Dr. Robert Ballard Explores the Deep

    Humans have always had a reserved and cautious respect for the ocean; it is a place of great bounty and life, but also a place of great mystery and fear. In total, just a mere 2 percent of the world’s oceans have been explored, though it roughly makes up 70 percent of the planet’s area. We know more about the moon and Mars Dr. Robert Ballard - E/V Nautilus - JASONProject.orgthan we do about Earth’s oceanic depths, even just off our own coasts. “Fifty percent of our country lies beneath the sea, but we have better maps of Mars than we do of the Untied States, which I find sort of funny,” says famed deep-sea explorer Dr. Robert Ballard. 

   The man who discovered the RMS Titanic, found hydrothermal vents and black smokers at the Galapagos Rift, and discovered ancient shipwrecks in the Black Sea, which are some of most well preserved archeological sites ever found, speaks of exploring the hidden and dark world beneath our seas with a casual nonchalance that first perks ones interest, moving quickly to envy, followed by reverence and an interest to learn more.

   The collective human experience has been conditioned to fear the depths, the dark and the unknown, and nothing is more foreign, dark and deep than the oceans. But beneath the surface, where light loses strength, there is a world teeming with bizarre and ever-changing life, a landscape that dwarfs land’s tallest mountain peaks and dives deeper and wider than its largest canyons. Seemingly alien forms thrive in places scientists previously thought was impossible to sustain life, where pressure is immense and completely void of light and the sun’s radiation. These are the places Ballard seeks, like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, to explore: “It is just fun to go where no one has ever been, see what’s there.”

   Ballard has made a name for himself with big finds: the RMS Titanic, the German Battleship Bismarck, the luxury liner Lusitania, the USS Yorktown; but it is his determined urge to continue seeking what lies beneath that keeps him from resting on his laurels. Through the JASON Project, his own Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus and NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, Ballard continues to explore the depths, leading to new discoveries, accumulating unfathomable amounts of scientific data and, while doing so, creating a venue of excitement to turn new generations on to exploring the planet. “I like turning kids on to the sea, [get them] to study harder, and feel there is a bright future,” says Ballard of the JASON Project and Nautilus Live program. “The generation in school right now will explore more of Earth than all previous generations combined, which is a pretty cool thing to tell kids.”

    The work being done on the E/V Nautilus and Okeanos Explorer, in partnership with the Inner Space Center at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, the Ocean Exploration Trust, the Institute for Exploration, and the University of New Hampshire, among others, are continuing what then-President Bill Clinton’s Panel on Ocean Exploration put in motion in 2000, to explore the remote and isolated regions of the world’s oceans. In doing so, they are broadening the knowledge of the deep sea with missions that range from bathymetry to archeological finds, with an entire slew of things in between. “I can’t tell you what the next discovery will be, you don’t know what is out there. But something is there,” Ballard says.

NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer

   The JASON Project, along with Nautilus Live, brings these expeditions to school children throughout the world, putting them onboard—metaphysically—through video streaming with a lens attached to ROVs (remote operated vehicle) 10,000 feet below the surface, as well as to the command center of the vessel. Paired with the curriculum Ballard has created, these outreach programs not only allow the students to be part of the discovery, but gives them an understanding of how the inner workings of a research vessel works, showing research teams working in real time.

   The web-based feeds available to schoolchildren are but only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to remote access on these vessels. Using a technology called Telepresence, each ship is equipped with an Internet2 uplink that sends an immense amount of data from ship to satellite to the Inner Space Center in Rhode Island. Telepresence, using I2’s huge bandwidth, transmits massive amounts of data in real-time; allowing Ballard to access the Nautilus’ systems, video from the ROVs’ many HD cameras, even access the controls of the ROVs’ manipulator from the comforts of home, letting him investigate new areas of the sea simultaneously with ship-based operations.

   To put the capabilities of the Internet2 in relation of the standard Internet, imagine downloading the entirety of the Sony Pictures’ library in the time it would take to download one movie today; the bandwidth of I2 is simply unfathomable to those addicted to the 4G mobile devices and wireless cable routers at home, with speeds more than 1,000-times faster than that of the average Internet connection; essentially it is only limited to one’s imagination.

   All of these projects, expeditions and deep-sea explorations boil down to one thing, the thrill of what might be around the next corner. Ballard puts it best: “The ships’ mission is to go where no one else has gone before on planet Earth, which is sort of cool.”

