His name is synonymous with exploration and discovery of the world’s most remote waters. He’s a sojourner for truth and ancient mysteries, and has single-handedly debunked some of history’s most infamous misconceptions. Naples Town Hall Distinguished Speaker Series welcomes oceanographer, author and deep-sea archaeologist Robert “Bob” Ballard on Tuesday, Jan. 8, when he will give our guests unprecedented access to some of the planet’s most pursued legends. A former commander in the United States Navy, Mr. Ballard is possibly best known for his 1985 discovery of the RMS Titanic. It was his unprecedented design of a new breed of sea exploration vessels decades ago that facilitated the Titanic mission and that also led to the Bismarck, which was sunk by the Royal Navy in 1941. A marine scientist since 1974, Mr. Ballard completed his doctoral degrees in marine geology and geophysics at the University of Rhode Island.
More than 40 years ago he marked a new day for sea exploration, diving to a hitherto unheard of depth of 9,000 feet in Alvin, the three-person submersible he developed. Entire libraries of books have been devoted to Mr. Ballard’s contributions to the world’s discoveries. His exploration of the Galapagos Rift, during which his team uncovered thermal vents, also revealed plant and animal life that led to the discovery of chemosynthesis, the chemical synthesis of food energy. His design of the 16-foot submersible sled named the Argo tested another new technology he called “telepresence,” which like so many of his designs would revolutionize underwater exploration. From 13,000 feet down on the floor of the North Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Ballard’s Argo sent back those first images of the Titanic’s massive boilers. A year later, he traveled to the wreckage in Alvin. Perhaps one of his most valuable contributions has been his establishment of the educational “JASON” project, which allows students to follow expeditions.
I jumped at the chance to better understand the man who has become an undersea legend. Here’s what he shared.
Q: One hundred years have passed since Capt. Edward Smith commanded the unsinkable Titanic and she met her icy grave. What is the biggest misconception about that historic sinking that will not seem to die?
A: That the White Star Line claimed she was unsinkable, which they did not.
Q: The details of your secret mission for the U.S. Navy to locate and photograph two lost Cold War era nuclear submarines was, until recently, considered classified. When you found the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion, were they intact?
A: Both submarines were destroyed by the pressure of the sea when they fell below their crush depth. Thresher was the most destroyed, with the implosion breaking her up into thousands of pieces, the tail section being the largest remaining piece visible. Her reactor compartment buried itself in the sea floor bottom, creating a larger impact crater. The Scorpion, on the other hand, consists of three large pieces — the tail section, which “telescoped” inside the central section of the sub, the forward torpedo room and the reactor compartment, also buried into the sea floor bottom. These larger sections were all surrounded by hundreds of pieces of debris.
Q: If you had an unlimited budget and all the manpower, hardware and technological resources in the world at your disposal, what lost ship, civilization or historical mystery would you pursue?
A: I would search for evidence of Neolithic settlements in the Black Sea where the legend of the Biblical Flood may have had its origins, find Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship the Endurance in the Weddell Sea, find the Indianapolis, and go where no one has gone before on planet Earth to make discoveries we can’t even think of.
Q: Do you have any misgivings or trepidations regarding misuse or exploitation of your discoveries?
A: I am sorry that my discovery of the Titanic led to people going out to the site, taking things off the bottom instead of respecting the site and leaving it alone.
Q: Do you believe that certain mysteries are better left unsolved and that their locations should forever remain secret?
A: I think people should always attempt to solve ancient mysteries.