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Exploring the depths of the unknownThe journey of one ocean explorer to bring a sea of darkness to light
by Devin Blomquist
When world-renowned ocean explorer Robert Ballard undertook a mission to find the wreckage of RMS Titanic, which sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in April 1912, that story was actually a cover operation. In truth, Ballard says, he was on a series of highly classified military missions to find U.S. submarines that had been lost during the Cold War.
Ballard’s team had a relative idea as to where the submarines went off the grid, which meant the main objective of the mission wasn’t to discover their location. Instead, Ballard says, he and his team were sent to collect nuclear weapons that had been inside one of the sunken watercrafts. The mission had to be executed without drawing the attention of the Soviets, and a cover operation to find RMS Titanic could deflect attention.
“It worked,” Ballard says with a chuckle.
By 1985, after Ballard and his team succeeded in securing the nuclear weapons from the sunken submarine, they went on to discover the wreck of the luxury liner that collided with an iceberg a century ago.
The submarines and RMS Titanic aren’t the only historically significant sites Ballard has had a hand in discovering. He has also tracked down the German battleship KMS Bismarck, the lost fleet of Guadalcanal and the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, just to name a few.
“The deep sea is the largest museum on Earth. There is more history in the deep sea than all of the museums in the world,” Ballard says. “And we’re only now learning that history.”
While Ballard is widely known for his historical shipwreck discoveries, he views them as a product of his ocean exploration at large, and that exploration can provide a window to the future of our planet.
Prior to his discovery of RMS Titanic, Ballard took part in an expedition he considers his most significant. In 1977, he acted as the cochief scientist of an expedition that led to the discovery of hydrothermal vents at the Galapagos Rift, which lies about 250 miles from the Galapagos Islands. Ballard says this discovery rewrote the origin of life on this planet.
“We found, in a world of total darkness, a complete ecosystem that was living not off the sun, but off the energy of the earth through a process we call chemosynthesis,” Ballard says. “It is in these hydrothermal vents where we believe life started on planet Earth.”
Ballard’s curiosity for the ocean, and what lies beneath the waves, came about at a young age. Growing up in San Diego, Ballard lived not only near the ocean, but also in close proximity to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
“So basically, I am a product of my environment,” Ballard says.
He went on to read Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which fueled his interest in oceans. Ballard started walking around looking at tidal pools and eventually learned to snorkel and scuba dive, but it wasn’t until his junior year of high school that his future career path was set in motion.
Ballard wrote to Scripps and asked what a young man like himself might be able to do to get involved in the field. The response from the research institution included information on a scholarship program they had for high school students; a scholarship for which Ballard applied and subsequently received. Ballard went to sea in the summer of 1959 and says he fell in love with the whole process.
After years of working in the field of ocean exploration and making both historical and scientific discoveries that work to provide a better understanding of the planet as it is and as it could ultimately be, Ballard founded the Ocean Exploration Trust in 2008. In addition to exploring the ocean and conducting research, much of which is done from the 64-meter Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus, the Ocean Exploration Trust also offers their expedition experiences to explorers on shore through a technology known as telepresence.
“If we find something that’s of interest, then we simply network people to the bottom of the ocean so that they don’t have to physically be there anymore,” Ballard says. “It’s all electronic travel.”
The Ocean of Exploration Trust calls their team aboard the Nautilus the Corps of Exploration, similar to Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, Ballard says.
Together, they hold three main objectives. First, they work to be the leader in the development of exploratory technology. Second, they take that technology to explore where no one has explored before, and finally, they use their technology and the discoveries they’ve made to spark an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education within the minds of the next generation of explorers.
“Our mantra is to go where no one has gone before on planet Earth,” Ballard says.
Ballard has been a part of more than 120 dives in a career that spans more than 50 years to explore the history and the science of the ocean. He is on a quest to better understand the planet as it is now, and as it may be in the future. And whether that quest is composed of research in the field of archeology, biology, geology or the like, Ballard says it’s all done to better understand the planet we live on.
“The Earth is reacting to us, and I think we need to understand that it might ultimately be able to kill us,” Ballard says. “So we need to figure out how to sort of strike a peaceful relationship with it, and the only way we can do that is to understand the creature itself and what makes it tick.”
The Corps of Exploration recently embarked on a six-month field expedition that will explore sites ranging from the Gulf of Mexico to British Columbia. One leg of the expedition will take the team to the location of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to look into the ecosystem responses and effects of the spill. Ballard says dispersants used in response to oil spills pose a particular set of problems for oceanic ecosystems due to their toxicity, so this leg of the expedition will focus largely on figuring out how to best respond to the next oil spill and give guidance to others on how to do the right thing.
Other legs of the expedition will take the team to Panama, through the Panama Canal and on to the Galapagos Islands, the area in which Ballard discovered hydrothermal vents years ago. Here, they will explore the biological diversity and geological structures of the foundation of the Galapagos Islands and the surrounding area to the north.
At 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 21, Robert Ballard will be speaking at the UMC Glenn Miller Ballroom on the University of Colorado Boulder campus as a guest of the Distinguished Speakers Board. He will deliver a lecture on his most recent work and share findings from expeditions that resulted in his discovery of sites of historical significance.Published in the April 16, 2015 edition of the Boulder Weekly