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illustration of titanic sinking
RAYMOND WONG/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC IMAGE COLLECTION
Searching for the Titanic

Could the most famous shipwreck in history ever be found?

By Lauren Tarshis
From the September 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will identify supporting details as they read this narrative nonfiction article about the discovery of the shipwrecked Titanic by a team of oceanographers.

Lexiles: Starter, 500L-600L, 600L-700L, 800L-900L
Guided Reading Level: P
DRA Level: 36
Think and Read: Supporting Details

As you read, look for the details that help you understand how the shipwreck of the Titanic was finally found.

It was April 14, 1912. The Titanic sped across the Atlantic Ocean. The sky glittered with stars; the sea was as still as glass.

This was the Titanic’s first voyage. But already it was world famous. It was big and beautiful. Many believed it was the safest ship ever built.

And then . . . disaster struck!

At 11:40 p.m., the Titanic hit a massive iceberg. The ship’s thick metal side tore open. Icy seawater flooded the ship. The Titanic was doomed. There weren’t enough lifeboats for everyone on board.  Out of more than 2,200 people, only 705 escaped.

Less than three hours later, the Titanic disappeared into the black waters of the North Atlantic.

Would it ever be seen again?

On April 14, 1912, a new ship called the Titanic sped across the Atlantic Ocean. The sea was as still as glass. The ship was big and beautiful. It was famous around the world.

And then . . . disaster struck!

The Titanic hit a big iceberg. It sank into the ocean. Would it ever be seen again?

It was April 14, 1912. The Titanic sped across the Atlantic Ocean. Stars were bright in the sky. The sea was as still as glass.

This was the Titanic’s first voyage. But it was already world famous. Many people thought it was the safest ship ever made.

And then . . . disaster struck!

Late at night, the Titanic hit a massive iceberg. The side of the ship ripped open. Icy seawater flooded in. There were more than 2,200 people on the ship. Only 705 escaped.

A couple hours later, the Titanic sank into the ocean. Would it ever be seen again?

On the night of April 14, 1912, the Titanic sped across the Atlantic Ocean. The sky glittered with stars, the sea was still as glass. On board were more than 2,200 people—bejeweled millionaires and hopeful immigrants, passengers from all around the world. 

This was Titanic’s first voyage. But already it was world famous. Built from the strongest steel, from the most modern designs, the Titanic was said to be “unsinkable.” Then disaster struck.

At 11:40 p.m. the Titanic collided with an iceberg. As icy seawater flooded the ship, it quickly became clear that the Titanic was not unsinkable. It was doomed. And so were most of those on board. 

Two hours and forty minutes later, the magnificent Titanic disappeared into the inky black waters of the North Atlantic.

Would it ever be seen again?

Beyond Reach

The Bottom of the Ocean

Beyond Reach

Titanic Sinks! 1,500 people lost!”

The news of the Titanic disaster shocked the world. Some hoped people had survived inside the wreck. They wanted the Titanic to be found!

But the Titanic was at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean. It was under more than 2 miles of water. No person could survive in water so deep, even if they had air to breathe.

That’s because of something called water pressure, the force of water pushing against the body from all directions. The deeper you go under the sea, the more crushing the pressure becomes. Lungs can’t inflate. Blood doesn’t flow. The heart can barely squeeze out a beat. This is why humans had never explored the deep sea.

Nobody had been to the bottom of the ocean before. Humans can’t survive deep underwater. There’s too much water pressure. That’s the force of water pressing against the body. If humans go too deep, they will die. Lungs can’t inflate. The heart can’t beat.

Years passed. People came up with new ways to explore the ocean. But still no one found the Titanic.

In 1960, two scientists went inside a tiny submarine. It was called a “submersible.” They used it to explore the deep ocean. They inspired other scientists, like Robert Ballard. Ballard saw many things in the deep sea. He saw worms that were as big as humans. But he really wanted to find the Titanic. Ballard and his team tried to find it in 1977. But they had a problem. Part of their ship fell into the ocean. They had to return home.

