Minnetonka, Minnesota. May, 1988...
In a one-level rambler on a street with the pretty name "Croftview Terrace", a young boy sits mesmerized. A letter in his hand. A letter written on the stationary of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Bearing the signature of one Dr. Robert D. Ballard.
I was amongst the hundreds of school-aged kids who had written to Ballard about his discovery of the Titanic. My own letter being dispatched after recieving a copy of his book The Discovery of The Titanic as a birthday present that year from my grandparents.
I was not even done reading the book before a desire came over me to write him. Which I proceeded to do. Enclosing a photo of my Revell Titanic model as well as some drawings I'd done of the ship. As well as innocently asked him in the letter itself "Was it scary or was it neat?" While down in the minisub Alvin exploring the wreck.
"It was neat, for the most part." Ballard answered. And encouraged me to check my copy of his book for the exact details.
Did I ever.
By the time I was a teenager, my copy of his first Titanic book was well worn from many a read.
I was lucky enough to later exchange letters three more times with Dr. Ballard. Once about the Bismarck, in 1989, then twice in ten years after our first exhange, in 1998. The first letter that year being an invite to come see a restored steamboat raised from Minnesota's Lake Minnetonka that sailed for a museum I was a member of (alas, he was soldily booked and could not come) and the second one yet again dealing with the Titanic.
It now gives me great pleasure to start giving something back to Dr. Ballard with this review of his book Return To Titanic.
Spring, 2004 ...
Once again Dr. Robert Ballard gazed upon the Titanic wreck through the eyes of a remotely operated vehiicle after doing so 19 years before with the towed sled Argo. Only this time, his new ROV -Hercules- was far more advanced with the picture quality more crystal clear than Argo posessed. His mission: Document what had become of the ship since he last saw it from the minisub Alvin in 1986.
His book about this expedition is divided into an introduction and five chapters. "Finding The Titanic" recaps the Titanic saga as well as the pre-discovery attempts to find the wreck by Jack Grimm and others to the Anglo/French expedtion led by Bob Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel which found the ship, and Ballard's 1986 return visit.
"To Salvage Or To Save" covers the post 1986 expeditions which largely were the Titanic Ventures/RMS Titanic Inc. salvage operations as well as the 1993 visit for the filming of the IMAX movie "Titanica" and James Cameron's expeditions to the wreck.
"Tools For Exploration" covers deep sea diving and ROV technology over the years as well as the evolution of Ballard's "telepresence" concept.
The heart of the book is it's final two chapters. "Return to Titanic" and "The Titanic Legacy". Which chornicles Ballard's 2004 return visit aboard the NOAA research vessel Ronald H. Brown to document the wrecksite with his state-of-the-art ROV Hercules. Viewing the wreck from a standpoint of "Look. Don't touch."
He found that, alas, many have touched her in the years since his last visit. And not just by the removal of artifacts.
In fact, his findings as to what previous expeditions have done to the wreck is nothing short of disturbing.
One of the most risible bits of evidence as to this is a picture on page 141 of impact marks left by mini subs on the ship's forecastle near the fallen forward mast. Looking as ugly as red sunburn blotches upon fair skin, these wounds speak eloquently of how mini-subs can be a "bull in a china shop", as Ballard notes, when landing on the Titanic.
Other equally deplorable scenes come from the vast ammount of trash left in the ship's debries field. Such as piles of sandbags used in the "big piece" raising attempts of 1996 and 1998 as well as the likes of plastic cups casually tossed over from ships above. It has been said the Titanic was the "Mount Everest of shipwrecks." It can fairly be said that now the Titanic has become as trash-littered as Everest as well.
Nevertheless, much remains on the ocean floor despite numerous salvage visits. And the Titanic's stern section -preserved from minisub landings due to it's destroyed nature- remains much as it was in 1985-86 save for the plaque honoring the Titanic's dead and his friend William H. Tantum IV that had been presented to him by the Titanic Historical Society left by Ballard in 1986 on the faintail now being gone. (A replacement plaque presented to Ballard by THS president Edward S. Kamuda aboard the Ronald H. Brown before the '04 expedition sailed was placed near the bow during the expedition.)
Photograph of Dr. Robert Ballard recieving the replacement THS plaque from THS president Edward S. Kamuda aboard the Ronald H. Brown in Boston before the expedition departed courtesey Karen Kamuda/Titanic Historical Society and Titanic Museum.
Despite the mountain of evidence his visit uncovered as to the detrimental impact of salvage upon the wrecksite, Ballard is very fair in presenting the pro-salvage point of view in addition to his own in the book, and he acknowledges he once thought salvage from the debries field was proper as he said in his testimony before the US Congress in 1985. In the book, he has this to say about it upon reflection:
"I wish I could take it back. I gave my testimony before having the opportunity to the discuss the future of Titanic in depth with museum curators, historians, and scientists. For a variety of reasons, they agree there is little purpose in removing Titanic items from the ocean floor." (Return To Titanic, page 69).
Moving beyond such controversial topics, Ballard also relates some exciting news as to the ever-growing "telepresence" technology. Such as the fact that all NOAA Marine Sanctuaries will one day be wired up with underwater cameras that will provide internet users with views from them. As well as mentions two currently operating web cams on the shores of and in California's Monterrey Bay and provides them as examples as to what telepresence can do. The one in the Monterrey Bay itself is on Internet 2 and not, alas, readly accessbile to the public, but the one on the shores of the bay -via the Monterrey Bay aquarium site- is. I recently had a very therapuetic viewing experience with this camera one March March evening while watching a beautiful sunset over the Pacific while outside the window where I sat at my PC in Long Lake, Minnesota the weather was dismal as only the Gopher State can get in March. It was mentally refreshing to see pure sunshine over the ocean on such a grubby day.
I admit there is one minor point I disagreed with in terms of the book's style. That being the inclusion of a photograph in the chapter "To Salvage or To Save" of actor Leonardo DiCaprio signing autographs at the 1997 London premiere of James Cameron's film "Titanic." Honestly, hasn't that movie gotten enough free publicity already in Titanic books? What is more, including such pop culture fluff in a serious work of history and science only wastes space that could have been occupied in a later chapter with a more meaningful picture: That of the Titanic herself from Bob's 2004 visit.
There are also two minor factual errors. The 1958 classic A Night To Remember -fittingly screened aboard the Ronald H. Brown during the 2004 expedtion- is credited as being released in 1953. Presumably due to a typo.
Also, it was not Robert Ballard himself that rose the Harland and Wolff flag the night the Titanic's wreckage was found by Argo in 1985 but two naval officers who were on board as part of the Argo team. (A fact correctly related in The Discovery of The Titanic. There is even a photo of the two men raising it in Ballard's earlier work.)
But these minor glitches do not detract from the splendid scope and message of the book.
Ballard writes that one of his goals is to one day place such cameras at the Titanic site. A goal which leaves this writer deeply excited. For I would love to dial up, say, a camera in the ship's debries field and just sit and contemplate the Titanic and her story during a pause in writing about her. Being able to "walk" the site like one can at the preserved portions of Gettysburg, or view like one can the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. Two sacred places, incidentally, Ballard reminds us in the book are protected. While the Titanic and other deep sea wrecks are not.
Within the pages of Return To Titanic, a blueprint to preserve such wrecks for all to appreciate and learn from can be found.
Return To Titanic
By Dr. Robert D. Ballard with Micheal S. Sweeney
National Geographic Society, 2004
192 pages with b&w/color illustrations.
Available from major booksellers, The National Geographic Society, and The Titanic Historical Society