Dr Robert D Ballard (b 1942)

Dr Robert Ballard & Prof Bruce Proudfoot

Dr Robert Ballard (left) received the Livingstone Medal 2001 from RSGS Chairman Professor Bruce Proudfoot.

RSGS Livingstone Medallist 2001

by Jo Woolf (November 2014)

“Most of the Earth remains unexplored – never seen by human eyes.  Scientists have barely looked into our own dark abyss.”

We are familiar with the opening sequence of James Cameron’s epic movie, Titanic.  A small deep-sea probe shines its lonely beam of light into the hull of the wrecked ship, illuminating a world of perpetual darkness as shoals of sea creatures scuttle away in surprise; while at the surface, 12,000 feet above, a team of scientists rejoice at the discovery.

The truth behind the fiction is just as dramatic.  On 1st September 1985, a team led by the explorer Bob Ballard succeeded in pinpointing the last resting place of the doomed cruise liner at the bottom of the North Atlantic; and the method that they used, which employed two unmanned probes, was the brainchild of Ballard himself.

Surprisingly, although it was one of Ballard’s dreams to locate the Titanic, this is not the achievement that he would most like to be remembered for.  Even before that momentous discovery, he had enjoyed a long career in underwater exploration, observing and recording some of the most extraordinary natural sights on our planet.  For Ballard, the sight of six-feet-long tube worms growing in complete darkness at depths of 8,000 feet around the Galápagos Islands was one of the most jaw-dropping experiences in his life.

“We had been told that all life on the planet owed its existence to the sun…  It didn’t make sense to us initially.  It was a discovery of massive dimensions.”

As a child, Ballard had always been intrigued by the ocean.  He devoured books such as Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and studied the sea life of rock pools near his home on the coast of California.  Graduating in chemistry and geology, he worked as an oceanographer in the US Navy, and when his military service ended he began exploring the ocean around Florida and Maine in a manned submersible.  In 1979 he and the geophysicist Jean Francheteau stared open-mouthed as vents of super-heated liquid, blackened with minerals, billowed from the sea bed in the Pacific.  Their startling observations and temperature readings altered almost everything we already knew about hydrothermal activity.

“Then the bulb in my head went off.  Why not bring all of this together – my love of the undersea world and a desire to share that love with everyone in a way that would not destroy the very thing we loved?”

At first, Ballard was convinced that the future of underwater exploration lay in manned submersibles; but his plans underwent a sea-change of their own, and he came up with a revolutionary new idea that would allow the eyes of the world to gaze into our deepest oceans.  His brainwave consisted of two unmanned capsules launched from a research vessel at the surface and connected to each other by a cable.  The larger capsule would act as a control base, while the smaller vessel, nicknamed a ‘tethered eyeball’, could dive even deeper, venturing into confined spaces and probing depths where no human could safely go.

Using fibre-optic cable, live video images can be sent back to the research vessel and beamed around the world in seconds.  Volcanic activity has been measured, geological faults have been explored, and strange new life forms have been discovered, defying the laws of science yet thriving in an abyss of perpetual darkness.  It’s easy to imagine that we have explored all of our planet, but we forget that over 70% of it is covered by ocean.  And so far, metaphorically speaking, all we have done is dip our toe in it.

For scientists, Ballard’s achievements are akin to landing a space module on a distant planet, because they have opened up a whole new world of knowledge.  Ballard was obviously aware of the analogy when he named the Inner Space Center, which is his research base at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.  In 2008 he founded the Ocean Exploration Trust, whose purpose is to conduct scientific projects using Ballard’s specially-commissioned ship E/V Nautilus and the underwater vessels Hercules and Argus.  Ballard’s lifelong passion is now helping to educate and inspire a new generation of scientists – but millions of people with no scientific background have found themselves equally enthralled, because he is opening doors onto a world that is completely new to human eyes.

Now in his seventies, Robert Ballard is still endlessly fascinated by the world that lies beneath the waves.  In recent years he has been searching for ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, and he admits that the thrill never fades.

“Discovery is an unbelievable feeling.  People ask, ‘What is your greatest discovery?’ and I say, ‘It’s the one I’m about to make.’”

In 2001, the RSGS awarded Robert Ballard the prestigious Livingstone Medal, in honour of his amazing achievements, acknowledging him as “one of the world’s best known deep-sea explorers, having logged more hours in the deep than any other marine scientist.”