People were upset. Some hoped that passengers in the ship were still alive. People wanted the Titanic to be searched. But first, the ship had to be found.

The Titanic was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Nobody could go that deep underwater.

That’s because of something called water pressure. Water pressure is the force of water pressing against the body. The pressure gets worse as you go deeper into the ocean. Lungs can’t inflate. The heart can barely beat. This is why humans had never been to the deep sea.

News of the Titanic disaster shocked the world. Right away, people demanded that the ship be found. Some desperate families held out hope that their loved ones could still be alive, sealed off somewhere inside the wreck.

But the Titanic had come to rest on the bottom of the North Atlantic, more than 2 miles beneath the surface. Nobody could survive in such depths, even if there were air to breathe.

That’s because of water pressure—the force of water pushing against the body from all directions. As water gets deeper, pressure becomes more and more crushing. Lungs can’t inflate. Blood doesn’t flow. The heart can barely squeeze out a beat. Even strong metal submarines can be crushed like soda cans. 

In 1912, humans had never ventured into the deep sea. The Titanic was lost in a world as mysterious—and unreachable—as outer space.

Human-Size Worms

A Big Metal Object

Human-Size Worms

Human-Size Worms

JOHN B. CARNETT/BONNIER CORPORATION VIA GETTY IMAGES

But as time went by, new inventions let people go deeper into the ocean. In 1960, two researchers climbed into a tiny submarine—a “submersible.” They went 7 miles down in the Pacific Ocean.  Their submersible was strong. It wasn’t crushed by the water pressure.

The men didn’t see much underwater. It was almost pitch-dark down there. But they made it back alive. Their achievement inspired many people.

One of those people was Robert Ballard. Ballard had always been fascinated by the sea. He went to college to become an oceanographer—a scientist who studies the sea. He was able to go deep underwater in submersibles. What amazing wonders he saw! Eyeless fish. Human-size worms. Foot-long clams.

But there was something else Ballard wanted to find: the Titanic.

And in 1977, he decided to try to find it. Ballard and a small team set out for the North Atlantic. Hopes were high. But then, just days into the voyage, a huge piece of Ballard’s ship came loose. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of expensive equipment plunged into the sea. He had no choice but to return home.

Ballard wanted to find a new way to explore the deep sea. He and his team built a new kind of submersible. It could be controlled from far away. No human needed to be inside. It had cameras that took pictures and recorded videos. They called it Argo.

In 1985, Ballard used Argo to look for the Titanic. He sent Argo to the bottom of the ocean. From above, Ballard and his team watched images on a screen. Argo worked perfectly. Finally, on September 1, one of Argo’s cameras found a big metal object. Ballard’s heart pounded. He knew what he was looking at: part of the Titanic’s engine! Then they saw other things from the ship, like its round windows. They had done it! They had found the Titanic.

Ballard and his team made amazing discoveries. They learned that the ship had cracked in half just before it sank. The front part was far away from the back. Debris was all over the place. But Ballard didn’t take any of the treasures he found. He left the shipwreck of the Titanic alone. He wanted to honor the memory of those who had died on that night in 1912. 

Years later, people made new inventions to explore the ocean. In 1960, two researchers climbed into a tiny submarine. It was called a “submersible.” They went down into the Pacific Ocean. The submersible was strong enough for the water pressure.

The men didn’t see much underwater. It was very dark. But they made it back alive. Their achievement excited many people.

One of those people was Robert Ballard. Ballard is a scientist who studies the sea. From inside submersibles, he saw many wonderful things. Fish without eyes. Worms as big as humans. Foot-long clams. But Ballard really wanted to find the Titanic.

In 1977, he set out to find it. Ballard and a few others went to the Atlantic. Hopes were high. But a big piece of Ballard’s ship came loose. This happened only a few days into their voyage. Equipment that cost thousands of dollars plunged into the sea. Ballard had to stop and go home.

But in the coming decades, new inventions would slowly open the deep sea to exploration. The most important was a technology called sonar, which uses sound waves to create images of objects miles underwater.

