He found the Titanic, but for Robert Ballard the search never ends

Over six decades, his deep-sea expeditions have used technology and intuition to reveal a bounty of cultural treasures.

Robert Ballard emerges from the submersible Alvin after a 1979 dive to the Galápagos Rift. Ballard’s push for direct visual observation of the deepest reaches of the ocean has led to momentous scientific and historic discoveries.
Photograph by Samuel W. Matthews

“If the plane was in there, it would have seen it,” says Robert Ballard, referring to the 14-foot autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) launched from his 211-foot exploration vessel, the E/V Nautilus.

He is sitting in his cabin on the Nautilus, gesturing at a map of the seafloor on his computer screen. The ASV, a remote-controlled boat equipped with multibeam sonar, had generated the underwater image as it skirted the reef surrounding Nikumaroro, the remote Pacific island where Ballard was searching for Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E. 

More than four decades after discovering hydrothermal vents and black smokers on the seafloor, three decades after finding the Titanic, and nearly 20 years after locating John F. Kennedy’s World War II patrol boat, the 78-year-old National Geographic explorer-at-large is still in the business of solving the ocean’s great mysteries. Earhart, who disappeared while trying to become the first person to fly around the world at the Equator, has been missing for more than eight decades. Before this expedition in 2019, Ballard had announced that if her plane was there, he would find it.

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