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Discovering the ocean’s deepest mysteries beyond the ‘Titanic’

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 26, 2021 6:08 am

Talking with Bob Ballard, the oceanographer who discovered the sunken Titanic in the North Atlantic in 1985, he can sound a little dismissive of that particular blip on his career sonar — possibly because he’s been asked about it for so long.

“Finding the Titanic was like talking through two tin cans and a string, compared to the technology we have now,” he tells us during a Zoom talk from his ship, E/V Nautilus, where he’s preparing for his next adventure, as well as an upcoming National Geographic special airing July 6.

Ballard is not all about the Titanic, though his discovery of the sunken vessel in 1985 brought him immediate world fame. Understandably, he wants the world to know he’s had many other adventures in life, and in fact, all of life is an adventure if you’re curious enough.

In the NatGeo special, we learn how, as a young Woods Hole oceanographer, his group’s early submersible discoveries “threw out” the biology books (when he discovered hydrothermal events under the sea), the chemistry books (discovering “black smokers” and chemosynthesis), as well as the geology books (developing the theory of plate tectonics). This is hard science stuff. His work was, and is, on the vanguard.

Robert Ballard in the control room of the E/V Nautilus while on search for the missing plane of Amelia Earhart in the South Pacific.

But then there was the Titanic. After decades of classified secrecy, he can now reveal that the 1986 mission to locate the Titanic was just a cover story: they were really after a couple of sunken nuclear submarines. But after quickly finding those, Ballard hunched his way into locating the Titanic site.

“We didn’t have sonar, so I dreamed up a way of doing it — by looking for the debris field.”

Part of the secret to Ballard’s indestructible drive to think differently might be tied to his dyslexia — an undiagnosed condition he had since childhood, which made reading very difficult, but led him to get results in other ways.

He talks about an earlier search for an ancient Carthaginian wreck, the Scorpion, which was hauling wine from Carthage (now Tunisia) to Rome.

“So you have 500 amphora (ancient jars) of wine and you head off for Ostia, the seaport of Rome, and you've got a ship full of sailors. What are the sailors going to do on the trip? They're going to dip into the wine. And what are they going to do with the evidence? They're going to throw it over the side.” Applying the same logic to tracking the Titanic, he decided “I’m going to look for the trash” that was tossed overboard and sank during the transatlantic crossing.

And that, as they say, was a bingo.

“How scientific is that?” he says now with a shrug. “It's just common sense.”

A young Dr. Robert Ballard surveys the progress of the Titanic expedition from the control center of the research vessel Knorr in 1986. Working in conjunction with the Institut Francais de Recherches pour L’exploitation des Mers (IFREMER), Ballard and the Woods Hole team located the vessel in 13,000 feet of water in the North Atlantic Ocean.

I asked him why he’s been able to track down things that others cannot. “I believe it's because I think different,” he answers. Part of the secret to Ballard’s indestructible drive to think differently might be tied to his dyslexia — an undiagnosed condition he had since childhood, which made reading very difficult, but led him to get results in other ways.

Since learning his daughter is also dyslexic, he’s become an advocate of empowering those with the condition. “When I was growing up, I knew I was wired differently. And I embraced it and researched it, and I know that it's a two-edged sword. There are many successful dyslexics — Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Charles Schwab, Richard Branson. Mostly in the entrepreneurial world, there's a very high success rate amongst dyslexia. It’s 15 to 20 percent of our population globally. And yet, we know there's a very high suicide rate amongst dyslexics, and in America, it's the dominant population in our prisons.”

He’s now working with National Geographic to develop a program to reach dyslexic children as early as possible, “because they get bullied very early, and they get told they're stupid, and become shameful and won't even talk about it. I want them to yell at the top of the mountain, ‘I'm dyslexic, and it’s cool!’”

We are a threat to Gaia and all other life. So, you think COVID-19 is bad, get ready for the next bowling ball that comes rolling down. So yeah, we’ve got to cut a deal with the planet.

Ballard’s story is one for many books. Coming from landlocked Kansas, he became a celebrated sea explorer, discovering some 65 sunken wrecks, including the German battleship Bismarck, the USS Yorktown, and John F. Kennedy’s sunken PT-109 Navy patrol boat. After one attempt to locate Amelia Earhart’s sunken plane fell short, he promises “round two is coming up, we’ll get it.” He’d love to explore the Indian Ocean (“You have live coelacanths there!”) and he’s offered to help locate the downed Malaysian Airlines NH 370 (“I offered to assist, but they have their own shot”).

The starboard propeller of the RMS Titanic, broken when the stern hit bottom. (Photos from National Geographic/Emory Kristof)

Discovery is key to Ballard’s journey. The one-hour NatGeo special covers his life, but Ballard gave us some other tidbits that appear in his upcoming book, Into the Deep.

Like that time he debunked the Loch Ness Monster story. “I decided to go into Loch Ness because I know that it was glaciated, it has no sediments and every dead Loch Ness Monster should be laying on the bottom of that loch. I rented a ship and dredged the entire length of Loch Ness looking for monster bones and… nary a one.”

He did notice that the loch had steep walls surrounding it, where “Nessie” hunters would camp out.

“I discovered that if I went down the very center of Loch Ness, my wake would go out beautifully, bounce off the walls, and long after my ship had gone by, come back and create a free-hump standing-wave monster, and all the phones rang. So I’d go out every day, make a ‘monster’ with my ship, and all the phones would ring.” He chuckles. “I gotta have some comic relief.”

He has his own theories about the Lost City of Atlantis (“If there was an Atlantis, I would think it was Great Meteor Seamount in the North Atlantic”) and Noah’s Flood (“We proved it” through sedimentary records, though the so-called Mount Ararat “Ark” was actually “built by Byzantine monks from memory”).

Now 78, and focused on mentoring the next generation of science students, Ballard has no doubt that life does exist outside of our planet, but really wants people to focus on saving this one: “As you know, in earth science we have an emerging philosophy called the concept of Gaia, that Earth is in fact a creature, living symbiotically with the rest of life on our planet. Except there's one creature out there right now that's throwing it all into a mess, and I think the other life is gonna gang up on us, and get rid of us, because we are a threat to Gaia and all other life. So, you think COVID-19 is bad, get ready for the next bowling ball that comes rolling down. So yeah, we’ve got to cut a deal with the planet.”

Bob Ballard: An Explorer’s Life one-hour special premieres on National Geographic Channel Tuesday, July 6, 9 p.m., and will serve as a companion piece to the 2021 tell-all memoir Into the Deep.