To make his point, he showed photographs of the Titanic when he first found it and more recently. The crow’s nest, for example, was in the earlier photos but now is gone. He showed sections of the deck where submarines have landed and crushed it. “You really should not take things from this site,” he said. To prevent that, he said, “We need a new set of protocols.”

His underwater museum would not land people on the decks or have them disturbing the wreckage. Instead, they would be part of underwater expeditions that used special cameras to unobtrusively explore the ship’s interior.

At the earlier cocktail reception, we talked to him about his new ambitions. “Older people think I’m crazy, but kids think it’s cool,” he said. When told about a number of tweets from teenagers revealing that the 100th anniversary made them aware the Titanic was a real ship that sank–and not just a movie–he laughed. “And if you talk to some older people, they are surprised to learn it sank,” he said.

Ballard is a fan of the movie, though, and a friend of director James Cameron. They share many of the same passions. He still talks fondly about the time when the movie first came out and Ballard had not seen it–and Cameron raced a full print from California to Ballard’s home near Woods Hole, Massachusetts. One of the most impressive parts of the National Geographic exhibition is the model of the wreckage used in the film. The detail is remarkable, and for any fan of the film it is a special effects treat.

Ballard became wistful when recalling the night his expedition crew found the wreckage. At first they celebrated, but Ballard stopped the revelry because he realized they were floating over a grave and there was no reason to celebrate. He had achieved his goal, but they had to show respect. He said he reached out to the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland, where the “unsinkable” Titanic was built, to share the news, but they hung up on him. “They were in denial,” he said.

We asked him where he planned to be on the actual anniversary of the sinking, Sunday morning. He smiled. “I will be in Belfast, at Harland and Wolff,” he said. “After all these years they’ve come around. They’ve built a big museum.” He said he will be there to help christen the attraction, called the Titanic Belfast.

The evening was not without humor. A group of men joined Ballard to look at the detailed deck plan of the ship. The serious explorer pointed out to them various parts of the boat, including first-class cabins, dining areas, and the grand staircase. “What I want to know is where was it that Leo did Kate,” said one of the men, referring to the movie scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s characters make love in the backseat of a car. Ballard didn’t miss a beat. “Right there,” he joked, pointing to a small spot on the chart.