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OBITUARIES : Ralph Bradshaw White, 1941 - 2008

Explorer filmed the wreckage of Titanic

February 13, 2008|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Ralph Bradshaw White, who documented the 1985 discovery of the sunken Titanic, then returned to the bottom of the ocean more than 30 times to film and recover artifacts from the ill-fated vessel, died Feb. 4 at Glendale Adventist Medical Center. He was 66.

White died from complications of an aortic aneurysm, said his daughter, Krista Few of Yokosuka, Japan.

The public received an up-close look at the wreckage site through images White captured. His footage appears in James Cameron's 1997 Oscar-winning film "Titanic" and in "Titanica," a documentary for IMAX released in the early 1990s.

Long before the discovery of the shipwreck, White had a lucrative career that married his love of adventure and cinematography.

As a contract cameraman for the National Geographic Society, he searched for the Loch Ness monster, filmed wild horses, whales and sharks and documented the 153-year-old wreck of the Breadalbane under the Arctic ice cap.

The former president of the Adventurers' Club of Los Angeles, he also made thousands of parachute jumps.

"I was born an adult in search of a childhood. And I've been very successful at that," White said in a 1998 article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The wreckage of the Titanic, the British luxury liner that sank April 15, 1912, in the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage, was the big one, White often said, "the Mt. Everest of wrecks."

The search that led to its discovery began in 1985 with a voyage aboard the oceanographic research vessel Knorr. White was part of a French-American expedition; the American portion was headed by Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The crew had been out on the ocean for weeks and was scheduled to return home in a few days. But in the early morning of Sept. 1, 1985, as White lay in his bunk, their plans changed.

"Someone came running down and said, 'We're starting to pick up something that could be the debris field,' " White said in a Times article later that year. "Within 30 seconds of the time I got there, we passed over the [Titanic's] boiler."

The vessel, which split in two, lay on the ocean bottom in more than 12,000 feet of water, and was covered with a light layer of sediment. For the next four days the crew explored and photographed the wreckage, before returning home to acclaim.

White returned to the Titanic so many times, he boasted that he spent more time on the Titanic than its captain had.

"There's something truly magical about her lying down there, still beckoning after all these years," White told USA Today in 2000. "But I don't really know why the Titanic has such an allure for me. Does anyone ever understand why they fall in love?"

The documentary "Titanica" was made possible because of developments in technology. White and Emory Kristof pioneered the development of advanced remote cameras and deep ocean imaging and lighting systems. Powerful underwater lights were necessary to penetrate the deep sea darkness.

Russian deep-diving submersibles Mir-1 and Mir- 2 were also a key component of the filming. The men pitched the idea of "Titanica" to IMAX "showing we could use both subs, one to light and the other to film."

The resulting images stunned even White.

"When I looked at it, I couldn't believe how clear the images were," he told the Vancouver Sun in 1993. "We had actually outfitted one of the portholes with the lens, so that in a sense, you are getting a better view than what we could see ourselves while we were down there -- due to the lenses and light quality."

The success of "Titanica" laid the groundwork for Cameron's "Titanic." White served as expedition leader and second-unit cameraman on the film. He was also the deep-sea imaging and guest wreck expert on the History Channel's "Titanic's Last Moments" and worked on other films related to the shipwreck.

White disagreed with some who argued that the ship's contents should not be salvaged. In 1987 and 2000, he co-directed salvaging expeditions that led to the recovery of thousands of artifacts.

"A lot of the artifacts that people see in exposition . . . were actually salvaged by Ralph," said Rosaly Lopes, White's fiancee. "He had more dives to the Titanic than any other American."

Born Aug. 28, 1941, in San Bernardino, White grew up on the Big Island of Hawaii.

He attended a military school and served in the Marine Corps, where he learned to parachute. He served with a reconnaissance unit in Vietnam.

After his discharge in 1966, he opened a parachuting school in Lancaster. He became a member of the United States Parachute Team and a free-fall cameraman for the TV show "Ripcord."

In addition to Lopes and Few, White is survived by his son, Randy Pixley of Atlanta; two grandchildren, Samantha and Nicholas; and Lopes' son Thomas Gautier.

A memorial service was held Tuesday.

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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