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Photo: Emory Kristof, National Geographic
Photo: Emory Kristof, National Geographic

Untold No Longer: The Story of The Titanic You’ve Never Heard

We all think we know the story of the Titanic. The world’s largest, most luxurious ocean liner sank in 1912 – a triumph of engineering transformed into unspeakable tragedy.

We now know exactly where she lies, thousands of feet below the surface off the coast of Newfoundland, but the Titanic’s location remained a mystery for 70 years. Then, her story became entwined with a modern narrative of Cold War technology, the tragedy of lost nuclear submarines and a secret mission. This is the haunting, fascinating tale at the heart of the National Geographic Museum’s new exhibit, Titanic: The Untold Story, open daily through early January.

National Geographic Explorer Robert Ballard joined the Army during the Vietnam War, but went to graduate school and got a job building submarines. One December night in 1966, he got a knock at the door from a Naval officer.

“He handed me an envelope and said, ‘You’re not in the Army anymore, you’re in the Navy,’” Ballard told On Tap in a recent interview. “That began a long career of living two different lives.”

To the public, he was a well-known oceanographer, writing articles and researching ocean geology and hydrothermal vents. But Ballard kept working with the Navy and requested funding to develop remotely operated submersibles. The Navy agreed, and assigned Ballard a mission to locate, photograph and study the final resting place of the USS Scorpion, a nuclear submarine that sank in 1968. He was to locate the submarine’s nuclear reactor and nuclear weapons, and to get evidence that would help explain her loss.

There was a problem: it was the height of the Cold War between Russia and the United States, and it was imperative that Ballard’s mission avoid drawing the attention of Soviet intelligence. What better cover story for the mission than a search for the lost wreck of the Titanic?

The Navy added research on one more submarine wreck to Ballard’s plate: the USS Thresher, a nuclear submarine that sank five years before the Scorpion. The scientist was to study both the Scorpion and the Thresher to determine if the nuclear material from both subs was impacting the environment.

Though Ballard already knew what led to the Thresher’s demise, questions about the nuclear material remained. The reason the Scorpion sank, however, was inconclusive. Still, Ballard discovered her location using a phenomenon known as the sound channel.

“There’s a special layer about 1,000 meters down where all sound is ducted. If you listen in the sound channel, you can hear noises much, much further away. And we’re pretty sure that whales figured this out a long, long time ago, and that they use it for long distance communication.”

During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy set up listening arrays in multiple parts of the ocean to detect Soviet activity and recorded whatever sounds they picked up. Ballard said the Navy used these recordings to roughly determine the location of the Scorpion.

“We thought, ‘I wonder if we heard her die?’”

Sure enough, they heard the boom as she imploded in the deep. His towed camera system, the Argo, dove to depths of 9,800 feet to find and document the remains of the Scorpion. He had figured out that ocean currents created a debris trail as the Scorpion sank and followed the trail to the wreck.

He then realized he could use the same strategy to find the Titanic. With the allotted time for his mission nearly up, he found the Titanic at the very edge of the search area. He was awed by what he saw.

“I didn’t expect to be affected by this whole thing,” he said. “I’m a scientist and a naval officer, clinically doing things. But it spoke. I was bowled over by the impact of being there.”

Pairs of shoes litter the ocean floor around the wreck, marking where people who died and sank to the bottom once rested. Because leather shoes are treated with tannic acid, sea life won’t eat them and they remain preserved.

“It’s a tombstone. Nothing is small down there. Everything’s gigantic in size, but then there are these little pairs of shoes. It draws your attention away from the massiveness and the grandeur.”
Ballard noticed them every time he went back.

“Every time I made a return trip, I always knew, I saw those shoes and I said, ‘That was somebody.’”

He recalled returning to the Titanic in 2004 with new vehicles.

“I’m sitting in my command center with a beautiful high-definition camera and a remote control robot, and I’m just staying there. For days, I wandered the Titanic. And I got closure.”

Ballard’s secret mission was quietly declassified just a few years ago. Kathryn Keane, vice president of public experiences for the National Geographic Museum, was amazed to learn that the search for the Titanic was the cover story for Ballard’s mission. National Geographic staff were even on board with Ballard during his mission, and still no one knew.

“I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t know that, and I work here,’” Keane said. “If I don’t know this story, most of the public doesn’t know, either.’”

