The Discovery of the Titanic, Robert D. Ballard

<em class="BookTitle">The Discovery of the Titanic</em>, Robert D. Ballard

Warner Books, 1998 reprint of 1987 original, 287 pages, $13.99 tp, ISBN 0-446-67174-6

I know that Titanic-mania is so 1997-1998, but there’s no expiration date for good books.  I’ve had Robert Ballard’s The Discovery of the Titanic in my to-read stack for nearly forever and now seems as good a time to read it as ever.

An account of the discovery of the Titanic shipwreck by the oceanographer in charge of the expedition, The Discovery of the Titanic sometimes feels like a throwback to the heroic era of exploration.  It’s not much of a stretch to point out that less than six months elapsed between Roald Amundsen’s December 1911 expedition to the South Pole (the Earth’s last great unexplored frontier) and the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912.  A frontier opened even as another one closed, as generations of curious observers wondered about the exact location of the wreck.

It wasn’t as simple as looking somewhere near the approximate location of the Titanic’s last know position.  Given the depth at which the ship sank, no attempt could be made until technology improved.  Several expeditions simply couldn’t find the wreck.  Meanwhile, popular culture spun its own tales: As a kid, I remember being told fanciful tales of how the wreckage of the ship was still traveling underwater, moved by underwater currents to circle the world.  As amazing at it may sound, it wasn’t until nearly sixty years later, in 1985, that the wreckage was found once again –four kilometres down on the Atlantic ocean floor and broken up in two pieces six hundred meters apart.  Overnight, historical accounts of the ship’s sinking were revised, as common wisdom until then (As reflected in such things as Clive Cussler’s overblown thriller Raise the Titanic!) held that the ship had sunk in one piece.

The discovery of the wreck, far from dampening interest in the story of the ocean liner, revived interest in the matter and eventually led to James Cameron’s blockbuster 1997 movie.  A minor boom in Titanic-related publishing occurred to coincide with the film’s success, and this re-edition of Ballard’s 1987 book, revised to take in account the latest discoveries, was part of the mania.

Still, discounting fads, there’s little doubt that this is one of the essentials on every bookshelf dedicated to the Titanic.  While it doesn’t seem to be in print at the moment, it’s a first-hand account of the discovery of the wreck by the lead discoverer himself, has been favourably reviewed, frequently cited by latter works and is still fascinating to read even a quarter of a century later.  There are better accounts of the sinking itself, and more complete examinations of the wreck (some of them by Ballard himself), but when it comes to describing the moment of the discovery itself, this is the source.

The book does feature a summarized account of the sinking; just enough to set the scene, provide context and prepare readers for the discovery.  Ballard also provides an overview of the previous failed efforts to find the wreck, not sparing one or two barbs at his predecessors.  Describing his own attempt to put together an expedition of his own, Ballard is notably coy about the now-known deal he made with the US Navy to get funding in exchange for exploring US nuclear submarines wrecks prior to his own search for the Titanic.

The world had to wait until a French/American 1985 expedition, using what was then state-of-the-art technology, for the wreck of the Titanic to be found. Ballard’s account of the discovery, in the wee hours of the morning, remains the book’s best passage.  He’s also candid in describing the aftermath, the way the discovery escaped in the press before they had a communication strategy to go along the scientific agenda, and the difficulties dealing with the media circus that accompanied his return to shore.  Ballard’s factual description of the debris found in the field underneath which the Titanic sank is curiously effective in describing the human element of the tragedy.  The book comes with a full-color insert showing beautiful illustrations showing the state of the wreck in 1985.

The Discovery of the Titanic also explain why, as discussed in the afterword of the 1995 edition, Ballard did not raise any artefact from the site –a decision that eventually let others take possession of the wreck under maritime salvage law.  As of this writing, the Titanic wreck is property of a for-profit company putting together traveling museum shows, the debris field has been picked clean of artefacts and numerous visits to the site have left the wreck in far worse shape.  We may want to enjoy the thought of having access to the wreckage site, because chances are that it will be gone, rusted beyond recognition, within a few more decades.  Isn’t it remarkable to realize that the Titanic may have a shorter life as a known site than a lost legend?

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