   Naplesillustrated.com caught up with Ballard to discuss the mysteries of the deep, the archeological finds of the Black Sea, the latest in deep-sea exploration, and what’s next for the E/V Nautilus and NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer.

 Venus flytrap anemone - NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer - Dr. Robert Ballard - Photo by NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

NI.COM: What was one of the most astounding things you have come across in the deep?

BALLARD: It is a long list of interesting things I have seen down there. The discovery of the hydrothermal vents and the unusual creatures that were just bizarre. That told us that life was much more creative, and can live in much more harsh environments through a process called chemosynthesis, which replicates photosynthesis in the dark. That was a big discovery.

   Discovering “black smokers,” where we found minerals pouring out of the ocean floor, depositing rich concentrations of copper, lead, zinc, silver and gold. This was scientifically significant, it turns out these smokers are responsible of the chemistry of the world’s oceans.

   Finding the Titanic, seeing the Bismarck, finding PT109 and the Yorktown. Discovering more than 50 ancient shipwrecks, some in high states of preservation in the Black Sea. On the list goes. I have seen a lot of underwater territory. I have seen volcanoes underwater canyons, magnificent landscapes that most people never get to explore, or even fathom. But 

   People think that it is just a dark place and nothing is going on, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The biggest mountain ranges are down there, the biggest canyons are down there. The greatest topography on our planet is not on land, but beneath the sea. The life forms are bizarre and ever-changing wherever we go. And there is more history in the deep seas than all the museums of the world combined. There is plenty to do.


Follow Dr. Ballard and the teams on E/V Nautilus and NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer as they explore the oceans’ depths at NautilusLive.org


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Tell me about the Black Sea expeditions. These can be some of the most significant archeological discoveries in decades.

We have found very ancient shipwrecks at very high stakes of preservation. The Black Sea is unlike most seas that are well oxygenated. When you find a shipwreck in an area where the water is well oxygenated, you find the stuff that nothing can eat, like metal, terracotta pottery, glass; stuff that is inorganic and inedible; you have lost most of it. But in the Black Sea, the organics are still there, including bodies; the prospects of finding human remains is extremely high, so that really opens the door. If you find human remains you can find DNA and learn a lot. That is what is so exciting about the Black Sea; it is a time capsule that is at a very high state of preservation.

 Star fish photographed by NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer - Dr. Robert Ballard - Photo by NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

What’s your take on the fascination people have with space but a rather blasé attitude toward the deep-sea?

We have been conditioned to think that down is bad, dark is bad, and we want to go to heaven. So we look to the skies for our salvation when in fact it is our planet. We have been led to believe that we are going to populate Mars into a nice planet.

    Why do you want to do that when you already have one?

    Kids are sold the idea that they are going to be astronauts. But we have seen that bubble pop recently and now people are looking to the sea.

   I think we are going to move out onto the ocean and live out there one day. Not far, you can still see land, but it will be a lot more private and quiet. And people will start farming and ranching at sea more and more. It is just a matter of time.       

    It is just getting people to stop thinking that they are Superman, they are going to escape Kripton just as it blows up; there really is nowhere to go. People have to get used to the fact that we are not going to escape; we are here on Earth, so take care of it, begin to do a better job of stewardship because there is nothing else like it.


What’s next for the E/V Nautilus and NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer?

In a perfect world I would like to have the Nautilus out to sea six months a year and the Okeanus out to sea six months a year, overlap in June and take the holidays off for both ships. We are probably a year or two away from that.

    The Okeanus Explorer is at sea right now. My ship [E/V Nautilus] is having his huge piece of technology, this large sonar, being installed now, thn we will take it out to the Pacific. We have been in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas for the last dozen years, so after we get this sonar, we will be ready to take on the world, so we are going to go around the world.

    Next year we are going to head across the Atlantic into the Caribbean, across the Pacific, and setup camp between Capricorn and Cancer, around Singapore, which is really exciting—a very complex part of our planet underwater. Then we’re going to some walkabouts.

Eel photographed off the coast of Kona, Hawaii - NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer - Dr. Robert Ballard - Photo by NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research


Follow Dr. Ballard and the teams on E/V Nautilus and NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer as they explore the oceans’ depths at NautilusLive.org

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