The new exhibit skillfully blends science, history and storytelling. You begin your visit awed by the technology and the mission’s secret backstory, and end by reading the personal stories of Titanic passengers and viewing amazing recreations of the Titanic’s rooms made for James Cameron’s 1998 film Titanic, which remains one of the most successful films ever made.

It’s a moving experience. Keane noted that this is the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the Scorpion, and the losses of both submarines – the Scorpion and the Thresher – and the “unsinkable ship” have far-reaching effects.

“The layers of tragedy surrounding this story impact generations of people,” she said of the Titanic.

It’s certainly difficult to picture the loved ones of these lost crews and ship passengers waiting in vain for good news without feeling their pain. The last artifact in the exhibit is a letter from President Ronald Reagan, designating the wreck of the Titanic as a memorial site.

And though undeniably one of the most pivotal moments of his career, Ballard isn’t interested in being known solely as the discoverer of the Titanic.

“My mother called me after we found the Titanic and said, ‘It’s too bad you found that rusty old ship.’ She understood hydrothermal vents and the science I was doing, and she said, ‘Now they’re only going to remember you for that.’”

But as Titanic: The Untold Story shows, Ballard’s contributions to ocean exploration are far greater than a single mission in 1985, and the story of these three lost vessels is greater than the sum of its parts. Keane said she hopes the exhibit inspires a generation of new explorers.

“One of the things we love to do here at the museum is invite families and get young people excited about exploration and science,” she said. “The story of the Titanic is why they’ve come, but if they come out of it interested in science, exploration, even in serving their country, that would be a victory for us because that’s what we do here.”

Titanic: The Untold Story runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through January 6, 2019 at the National Geographic Museum. Tickets are $15. And don’t miss the Taste of the Titanic event on Wednesday, July 25 at 7 p.m. to experience the actual menus aboard the ship, from first-class cuisine to third-class nosh. Learn more at http://tasteoftitanic.com/

National Geographic Museum: 1145 17th St. NW, DC; 202-857-7700; www.nationalgeographic.org/dc

 

Taste of Titanic (600px)

 

Photo: Courtesy of Sababa
Photo: Courtesy of Sababa

New and Notable: May 2018

On Tap keeps locals in the know about the hottest new food and drink spots around town and the top culinary happenings of the month. Read on to get the inside scoop on what’s new and notable in the DC area.

NEW

Fancy Radish (Photo - Courtesy of Fancy Radish)

Fancy Radish
Open: March 20
Location: H Street
Lowdown: Vegans and omnivores alike rejoiced when Vedge Restaurant Group out of Philadelphia planted their first restaurant in DC. While everything on the menu is completely vegan, owners Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby aren’t trying to push an agenda. They’re just serving vegetables. It’s the way they serve them that makes a splash. Each dish takes a humble piece of produce – like a radish – and elevates it with artful techniques and vibrant flavors. Digging in to small plates like the Chioggia beet picnic, the trumpet mushroom “fazzoletti” and the spicy dan dan noodles, I would have easily believed they were laden with butter and cheese. The menu strikes a balance between the refined cuisine at their Philly flagship, Vedge, and the edgy street food at V Street. The restaurant’s namesake fancy radishes are adapted from the menu at Vedge. At the bar, vegetables also shine in drinks like the Peridot Meteor with gin, celery and olive oil or the Raphanus Shade with rye, radish, black vin and amaro ferro-kina. There are also a variety of natural wines and a handful of draft beers. The space has an industrial vibe, which is softened by earth tones and a mural spanning the restaurant that depicts a vegetable’s life cycle from seed to sprout. 600 H St. NE, DC; www.fancyradishdc.com

Kaliwa (Photo - Courtesy of Kaliwa)

