Conversations with Bob Ballard: From discovering the Titanic to changing the definition of life forever.

The oceanographer Bob Ballard has so many accomplishments to his name that simply listing them would make this post run too long. While he’s perhaps best known as the man who discovered the Titanic on the ocean floor, he should also be known as the man who revolutionized science’s understanding of life, thanks to his discovery of deep sea vents in 1977. He introduced the world to the extremophiles that can survive in environments long believed to be hostile to life.

National Geographic has made a documentary detailing Bob Ballard’s accomplishments – Bob Ballard: An Explorers Life (premieres June 14). Dr. Ballard set aside time to discuss some of his most significant findings with SCINQ.

You’ve had a long career. How has oceanography changed from the time that you started in the 60s to the current date?

The technology. I mean it was ridiculous — almost embarrassing — that we called what we did oceanography back then. It was like two cans and a string. The power of the technology now with teleoperated robots, being able to have live satellite links, fiber optics… In some ways, if you want to know the truth, it’s almost taking the fun out of it. It would be pretty easy to find the Titanic now, but it wasn’t then. Technology allows us to take on challenges that are tougher. 

I don’t physically get down on the bottom of the ocean anymore because I was spending all my time going up and down. But now, this is, I have a command, where I’m sitting right now, I’m in a command center that on July 3 Live from the ship. I can be anywhere I want. I can be in my home or I can be on my laptop. I do enjoy going out to sea on my ship, but now I don’t have to. That’s the crazy thing about today’s technology. We never had anything like this when I started this game, many moons ago.

The discovery of deep sea hydrothermal vents, with Jack Corliss stands out. I mean you look for finding the Titanic and all the ships and it’s brilliant, but the implications of the deep sea vents, it’s a milestone, not only in like oceanography, but in science right, it changes in how we eat animals live life itself right.

By far, the most important expedition I led as a chief scientist was in 1977. The irony is, we were looking for something else. I love science. When you go looking for A and you find B and B’s more important. We didn’t have biologists on the expedition because they turned us down. They said, “You aren’t going to find anything interesting down there.” Turns out, the greatest biological discovery probably made on Earth was made by geologists. I do have to rub that in. 

The discovery of deep sea vents and the life around it changed the ballgame because we thought we lived in the little Goldilocks zone of our solar system, not too close to the sun to be fried, not too far away to be frozen. Then we find an ecosystem of extremophiles. They can live in extremely harsh environments. It just changed the ballgame. It now means that life is prevalent throughout the universe and highly probable within our own solar system. It is what is driving NASA to Enceladus and Europa, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, that have an ice canopy, but also have oceans that have more water in them than the planet Earth.

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Can you described how you found the deep sea vents?

We found the geothermal vents remotely using a primitive camera system called Angus. It wasn’t even a live feed to the surface.

So, imagine I’m in this valley. I got the Navy to do a top secret survey of the valley — to show me it in great detail — and then declassify that map. Most people. I had to have that map and it showed me where the volcanoes were, showing me where the Rift Valley walls were.

And so we’re going down that river slaloming back and forth with a camera system that has to get within four meters to take a color picture. So we put it in a cage. We call it a dope on a rope. It had a wrecking ball, fundamentally, and we were banging off things, taking pictures, automatically.

We two sensors, one told us our altitude so we were trying to fly up and down and stay at four meters. We also had a telemetering temperature sensor.

Normally, the monitor had a flatline, and then — boom — it spiked. Just like that. We knew that to elevate the ocean temperature, whatever it was had to be hot. And so we then had to bring back the camera.

I work with National Geographic to process 400 foot rolls of high speed Ektachrome, which uses lots of water, and we work with a lab in Kansas where I was born, that I was able to do it with seawater, so we had to process this with seawater, and then with just the final rinse. 

So now we’ve got a 400 foot roll of Ektachrome, and it has a little LED in it. We were tracking with a tracking system we installed on the bottom, so we knew when the temperature spiked.

We’re rolling through the footage with a grinder projecting it on the wall, and it’s Lava. Lava. Lava. Lava. Lava. Lava and we’re looking at the clock, and then we get to that time. It’s cloudy down there. And Then we see clams. Hundreds of big clams. And we went, “What’s that?” I got on a radio from the door and I called over to Alvin on Lulu, and I talked to Jack Corliss and Jerry Van Andel, and I said guys, you want to go to x equals, y equals equals, so I sent them the coordinates of where it happened, and they could then hone in on it, and wallah. That was was pretty cool. I got to go over the next day and go down myself.

Rusted bow of the R.M.S. Titanic ocean liner in the North Atlantic. (National Geographic/Emory Kristof)

You’ve accomplished so much in your career. Different people tie their careers together in different ways. It feels like you’ve brought everything you’ve done together by passing your knowledge on to other people like school children or university students. You started a university program as well. Can you just discuss that?

There’s a reason. I’m dyslexic and I’ve struggled in school. I wrote a letter when I was in high school. (My parents made sure my spelling was right.) It was a Dear Santa Claus letter to Scripps. Dear Scripps, I want to be an oceanographer. Normally those letters go right into the round filing cabinet, but there was this kind man, his name was Norris Rakestraw. (Ironically it was studying co2 in the atmosphere. This is 1959.) That kind man answered my letter. He said come on down, let’s talk. He ended up giving me a scholarship. When I was 17 to go out on my first oceanographic cruise, it was a lot of fun. 

When I located the Titanic, there’s 16,000 Bob Ballard letters. The mail office was so angry with me shutting down the mail system and shutting down the phone system. They literally poured the letters on my desk until the desk just appeared. And I sit down and I open those letters, and it’s like the same one I wrote a long time ago. 

There’s a moral obligation to do what that kind man did for me. He died long before he knew what I did. My grandmother told me that great is the person who plants a tree, knowing they’ll never sit in shade. She attributed the saying to Johnny Appleseed who is a mythical person, Kansas. And she said, greatness son is planting trees where you don’t benefit from their fruit, or their shade.

What a great story. You touched on the person you reached out to was exploring co2 in the atmosphere. Have you observed the effects of climate change on the oceans?

Well not so much where we work in the deep sea. When you go down it’s around four degrees centigrade. We know that the poles, generate a lot of cold water and that water falls down to the bottom of the ocean, but it takes hundreds of years to get circulating in the Antarctic bottom water. You’d have to really heat up the ocean a lot to rise from that big reservoir of near freezing water so we’re not seeing it so much in the deep sea.

But clearly up in the photic zone, where most life lives, is where you’re seeing the effects. Plastics as well. The surface area is experiencing it absolutely.

We’re mounting a massive new program to take the temperature of America’s coral reefs. I’m going to spend the next five years looking at 90% of the coral reefs of America, with great experts and National Geographic because we’re seeing the massive impact of the climate on increasing the acidity of the ocean and also changing the temperature.

Which one of your discoveries blew you away the most?

Discovering life around the deep sea vents. I mean, no, no one dreamed of four meter two worms with human-like blood sticking their lungs out ingesting hydrogen sulfide and giving up their entire body cavity to someone else. The clams had no mouth, no gut, no digestive system. I was blown away.

In human terms, I would say the shipwrecks in the Black Sea, where they’re in the anoxic layer, where you actually have perfectly preserved shipwrecks from 200 BC with human remains on them. The deep sea is the largest museum on Earth.

COVER IMAGE: Robert Ballard in control room of the E/V Nautilus while on expedition in the South Pacific. (National Geographic/Gabriel Scarlett)

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