Ballard grew up in Pacific Beach, San Diego, California to a mother of German heritage and a father of British heritage. He has attributed his early interest in underwater exploration to reading the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, living by the ocean in San Diego, and his fascination with the groundbreaking expeditions of the bathyscaphe Trieste.
While Ballard had been interested in the sea since an early age, his work at Woods Hole and his scuba diving experiences off Massachusetts spurred his interest in shipwrecks and their exploration. His work in the Navy had involved assisting the development of small, unmanned submersibles which could be tethered to and controlled from a surface ship, and were outfitted with lighting, cameras, and manipulator arms. As early as 1973, Ballard saw this as way of searching for the wreck of Titanic. In 1977, he led his first expedition, which was unsuccessful.
In the summer of 1985, Ballard was aboard the French research ship Le Suroît, which was using the side scan sonar SAR to search forTitanic's wreck. When the French ship was recalled, Ballard transferred onto a ship from Woods Hole, the R/V Knorr. Unbeknownst to some, this trip was being financed by the U.S. Navy specifically for secret reconnaissance of the wreckage of two Navy nuclear powered attack submarines, the USS Scorpion and the USS Thresher, that sank in the 1960s and not for Titanic. Back in 1982, Ballard approached the Navy about his new deep sea underwater robot craft, the Argo, and his search for Titanic. The Navy was not interested in spending that kind of money in searching for the large ocean liner. However, they were interested in finding out what happened to their missing submarines and ultimately concluded that Argo was their best chance to do so. The Navy agreed it would finance Ballard's Titanic search only if he first searched for and investigated the two sunken submarines, find out the state of their nuclear reactors after being submerged for such a long period of time, and if their radioactivity was impacting the environment. Ballard would be placed on temporary active duty in the Navy, in charge of finding and investigating the wrecks. After the two missions were completed, time and funding permitting, Ballard would be free to use the resources to hunt for Titanic. After their missions for the Navy, Knorr arrived on site on August 22, 1985, and deployed Argo. When they searched for the two submarines, Ballard and his team discovered that they had imploded from the immense pressure depth. That implosion littered thousands of pieces of debris all over the ocean floor. Following each of the submarines' large trail of debris led Ballard and his team directly to both of them and made it significantly easier for them to locate the submarines than if they were to search for the hulls directly. Ballard already knew that Titanic imploded from pressure depth as well, much the same way the two submarines did, and concluded that it too must have also left a scattered debris trail. Using that lesson, Ballard and his team had Argo sweep back and forth across the ocean floor looking for Titanic's debris trail. Ballard's team took shifts monitoring the video feed from Argo as it searched the monotonous ocean floor two miles below. In the early morning hours of September 1, 1985, observers noted anomalies on the otherwise smooth ocean floor. At first, it was pockmarks, like small craters from impacts. Eventually debris was sighted as the rest of the team was awakened. Finally, a boiler was sighted, and soon after that, the hull itself was found. Ballard's team made a general search of the vessel's exterior, noting its condition. Most significantly they confirmed that Titanic had in fact split in two, and that the stern was in far worse shape than the rest of the ship. Ballard's team did not have much time to explore, as others were waiting to take Knorr on other scientific pursuits, but his fame was now assured. Ballard originally planned to keep the exact location a secret to prevent anyone from claiming prizes from the wreck. Ballard considered the site a cemetery, and refused to desecrate it by removing artifacts from the wreck. On July 12, 1986, Ballard and his team returned on board Atlantis II  to make the first detailed study of the wreck. This time, Ballard brought Alvin, a deep diving submersible which could hold a small crew Alvin was accompanied by Jason Junior, a small remotely operated vehicle which could fit through small openings to see into the ship's interior. While the first dive (taking over two hours to dive down) saw technical problems, subsequent dives were far more successful, and produced a detailed photographic record of the wreck's condition.
Ballard undertook an even more daunting task when he and his team went searching for the German Battleship Bismarck in 1989. The water in which she sank is 4,000 feet deeper than where Titanic sank. Ballard attempted to make clear whether the German battleship had been sunk by the British or was scuttled by her own crew. Three weeks after the expedition however, personal tragedy struck the famed explorer when his 21 year old son Todd, who had aided his father in the search, was killed in a car accident.
In 1993 Ballard investigated the wreck of RMS Lusitania off the Irish coast. The ship was struck by one torpedo, whose explosion was followed by a second, much larger one. The wreck had been depth charged by the Royal Navy several years after the sinking, so it was difficult for Ballard to a do a forensic analysis. He determined the boilers were intact, and speculated the second explosion may have been caused by coal dust. Others have questioned this hypothesis. Ballard has not ruled out the possibility of cold seawater contacting superheated water in the ship's steam generation plant.
- "If you want to know the truth, it's too late. All the ice is going to melt. There is a lag, it's already in the system. And, in fact, people don't want to say that, because they still want people to change their ways. But when it comes to glaciers and polar regions, it's going to melt".
- "I'm not so worried about warming, because that is going to happen, and it is happening. I'm worried about disease, I'm more worried about pandemics. I worry more about that than sea level rising.
- "We came around the corner and it was in my view port. There was this wall of steel. Like the slab in 2001, like the walls of Troy at night. It was just big, the end of the universe. It just was there as a statement. We came in and I just looked out of my window -- I had to look up -- because the Titanic shot up a hundred and some feet above me. I'm down at the very keel, and I just went 'My God.' "