INDIAN WELLS, Calif. - Robert Ballard and his team first saw Titanic 27 years ago, but he paints the picture as if it happened yesterday.
"The bones actually dissolve," he said. "But what's left behind are pairs of shoes. Like tombstones. And you come across a mother's shoes and her daughter's shoes. And they died together. They went down together. You realize this is a cemetery.
"The bodies, they came down like rain."
More than 1,500 of them, he said. The comet of debris was like a trail that led him to Titanic's hulking mass miles down on the ocean floor.
"It isn't so much the ship. That's just an object. It's the people, and it's the story," he said. "(It's) a story with its own heroes and villains.
"You have this morality play. Literally, the deck became a stage."
Every generation rediscovers the Titanic, but Ballard and his team truly found the ship in 1985. He says he wasn't confident at all he would discover it.
Ballard was a commander in naval intelligence during the Cold War. He was tasked with finding two missing submarines. To throw the Soviets off their trail, they developed a cover story: Find Titanic. When Ballard found the subs, the Scorpion and the Thresher, he got to look for the massive cruise ship.
"Four other groups had failed," Ballard reflected. "We all had the same 100-to-150-square mile box, and they were good."
He had just eight days to do it.
"I had such little time left. I had to gamble, and it worked."
What Ballard's team discovered has debunked myths about Titanic, proven hot it sank on April 15, 1912, and also fueled an industry.
Underwater tourism is booming. You can see Titanic yourself for $66,000. Or for much less, you can see an artifact from the ship. Exhibits tour the country regularly. People line up to see what's been pulled from the deep. And that troubles Ballard. Immensely.
"You don't go down to Gettysburg with a shovel. You don't take belt buckles from the Arizona. You treat it accordingly."
His goal is to turn Titanic into an underwater museum. That goal started with the Titanic Memorial Act of 1986.
"It was a nice document that said nothing," he laughed.
Now he's working with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on a treaty with some teeth -- to preserve the site from countries like Russia and France that continue to salvage artifacts from Titanic.
"They've been landing on the ship and crushing it." Ballard said. "They've knocked over the crow's nest. They've pulled fixtures off the ship. They've left an amazing amount of garbage."
Getting to know family members of those from the doomed ship has made this personal for Ballard, but he also sees the big picture.
"There's more history in the deep sea than in all the museums in the world combined. But there's no lock on the door. There's no guard on duty. People can do what they want, which is absolutely ridiculous."
He points to his latest discovery, a perfectly preserved shipwreck from 500 B.C. in the waters of the Black Sea.
"We estimate there's one million ancient shipwrecks in the ocean that remain to be discovered. Think of all these chapters of human history. Don't you think there should be some rules of the road? Well, there aren't... "
The National Geographic DVD 'Secrets of the Titanic: 100 Year Anniversary Collection'" is available now on DVD on shopngvideos.com or where videos are sold.