It was just past 11 a.m. Wednesday, and Dr. Robert Ballard — renowned international explorer and the discoverer of the most famous shipwreck in history — bounced from the bowels of his latest project at the like he was on springs, flashing a wide grin and thrusting his hand at yet another in a long line of media members waiting to talk to him about the RMS Titanic.
“Where’s Joe?” he chided the reporter when she told him which publication she was representing.
“Joe’s on vacation!” replied the female reporter, who matched his enthusiasm.
“Oh, so he’s letting you do this story? You’re Joe today!”
Ballard had reason to be upbeat. He, along with aquarium and Sea Research Foundation officials, unveiled “Titanic — 12,450 Feet Below,” a sprawling interactive exhibit at the aquarium that takes visitors through the experience of searching for and finding the remains of the doomed ocean liner, which sank 100 years ago this coming Sunday.
Ballard teamed with longtime friend and former senior Walt Disney Imagineer Tim Delaney on the exhibit, which features a planetarium room with an iceberg that is cold to the touch, a bilevel adventure area inspired by Titanic’s engine room and dozens of interactive exhibits that let visitors experience the tension and the technology that led to the discovery of the wreck.
Delaney, who first teamed with Ballard to design the “Living Seas” (now called “The Seas with Nemo and Friends”) pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center in the late 1980s, said “Titanic — 12,450 Feet Below” is a new approach to the Titanic experience.
“(It) taps into the excitement of exploration and discovery,” Delaney said. “Our Titanic exhibit is awe-inspiring and emotional. It is designed to capture the moment of discovery that only access to the actual discoverer’s insight and vision can deliver.”
Ballard, for his part, wasn’t always so buoyant about the discovery of the Titanic.
The expedition that led to the discovery was originally conceived as what he termed the “cover” for a military exercise that was more Cold War than cultural.
There had been several previous expeditions that had tried in vain to find the wreck, each well-financed and with two full months to work with the most advanced technology of the era. The Navy agreed to finance an expedition, but Ballard would have to put his national security mission ahead of his exploration.
“What people didn’t know at the time was that I was actually doing a series of military operations — I was a Naval intelligence officer — that we needed a cover for. We had lost, during the Cold War, two submarines, the Thresher and the Scorpion, and they were, ironically, on either side of the Titanic. In the case of the Scorpion we had lost nuclear weapons.
“We obviously didn’t want the Soviets to know where our submarines were, so we needed a cover. Titanic was the cover. Unfortunately, the Navy said we had to do their missions first. And so, I had very little time left after completing my military missions … I only had 12 days. The other teams had 60 days.”
With time running out, in the wee hours of Sept. 1, 1985, Ballard and others were working in shifts taking turns monitoring the video feeds from Argo, a robotic deep-sea submersible craft he had developed, when they noticed a trail of debris. Soon, they noticed a boiler, and then discovered the hull of the long-lost luxury liner.
But it didn’t take long for the initial elation to fade.
“When we found it, it was in the final moments of the search. Naturally, our initial reaction was one of celebration … we were jumping up and down, we were screaming and yelling,” Ballard said. “But someone looked at the clock at that moment and said, ‘She sinks in 20 minutes.’
“And that innocent comment hit us hard, because we realized that the last thing we should be doing is celebrating anything. It was like someone went into our bodies and hit a switch.”
TO PROTECT AND PRESERVE
One aspect of the story of the Titanic that you won’t see included anywhere in the exhibit is the inclusion of artifacts from the Titanic. Ballard believes the site should be protected as a gravesite and memorial to those who died.
Conservation and preservation were themes that permeated the unveiling.
Ballard said he’s concerned about the Titanic’s condition after numerous visits by mostly French and Russian submersibles. He said those submarines are crushing the ship’s decks when they land.
“We visited the Titanic (recently). We never came in contact with the bottom of the ocean, we never came into contact with the ship, because the robotic technology is so sophisticated. It’s not like these clumsy submarines that are basically a bull in the china closet,” Ballard said. “We have to protect these sites for future generations. If you can’t protect the Titanic, what can you protect?”
Ballard said he has high hopes for a piece of federal legislation introduced by Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, that would protect the site from those who would disturb it.
“We have no problem with people visiting the Titanic. But you don’t stick your finger in the Mona Lisa when you go to the Louvre, you don’t go to Gettysburg with a shovel, you don’t take belt buckles off the Arizona. What we’re trying to do is have logical, sensible rules of the road for people to visit.”
Dr. Stephen Coan, president and CEO of Sea Research Foundation, echoed Ballard’s sentiments and lauded the vision and execution of Ballard and the design team on the exhibit.
“(The exhibit is) a unique and important collaboration that will give people a chance to experience Titanic through the eyes of the person who found her, someone recognized as one of the world’s greatest explorers, and through the imagination of a world-renowned exhibit designer,” Coan said. “We believe that the Ballard and Delaney team, with the support of one of American’s greatest companies (sponsor United Technologies), under the aegis of an organization dedicated to protecting our oceans through research, education and exploration, is an unbeatable formula for public enrichment and inspiration.”
NEW DAWN OF DISCOVERY
Ballard, for all his accomplishments, believes a golden age of exploration lies ahead, noting that 99 percent of all the world’s oceans remains unexplored.
“I tell young people that the generation of children that are in middle school are going to explore more of earth than all previous generations combined,” he said. “So the age of exploration is really just getting under way, and I can’t wait to see the future exhibits that we are able to have in this wonderful new exhibit center.”
Delaney, too, believes the exhibit is a transformative experience. He tells the story of meeting Ballard in the 1980s when Ballard was a man with a dream.
“I first met Bob in 1983, prior to him going out and finding Titanic. But he had this dream of one day, robots would be scanning the ocean floor,” Delaney said. “Working on the 'Living Seas' pavilion at Disney, it was really all about the future. So I was really intrigued. It was like, ‘Oh my god, this is just going to be fantastic.’
"This whole concept of turning exploration into adventure is really what this is about. And that's what's so exciting. The tools are there to allow us to do that."
Highlights of the exhibit include:
- Fanfare and festive music play as you examine the Titanic’s construction and glimpse recreations of its luxury and high (for the times) technology.
- A glowing iceberg, cold to the touch, sits in the middle of a room alight with stars on the ceiling. Touch-screen exhibits focus on the nature of icebergs, facts about the tragedy and lingering mysteries while Morse code from distant ships and warnings of ice in the water play over loudspeakers.
- A cascade of headlines and watery images take you to the moment of sinking.
- A room that takes you more than two miles below the surface of the ocean with a submersible floating above and eerie images of the Titanic’s hull in the distance
- Kids can chart their own course for exploration in a two-level adventure area inspired by the doomed ship’s engine room filled with speaking tubes, wheels, gadgets and horns.
- “Moment of Discovery,” a high-definition film transports visitors from the search for the shipwreck through the events that unfolded leading up to the discovery.
- A gallery of oversized pictures that pays tribute to some of the 1,517 passengers who lost their lives.
“Titanic — 12,450 Feet Below” opens today, April 12, at the Mystic Aquarium, which is located just off Exit 90 on I-95 in Mystic.