The discoverers of the Titanic returned to this tiny harborside ocean-research center today, cheered by a banner-waving crowd of scientists and technicians in a modified media circus of the international press.
Two television-network helicopters, four broadcast vans topped with satellite antennas, a dozen camera crews, and about 100 reporters thronged the dock at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Deep Submergence Laboratory as the research vessel Knorr pulled into view off Martha's Vineyard.
Coast Guard boats, motor cruisers, sloops, yawls and the Nantucket Ferry blasted whistles in greeting as the blue-hulled, 245-foot ship spun neatly to take the applause and edged to the dock. Standing on the starboard bridge wing, giving a smiling, thumbs-up greeting to his colleagues, was Robert Ballard, the 42-year-old marine geologist for whom the Titanic discovery last week is only the latest in a series of finds that have revolutionized ocean science in the past 10 years.
One week ago, while testing new deep-towed undersea sonar and video equipment developed here, Ballard found the legendary Titanic, the mammoth liner lost 500 miles off Newfoundland in a fatal collision with an iceberg 73 years ago. More than 1,500 people died when the famous ship, the world's largest at the time and widely believed to be unsinkable, went down.
"The Titanic lies now in 13,000 feet of water on a gently sloping, alpine-like countryside overlooking a small canyon below," Ballard told a brief afternoon news conference.
"Her bow faces north. The ship sits upright on its bottom with its mighty stacks pointing upward . . . "
Within minutes, Ballard cut short the news conference in deference to his French colleagues on the expedition -- who, he said, "deserve a chance to go home and tell their story at the same time," as Ballard intends to do Wednesday at a major news conference in Washington.
It was the French, he pointed out, who began the search early this summer and who, according to Ballard, did the bulk of the work.
Led by chief scientist Jean-Louis Michel of the French Institute for Research and Exploration of the Sea aboard the research vessel Le Suroit, the French covered 80 percent of the planned search area before the Knorr even arrived on the scene.
"Imagine if you'd been on Le Suroit . . . they left us 20 percent and we found it," Ballard said.
Even then, Ballard added, he was absent from the bridge early Sept. 1, when the sonar and video system called ARGO swept over an object quickly recognized as one of the boilers that had exploded from the Titanic as it sank.
It was spotted by Michel, who with several other French scientists had transferred from Le Suroit to the Knorr for the U.S. portion of the expedition.
"Jean-Louis was on watch," Ballard said. "Someone said, 'Go get Bob,' but no one wanted to leave the video screen displaying what the ARGO system had found 2 1/2 miles below.
"Finally they sent the cook to get me," Ballard said. "I came in and it was clear it was a Titanic boiler. They are so unique. Jean-Louis and I memorized almost every part of that ship. We were very excited.
"Then someone said, 'It's 2 a.m. The Titanic sank at 2:40 a.m., April 15, 1912.'
"The lab got very quiet. We went out on the bridge and had a brief service" for those lost in the sinking.
Ballard said he has spent much of his life at sea and thought often about the Titanic but had never expected to react as he did to its discovery. His voice nearly breaking, he read a statement: "There is no light at that depth nor is there ever likely to be. It is a quiet, peaceful place and a fitting place for this greatest of sea tragedies to rest. Forever may it remain that way. God bless those now-found souls."
Ballard has repeatedly voiced concern since the Titanic's discovery that the wreck may be tampered with by would-be salvors, despite its great depth and the difficult waters.
He has talked of returning to photograph it in greater detail but shied away from any such discussion today.
Instead, Ballard was whisked from the news conference to an undisclosed location, escaping in the process from platoons of cameras, including a reporter from People magazine. The latter could be overheard complaining loudly in the press office that his assigned quarry had slipped the leash. Shelley Lauzon, public relations director at Woods Hole, said hundreds of rolls of TV tapes and 35mm film exposed during the four days the Knorr was over the Titanic site have been sent for processing to the National Geographic in Washington, a participant in the expedition. Woods Hole was left to the fishermen and scientists who populate it when the summer people leave.
In 1977 it was Ballard who discovered volcanic vents deep beneath the ocean surface near the Gala'pagos Islands, where mysterious colonies of clams and tube worms exist in total darkness. The creatures are sustained entirely by the heat and chemicals pouring from the Earth's core.
Two years later Ballard returned there with biologists who confirmed that the vents harbored life forms whose process of chemosynthesis had never been thought possible.
Not everybody at Woods Hole was as obsessed with the Titanic as the visiting media.
From behind a clothing boutique across from Knorr's dock, Susan Todd, 16, marveled that "anything could cause so much excitment" in Woods Hole in mid-September.
Dell Leavitt, 36, a technician in the marine biology laboratory here, said he too was mystified by all the hoopla.
The Titanic, whatever its hold on popular imagination, has little really redeeming scientific value, he said.
But few in the town could remain that blase'. On the door of the old firehouse, near the Deep Submergence Laboratory dock, someone had posted a placard with revised lyrics to the most famous of the Titanic's memorial songs:
Oh they built the ship Titanic to sail the ocean blue,
And they thought they had a ship water never would go through,
But today here in Woods Hole we're glad that you've come home,
And we're glad that the great ship's been found.