Tuesday, December 06, 2005

 

Berating Ballard's Top Billing

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The Day
By Steven Slosberg
December 04, 2005

Like the salivating crocodile relentlessly stalking Captain Hook, the Titanic International Society Inc. has been on the prowl for Dr. Robert Ballard.

In this, the 20th anniversary year of the discovery of the sunken remains of the RMS Titanic, the society has pounced. The New Jersey-based group devoted most of the fall 2005 issue of its quarterly journal, Voyage, to, in its words, “setting the record straight” about just who discovered the wreckage of the luxury liner in the North Atlantic on Sept. 1, 1985. The group also has challenged Ballard with a host of accusatory questions about pre- and post-discovery activities.

Ballard, who lives in Lyme, heads the Institute for Exploration at Mystic Aquarium and is popularly regarded as thediscoverer of Titanic, dismisses the group, first as amateurs rather than academics, and also as siding with the undersea school that favors salvaging submerged artifacts.

Ballard, also director of the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, has said he considers the wreckage site a cemetery and removing artifacts would be akin to desecration.

The Titanic International Society, one of whose board members, Shelley Dziedzic, lives in North Stonington and is parish administrator at the University of Rhode Island Episcopal Ministry, posed 10 questions to Ballard in its latest journal, the first and most prominent being:

“Why do you make no effort to correct the statement that you are ‘the discoverer of the Titanic'?”

This assertion is based on Ballard's co-expedition leader, Jean-Louis Michel, a French oceanographer, being on watch aboard the oceanographic vessel Knorr when Titanic debris was sighted, and that Ballard was off duty and, as the allegations go, asleep.

“The public has been led to believe that you single-handedly discovered the Titanic,” wrote Cmdr. Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a resident of Greenwich and co-leader of several subsequent Titanic research and recovery expeditions, in Voyage. He was not aboard the Knorr on the discovery expedition.

“For the last 19 years, you've done an excellent job of withholding the fact that your head was on a pillow, eyes closed, dreaming, perhaps, when the big event happened. Jean-Louis Michel should have been given the bulk of the credit.”

Ballard, who has prepared a lengthy response to the Voyage questions to be published in the Commutator, the journal of another Titanic group, the Titanic Historical Society, maintains he has always given Michel credit as co-discoverer. For the record, there are a dozen or so different societies around the world dedicated to the night of April 14-15, 1912, when the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, taking with it more than 1,500 lives.

Ballard, in his written response, says he was the organizer, principal investigator and the chief scientist on the 1985 expedition, and it did not matter that he had left the control area after his watch was over. “With my job as chief scientist done for the moment, I left the control van and like the captain of the ship returned to my cabin until I was called by the watch leader if needed,” he wrote. “I wasn't there very long before the call came. In fact, I had just settled down to read Chuck Yeager's new book.”

Ballard concludes: “There will, however, be a major miscarriage of justice if the history books simply call me the sole ‘Discoverer of the Titanic.' As I have pointed out time and time again, I was ‘the Co-discoverer of the Titanic' along with Jean-Louis Michel. Jean-Louis and I were partners in this endeavor and he deserves all the credit in the world for the critical role he played in the Titanic's discovery.”

In popular lore, and certainly in a Google search for “Ballard” and “Titanic,” Ballard is credited with being the discoverer. A few publications do give Michel equal billing.

Ballard commands $30,000 for speaking engagements, through the Tennessee-based Premiere Speakers Bureau, as the discoverer. The National Geographic Society, with whom Ballard has worked closely, lauds him as expedition leader and “as being best known for his 1985 discovery of the Titanic.”

Ballard insists the record will show, in his book, “Discovery of the Titanic,” first published in 1987, and elsewhere, that he's shared the glory with Michel. The Titanic International Society says he's only become so publicly magnanimous since the group, and others, have put pressure on him.

Priority in discovery is everything, and in this instance, passions over veracity, like the Titanic itself, are monumental and deep.

This is the opinion of Steven Slosberg.

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