Campus News

Titanic’s discoverer shares tales of deep-sea exploration

Robert Ballard is famous for discovering the Titanic's wreck in 1985. Photo: Joe Cascio

By ANN WHITCHER-GENTZKE

Published April 2, 2015

Tall and well-spoken, oceanographer Robert Ballard regaled Wednesday’s Distinguished Speakers Series audience with tales of the mysterious seas that cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface but remain largely unknown.

Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic’s wreck, has racked up an astonishing 150 deep sea explorations in his career as scientist, adventurer, U.S. Navy commander and educator.

Nonetheless, he estimates that he has seen less than 1 percent of the world’s seas. Throughout his talk in Alumni Arena, he urged the crowd of about 3,000 to not fear the ocean, but rather to appreciate its vast powers for sustaining life.

As he spoke, he displayed topographical graphics and compelling photographs, including those from his famous discovery of the Titanic wreckage in 1985.

He described exploring the Titanic with his video camera after parking his submarine and descending ever deeper in the wreckage in total darkness, when suddenly a light came on.

“I realized I was shining my light on a crystal chandelier” that once illumined social life aboard the doomed ship, he said. He showed a photo of shoes left from the remains of a Titanic victim, noting that because of the ocean’s depths, the bones of victims had dissolved after about seven years, leaving only one’s shoes as a marker of existence.

Seeing a baby’s shoes solidified his determination to leave artifacts intact and not violate what is, in effect, a cemetery. “That nails you,” Ballard said of his haunting discovery.

While renowned for his work at the Titanic site, the Lusitania wreck off the Irish coast and remains of the Bismark, Ballard said he’s most proud of his scientific achievements. These have allowed more profound exploration of global waters while enhancing researchers’ ability to share and communicate data and findings with colleagues worldwide.

As a scientist, Ballard has addressed such topics as hydrothermal vents and “black smokers” in the Galapagos Rift. He also helped develop the submersible Alvin, allowing scientists to adroitly navigate within underwater sites. The Alvin remains Ballard’s “favorite sub,” despite the cramped quarters for his 6-foot, 1-inch frame.

Now 72, Ballard traced his interest in deep sea exploration to his youth in San Diego, where he loved beachcombing and was fascinated by the rolling waters of the Pacific.

As a boy, he read and relished Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” When asked by his parents what he wanted to be when he grew up, Ballard told them “Captain Nemo,” who steered the fabled Nautilus.

His parents might have been bemused, but nonetheless supported their son’s ambitions. Ballard’s advice: “When a child tells you something silly like that, you should never, ever laugh at their passion.”

Ballard framed his lecture with references to young people, saying that today’s middle school students will explore the oceans more so than any previous generation. He also described the sophisticated “tele-presence” technology he helped develop to link scientific colleagues worldwide. His Ocean Exploration Trust project, moreover, allows huge numbers of schoolchildren to follow his underwater adventures from afar.

A lively question-and-answer session moderated by Dennis Black, vice president for university life and services, covered investments in undersea exploration, space vs. ocean voyages, the impact on the ocean’s floor of privately funded studies, Ballard’s Black Sea studies and the myth of Atlantis.