Sept. 1, 1985 will forever go down as an important date in maritime history. That’s when the wreckage of the Titanic was finally discovered after it sank in 1912.
It brought headlines around the world, and for good reason.
Finally discovering the Titanic 73 years after it sank was akin to finding the “Lost City of Atlantis,” and concluded decades of failed aspirations, ideas and attempts to find the wreckage.
A ‘Titanic’ secret
After the luxury ship sank in 1912 on its way to New York from England, there were numerous attempts by wealthy entrepreneurs and explorers to find the wreckage, in part to try and collect all the previous valuables that were likely still with it.
Ideas such as using molten wax, nylon balloons and ping pong balls to bring the wreck to the surface were discussed, but nothing worked due to financing, practicality, or proper understanding of the ocean’s depth.
Besides, nobody knew exactly where the ship was anyway, and even the most developed technology couldn’t locate it miles below the surface of the ocean.
That changed in the early 1980s, when Robert Ballard, an oceanographer who led a failed attempt to locate the Titanic in 1977, got the Navy to help fund the development of an unmanned camera sled named “Argo” that could be towed behind a surface ship at depth up to 20,000 feet, according to history.com.
The only problem was that the Navy didn’t want anything to do with the Titanic.
Instead, the Navy agreed to use Ballard’s technology for a secret mission to locate two nuclear submarines that wrecked in the same vicinity of the North Atlantic Ocean as the Titanic, according to National Geographic.
The mission to find the submarines was so secret that Ballard and the Navy didn’t start fully disclosing the details of it until the 2000s, roughly two decades after the Titanic was discovered.
The Navy wanted to know what happened to the nuclear reactors on the ships Thresher and Scorpion that sunk between 10,000 and 15,000 feet in the ocean during the 1960s -- and whether it was environmentally safe to dispose of additional future nuclear materials in oceans.
In addition, the Navy wanted to see if there was evidence that the Scorpion had been shot down by Soviets.
The reactors were eventually found to be safe to the environment, and there was no indication of a weapon sinking the Scorpion, so after his mission with the Navy was complete, Ballard turned his attention to the Titanic.
The Navy never fully gave Ballard permission to find the Titanic, only saying he could do what he wanted if there was remaining time after the mission was completed.
Ballard ended up having 12 days to find the Titanic.
Locating the wreck
While searching for the two submarines, Ballard noticed that wreckage from them fell to the floor of the sea and created a long chain of debris, so he changed his search technique for the Titanic.
Instead of searching for the ship’s hull, Ballard and his team on the ship “Knorr” used Argo to scan the sea bed in search of a debris trail that would lead to the ship itself.
For roughly a week, the crew found nothing but sand.
However, everything changed just after midnight on Sept. 1, 1985.
Finally, pieces of debris appeared on the cameras of Knorr, one of which was the boiler of the Titanic.
To view a video of the moment Ballard and his crew discovered the boiler on YouTube, click or tap here.
A day later, the main part of the wreck was located, after 73 years.
It still lies roughly 13,000 feet under the ocean’s surface, 370 miles off of the coast of Newfoundland.
The photos of the wreck ended up providing evidence to a question that had been asked for seven decades since it sank: “Did the ship break a part in two pieces or stay in one piece?”
The answer was that it did indeed break apart in two pieces.
In the summer of 1986, Ballard returned to the Titanic wreckage as part of the first submersible that took humans underwater there for further investigation.
In the years after the discovery, numerous dives and expeditions have taken place to retrieve valuable items from the Titanic.
Whether it’s been gloves, a menu from the ship’s dining area, clothes, a violin or a pocket watch, numerous items have been retrieved, restored and sold for handsome sums over the past 38 years, since the ship was finally discovered.
There were also questions of whether the ship could and would ever be raised from the water, but it’s been determined that it is too fragile and too deep in the ocean to do so.
Ballard, over the years, has actually been an opponent of divers retrieving artifacts and raising the Titanic up, instead wishing for people to keep reverence for the ship after his historic discovery and more than 100 years after it sank.
“The Titanic lies now in 13,000 feet of water on a gently sloping alpine-like countryside overlooking a small canyon below,” Ballard said in an article on history.com. “There is no light at this great depth and little life can be found. It is a quiet and peaceful place — and a fitting place for the remains of this greatest of sea tragedies to rest. Forever may it remain that way.”
To view a 2004 video tour of the wreck at the bottom of the Atlantic, courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, click or tap here.
This story ran in 2020 and has since been updated.