Dr. Robert Ballard, one of today’s most well-known explorers of the deep sea, spoke at a packed Campbell Hall yesterday afternoon as the keynote speaker for UCSB’s eighth annual All Gaucho Reunion.
Although he is best known for his discovery of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1985, Ballard has led over 125 expeditions and uncovered the R.M.S. Lusitania, the British luxury liner whose sinking sparked U.S. involvement in World War I; the German battleship Bismarck; the U.S.S Yorktown, lost during the Battle of Midway in World War II; 11 warships from World War II’s lost fleet of Guadalcanal as well as President Kennedy’s PT-109. During his lecture, titled “New Adventures in Deep Sea Exploration,” Ballard summarized his past discoveries and current projects.
A former naval officer, Explorer-in-Residence for the National Geographic Society and Director of the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, Ballard received UCSB’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 1985 in addition to The Explorers Club Medal, the Hubbard Medal — National Geographic’s highest award — and, in 2003, the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal. He has been published in more than 60 scientific articles and numerous books as well. Despite all of the glory, however, Ballard said he was happy to be back in Santa Barbara and hopes to soon provide educational opportunities for UCSB students, a matter Ballard said he is discussing with Chancellor Henry T. Yang.
“My love affair with UCSB began a long, long time ago,” Ballard said. “It feels great to be back. I’m a Gaucho through-and-through, and I really want to do this in Santa Barbara. I can’t not do Santa Barbara.”
Ballard said he discovered his love for deep-sea exploration when he was seventeen and still in high school. On his first ocean expedition, a rogue wave 100 feet tall crashed onto the ship carrying him, and yet, rather than avoiding the ocean from that moment on, Ballard said he decided exploring the ocean was his calling.
“I knew I wanted to be an oceanographer. I love the ocean,” Ballard said.
He earned a physical sciences degree from UCSB, choosing a five-year program in which he double-majored in geology and chemistry and double-minored in physics and math before graduating in 1965. Upon graduating, Ballard spent 25 years working for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, plumbing the Earth’s depths in deep-diving submarines.
Explaining how the Earth “bleeds” molten material to form new “tissue” and recycle the old, Ballard said there was a revolution in earth science “when we began to realize the Earth was alive.”
He took part in the first manned expedition of the Mid-Ocean Ridge, the longest mountain range on Earth, and he led an expedition off the Galápagos Islands that discovered chemosynthetic bacteria, which Ballard holds is probably the most primitive form of life.
According to Ballard, it was when he was commissioned to find two sunken ships carrying radioactive material that the Pentagon gave him twelve hours to search for the Titanic. He and his crew found it in the eleventh hour, at 2 a.m.
Ballard turned next to exploring ancient Greek and Roman trade routes, unearthing four thousand bottles of wine at once as well as artifacts from ships long since devoured by wood-digesting mussels called marine borers. He also came upon completely preserved ships, artifacts and human remains in the Black Sea, which contains no oxygen below a depth of 200 meters.
“How many ancient mariners, wooden ships … how many of them have had a bad day?” he said. “The answer is a million.”
In 2009, Ballard formed the Ocean Exploration Trust and bought an East German spy ship, which he equipped with a top-of-the-line mapping system capable of digitizing the ocean floor using 4K resolution, 16 times the resolution of HD. A staff primarily comprised of graduate students operates the ship 24 hours a day, and all of the data collected is released to the public as it is collected as open source data. Beginning June 8, the public will be able to access the data through Ballard’s website, nautiluslive.org. UCSB alumnus Brandon Tobey said he applauded Ballard’s site for its user customization.
“I have a very proud respect for him now, specifically because of his dedication to open source. I’m very excited to see the open source website,” Tobey said.
Ballard has found deposits of commercial grade copper, lead, silver and other metal ores, and has been pushing for expanding the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zones, areas up to 200 miles out from the coastline which, if a country can prove belong to its continental shelf, may be claimed for that country.
UCSB alumna Kelly Peinado said she was impressed by Ballard’s involvement in creating educational opportunities such as the JASON Project; a National Geographic program that reaches 1.7 million students and 38,000 teachers annually; STEM Education, his own program that has placed command centers in universities all over the country; a student ambassador program and an honors program.
“I was prepared to be amazed by the science and the discoveries, but what I didn’t realize is that he is so active in education from young people up to college students up to graduate students, so I really admire the efforts he’s made in that area,” Peinado said.
Correction: This article originally stated the 3D data on Ballard’s site went live last June 8, although it will actually go live this upcoming June 8. The article has been update to reflect this correction.
A version of this story appeared on page 3 of Monday, April 28, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.