Then, in 1960, two researchers in a submersible—a tiny submarine-like vehicle called Trieste—descended 7 miles down into the Pacific Ocean. The two men didn’t see much in the murky blackness. But their submersible withstood the water pressure, and the men made it back alive. Their achievement inspired a new generation of undersea explorers.

One of them was Robert Ballard. When he was a kid growing up in Southern California, Ballard’s friends loved to surf. But Ballard was more interested in what was happening deep underneath the waves. He went to college to become an oceanographer—a scientist who studies the sea.

By the late 1970s, Ballard had spent more time in deep-sea submersibles than almost any other human. What amazing wonders he saw! Eyeless fish. Human-sized worms. Foot-long clams. Plants that thrived without a speck of sunlight. Mysterious plumes of boiling-hot fluid shooting up from vents in the seafloor.

But there was another undersea wonder that Ballard longed to find: the Titanic.

Decades had passed since the sinking. But millions of people, like Ballard, were entranced by the ship. Like an invisible hand reaching up from the bottom of the sea, the Titanic held tight to hearts and imaginations.

EMORY KRISTOF/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC IMAGE COLLECTION

Super Submersible

During his second search for the Titanic, Ballard used a new kind of remote-controlled submersible. He called it Argo. It was loaded with cameras and powerful lights.

Deep Underwater


Deep Underwater

Frozen Terror

Ballard wanted to try again. But he was embarrassed by his failure. It was hard to get more money for another trip. He tried not to get too upset. Instead, he focused on another dream he had.

For years, Ballard had wanted to create a better way for humans to explore the deep sea. Submersibles let scientists like Ballard go deep underwater. But the trips were dangerous. And the submersibles could stay down for only a few hours at a time.

Ballard had a new idea. He wanted to build a remote-controlled submersible. This one wouldn’t need a human to go inside. Also, it would be covered with cameras. It would take pictures and record videos that scientists could watch from a ship above.

Ballard and a team got to work on the submersible. It was called Argo. Meanwhile, Ballard hadn’t forgotten about the Titanic. In 1984, he decided to try again to find the shipwreck.

On August 24, 1985, Ballard and his team were back in the North Atlantic. This time they had Argo. They sent Argo down to the bottom of the ocean. Its cameras and video cameras clicked and buzzed. In a ship above, Ballard and his team watched as images came onto the screen. Argo worked perfectly!

In the coming days, Argo took pictures and videos of many things. There were boulders. There were huge holes in the sea bottom. There were plants that could grow without light. But there was no sign of the Titanic.


Ballard wanted to try again. But it was hard to get more money for another trip. He tried not to get upset. Instead, he thought about another dream he had.

He wanted to find a better way to explore the deep sea. Scientists could go deep underwater in a submersible. But the trips were dangerous. And submersibles couldn’t stay down for very long.

Ballard had a new idea: a remote-controlled submersible. No human needed to be inside. It had cameras to take pictures and record videos. Scientists could look at the pictures and videos while on a ship above.

Ballard and his team built the new submersible. They named it Argo. Ballard had not forgotten about the Titanic. He decided to look for it again.

On August 24, 1985, Ballard and his team went back to the Atlantic. This time they had Argo. They sent Argo down to the bottom of the ocean. Its cameras clicked and buzzed. From above, Ballard and his team watched images on the screen. Argo worked perfectly!

Argo took pictures and videos of many things. There were boulders. There were huge holes in the sea bottom. There were plants that could grow without light. But there was no sign of the Titanic.

What about the Titanic was so fascinating?

There was the ship, of course. At the time, the Titanic was the biggest moving object ever built. Few ships were as luxurious. But more than its powerful engines or beautiful first-class cabins, it was the heartbreaking tragedy of the sinking that captivated people like Ballard.

More than 1,500 people died in the sinking. And most of their deaths could have been prevented. The Titanic’s crew had been warned that icebergs were lurking in its path. Yet the Titanic’s captain kept the ship steaming across the ocean at close to top speed.

Even after the collision, almost everyone could have survived. But there were only enough lifeboats for half of those on board. 

