Robert Ballard, the charismatic professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, has had an illustrious career as a marine explorer. But he is best known for discovering the Titanic on September 1, 1985.
With the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking upon us, Ballard is set to deliver a rare, free public lecture on his historic find – and his efforts to preserve the sacred wreck – at the Ryan Center on URI's Kingston campus on April 19 at 7 p.m.
The Phoenix caught up with Ballard for a Q&A by phone from the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, where he was celebrating the new "Titanic – 12,450 Feet Below" exhibit that he developed with Tim Delaney, a former Walt Disney Imagineer.
The interview is edited and condensed.
SO HOW'S THE EXHIBIT LOOK? Actually, it's beautiful. I just got to see it for the first time. I just flew in. The exhibit was finished this morning!
CAN YOU DESCRIBE THAT MOMENT OF DISCOVERY, WHEN YOU FIRST GLIMPSED THETITANIC? Well, you know, there's two people in you when things like this happen. There's the professional – it was my job, I was trying to find it. We actually have at the exhibit a 10-minute program called "The Moment." And we had cameras rolling when that all took place – so there's no hiding from what happened. We jumped up and down and we celebrated, we got all excited. And then someone looked at the clock on the wall and said, "she sinks in 20 minutes"; she sank at 2:20 and we found her at 2. We were very embarrassed, actually, that we were celebrating, and the mood changed dramatically. And it's never changed back. It's a powerful moment, it really hits you. And I wasn't expecting to be affected, but I was.
WHY DO YOU THINK THE STORY OF THETITANIC STILL RESONATES 100 YEARS LATER? Oh, I think because it was a morality play acted out on the deck of a ship. She took three hours to sink. There were heroes, there were villains. I think everyone's curious how they would behave under such conditions – and you don't know unless you're put in that situation.
YOU'VE MADE A CONSCIOUS DECISION NOT TO TAKETITANIC ARTIFACTS FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR. OTHER VISITORS – SALVAGE HUNTERS – HAVE TAKEN A DIFFERENT APPROACH.DO YOU THINK THETITANIC WILL BE THERE IN 100 YEARS? Yes. I think it'll certainly be there. My gosh, I'm finding ships that have been under the ocean for 2,500 years. So this baloney that it's going to disappear is baloney. And actually, you can take steps toward conservation, preservation, which I am proposing to do. You can actually clean and paint the ship underwater. It's done now with supertankers. So it's just a matter of raising the money to mount such an expedition.