Kaliwa
Open: March 28
Location: The Wharf
Lowdown: Restaurateur power couple Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong, known for Alexandria hot spots Society Fair, Hummingbird and more, opened their latest restaurant at The Wharf. The pair are serving three Asian cuisines that are near and dear to their hearts: Filipino, honoring Meshelle’s heritage; Korean, as an ode to Chef Cathal’s Taekwondo training; and Thai, because it’s their family’s food of choice. The menu is divided into sections for each country, with milder flavors in Filipino dishes like Kalderetang Cordero, slightly spicier funky notes in Korean Jae Yuk Gui and super hot spice levels in Thai Nuer Pad Prik. Most dishes are heavily sauced and meant to be eaten with rice, but there are also a few noodle dishes, hearth-roasted proteins and other classics like lumpiang. With minimal descriptions on the menu, the restaurant provides a glossary of commonly used terms (gochujang, calamansi) and servers are always available to elaborate. The pamphlet also offers some conversational phrases in Tagalog, Korean and Thai. The name Kaliwa means left, which Cathal promises is not a political statement, but rather a nod to his left-handedness and to the restaurant’s departure from the norm. Meshelle designed the space, featuring woven basket light fixtures, rope netting and bright blue hues to emulate a night street market. 751 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.kaliwadc.com

Sababa (Photo - Courtesy of Sababa)

Sababa
Open: March 15
Location: Cleveland Park
Lowdown: After a quick set change, Ashok Bajaj opened Sababa in the space formerly occupied by Ardeo. The new restaurant’s menu focuses on modern Israeli cuisine, which has roots in both Jewish and Arab traditions. Dishes display influences from the Middle East, Turkey and Greece. Meals often start with salatim – small portions of salads and spreads to share – and then progress into hummus and small plates. I couldn’t get enough of the vegetarian dishes, from charred eggplant and roasted halumi to fried cauliflower and Israeli salad. Kebabs and large plates are also available, like sumac- and onion-marinated steak, shakshuka and braised lamb shank. The restaurant’s name comes from the Hebrew slang for cool, and the design reflects this, evoking the port of Tel Aviv with Mediterranean tiles, canvas sails on the ceiling and wood paneling to represent a grape arbor adorned with string lights. The beverage program consists of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean wines, plus house cocktails that showcase Israeli spices and flavors.  3311 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.sababauptown.com

Spoken English (Photo - Courtesy of Spoken English)

Spoken English
Open: March 30
Location: Adams Morgan
Lowdown: Erik Bruner Yang’s second project within the LINE Hotel is now open for business, and it’s unlike any restaurant you’ve visited in DC. Spoken English is modeled after the Japanese Tachinomiya – a standing-room only restaurant where people stop by for snacks and drinks after work. The casual, communal concept is situated in the kitchen with two counters facing a wood-fired Grillworks oven. It can only accommodate between 12 to 16 people at a time, and the close quarters encourage guests to socialize with their dining companions and strangers. The menu provides a choice between having a few bites, like skewers and small plates, or enjoying a full meal of whole roast duck and chicken yakitori. The whole chicken yakitori consists of eight courses, each a different cut of the bird such as thighs, stuffed wings, crispy skin, bone broth, liver mousse and more. To drink, there’s a selection of sake and beer, as well as a few cocktails. Reservations are not accepted. 1770 Euclid St. NW; www.thelinehotel.com/dc

NOTABLE

Truckeroo (Photo - Courtesy of Georgetown Events)

Truckeroo
Dates: May 11, June 15, July 13, August 10, September 14
Location: The Bullpen
Lowdown: Once a month throughout the summer, a flock of food trucks converges at The Bullpen fairgrounds in Navy Yard for a massive festival. The event offers live music, cold drinks, games and a full lineup of food trucks to choose from. At the May event, guests can enjoy mac and cheese from CapMac, crêpes from Crepe Love, empanadas from DC Empanadas, frozen custard from Goodies, lobster rolls from Red Hook, and more. It’s open to all ages until 9 p.m., at which point it shifts to 21 and over. Admission is free. 1201 Half St. SE, DC; www.thebullpendc.com/truckeroo

Wines Over Washington
Dates: May 17, June 21, July 19, August 16, September 20
Location: BLT Steak
Lowdown: The rooftop of this downtown steakhouse has stunning views of the city, the Potomac River, the Washington Monument and the White House. This makes it a prime location to enjoy a glass of wine while watching the sunset. BLT Steak’s Wines Over Washington gives winos a chance to explore new wine varietals al fresco paired with classic fare by Chef de Cuisine Michael Bonk, as well as live music. The series takes place one evening per month through the summer. The first event will feature selections from Lanterna Wines. Tickets are $65 per event, or $275 for the entire series. 1625 I St. NW, DC; www.bltrestaurants.com/blt-steak/washington-d-c/winesoverwashington