In the years after the disaster, survivors shared their terrifying memories—the haunting cries they heard as the ship went down, their hours of frozen terror in the lifeboats, their tears of relief when, at dawn, the ship Carpathia came to rescue them.

Reading these poignant [POY-nyuhnt] stories, Ballard became more determined to find the ship. But where exactly was the Titanic? Nobody was sure.

Titanic’s crew had relayed its location after it hit the iceberg —about 400 miles south of Newfoundland. But the Titanic had most certainly drifted in the more than two hours before it finally sank.

Ballard scoured historical records. Finally he settled on a 100-square-mile area of ocean to search. 

In 1977, he and a team set out for the North Atlantic. Hopes were high. But then, just days into the voyage, a 50-ton piece of his ship came loose and crashed down. Six hundred thousand dollars worth of sonar and other borrowed equipment plunged into the sea. Devastated, Ballard returned home.

JOHN LAMPARSKI/WIREIMAGE (CUP); MICHEL BOUTEFEU/GETTY IMAGES (BINOCULARS); JOSEPH H. BAILEY/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC IMAGE COLLECTION (COIN); BRUCE DALE/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC IMAGE COLLECTION (STOPWATCH)

Titanic’s Treasures

Ballard never removed anything from the shipwreck of the Titanic. For him, it was a memorial to those who had died. But in later years, other explorers removed thousands of objects, including these.

Ship of Dreams


Ship of Dreams

Other Dreams

On September 1, Ballard went to his cabin to try to rest. He felt discouraged. Soon they’d run out of time and have to go back to shore. Was this mission going to end like the first, in failure?

He had just settled into bed when he was called back upstairs. The team was studying something in the control room. On the screen was a huge metal object. Ballard’s heart pounded. He knew what he was looking at: part of the Titanic’s engine! Soon they saw more—a piece of twisted metal, round windows for a ship, a bannister. They had done it!

In the coming days, Ballard and the team would make dazzling discoveries. The biggest discovery: The ship had cracked in half just before it sank. The front part was one-third of a mile away from the back. Debris was scattered for more than a mile. They’d find dishes, shoes, and jewels on the seafloor.

But Ballard didn’t take any of those treasures. He explored the shipwreck of the Titanic but left it untouched. He wanted to always honor the memory of those who had lost their lives on that starlit night in 1912.  


Then on September 1, one of Argo’s cameras found a huge metal object. Ballard’s heart pounded. He knew what he was looking at. It was part of the Titanic’s engine! Then they saw a piece of twisted metal, round windows, and a bannister. They had done it!

Ballard and his team made many discoveries. They learned that the ship had cracked in half just before it sank. The front part was far away from the back. Debris was spread out for more than a mile. They found dishes, shoes, and jewels on the seafloor.

But Ballard didn’t take any of those treasures. He wanted to always honor the memory of those who had lost their lives on that night in 1912.  

Ballard’s failure made it hard for him to get support for another search. And soon he had a rival: a millionaire named Jack Grimm.

Grimm loved spending his money on attention-grabbing quests. Over the years, he’d searched, without success, for Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster. In 1980, he set his sights on the Titanic.

Grimm hired top scientists and bought them the best equipment. Ballard felt certain the team would succeed. He tried to let go of his Titanic dreams. Fortunately, Ballard had other dreams to focus on.

For years, Ballard had wanted to create a better way to explore the deep sea. Submersibles had let scientists like Ballard glimpse the undersea world. But those journeys were perilous. Plus, the submersibles could stay down only for a few hours at a time.

Ballard had an idea for a new kind of remote-controlled submersible, one he called Argo. It was basically an underwater robot covered with cameras. Like an octopus with cameras and lights clutched in every tentacle, Argo would capture thousands of images over large areas. Scientists on the surface would be able to see the images on TV screens.

With money provided by the U.S. Navy, Ballard and a team got to work on Argo. Meanwhile, Grimm’s Titanic search went on and on, without success. Finally, after three separate missions costing millions of dollars, Grimm ended his Titanic quest.




Bomb Craters