One hundred years after the sinking of Titanic, the legendary ship is once again in distress. The National Geographic documentary Save the Titanic With Bob Ballard presents a sobering look at the forces, both natural and commercial, that are causing serious deterioration to the ocean liner's remains. We spoke with Dr. Ballard, the revered explorer who located Titanic's final resting place in 1985, and found him to be deeply concerned yet surprisingly hopeful. And something's got him very excited.
TV Guide Magazine: Titanic's crow's nest has already collapsed into the cargo hold, likely due to a tourist submarine for rich folks. These subs are actually landing on the wreckage! How does it feel to see the ship under siege like this?
Ballard: We have met the enemy, and they are us. This is a very natural process of human behavior — sad but true — and we must do something about it! I'm trying to get people to understand that Titanic is not just an object; it's a sacred place. I do not believe in the salvaging of its artifacts. You don't go to Gettysburg with a shovel. You don't take belt buckles off the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
TV Guide Magazine: The ship is also decaying due to metal-eating life forms, but your documentary claims this can be halted. That's realistic?
Ballard: Yes, it's possible to protect Titanic from natural degradation. You could literally clean and paint it and apply epoxy underwater using robots, just as they now do with the massive supertankers.
TV Guide Magazine: You also hope to establish a hands-off treaty among nations that can reach Titanic by submarine — Russia, France, Japan and the U.S. — which you think would discourage profiteers. Why would they play along?
Ballard: They would have to. These maverick groups would suddenly have a hard time exploiting their artifacts. They would be attacked by the courts and the public. At this point, they've picked up all the good stuff in the debris field. But 90 percent of the artifacts are still inside the ship and would be too expensive for them to retrieve. The deeper in you go, the more it is protected because there is no oxygen, and some of it is pristine. I believe we can turn Titanic into a living museum and that this will happen in my lifetime.
TV Guide Magazine: Meaning we could all go there as virtual visitors?
Ballard: Exactly. I'm already working with telepresence technology using robots with high-def cameras that go safely into the wreckage and move your spirit there instead of your body, sort of like Avatar. You actually believe you are there inside the ship. My mind is there, my eyes are there, I'm frightened when things suddenly swim by. We will all be doing this in 10 years. It is unbelievably thrilling!
TV Guide Magazine: You've done many specials on Titanic, but with this one you finally got cooperation from Harland and Wolff, the company that built the ship. What the heck took so long?
Ballard: They stopped being in denial. Decades ago, when I was doing my initial research, I contacted Harland and Wolff and their attitude was, "Titanic? Never heard of it." Even after I found the wreckage, they were not interested in dealing with me. Then three years ago I got a call out of the blue. They had finally decided to embrace Titanic and offer access to some incredible information — things I never knew. [Laughs] And I thought I knew everything about the ship!
TV Guide Magazine: Why does Titanic still fascinate us a century later?
Ballard: Had it gone down in minutes like the Lusitania, it would be just another lost ship. But the fact that it took so long to sink allowed time for many stories to unfold. We have heroes and villains, [friction] between the upper and lower classes, couples who chose to die together rather than be separated. And of course, through it all, the band played on. For sheer human drama, you cannot top this story.
Save the Titanic With Bob Ballard airs Monday at 10/9c on National Geographic Channel.