Robert Ballard, UCSB alumnus, famed oceanographer and deep-sea explorer, returned on Wednesday to speak in Campbell Hall. He spent his first few minutes on stage attempting to remember what he had learned here.
Ballard spoke at 8 p.m. to a full house, before retiring to the Visitor Center where Chancellor Henry Yang presented him with the ROTC Distinguished Alumnus Award.
The evening was filled with amusing stories, but the highlight of Ballard’s talk came when he presented the true story behind discovering the wreck of the Titanic. The mission, as it turns out, was not so much a search for the largest ocean liner ever built, but a classified inspection of a lost nuclear submarine.
“My mission, really was to go out to the wreck of the Scorpion, and find the nuclear reactors and actually penetrate [the ship] and look for nuclear warheads,” Ballard said. “That was the bulk of these expeditions in 1986 and 1987, but I couldn’t tell the public.”
Ballard came up with a more creative explanation for his mission.
“So I told the public that I was really going to go out and look for the Titanic. The Titanic was the cover for a military operation – and the Navy never expected me to find the Titanic. The Navy thought, ‘that’s a great cover story, because you’ll never find it. You tell them you’re looking for the Titanic!'”
Military intelligence officers accompanied the sea expedition along with a crew full of civilian French and American oceanographers, who, remarkably, failed to realize that their boat was headed in the wrong direction for most of the expedition.
After inspecting the wreckage of the lost nuclear submarine, the crew had 12 days left and decided to spend them looking for the Titanic.
Ballard noted the extent to which his work with the Titanic has overshadowed his scientific research in the public eye.
“Here we’d done all these expeditions leading up to that: proving the concept of plate tectonics, finding hydrothermal vents, helping to understand the origin of life on the planet, possibly of life outside our planet, all that kind of stuff. I never got a letter from a child – and then I find this rusty old ship on the bottom of the ocean…”
When Ballard returned to his office at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, his desk was overflowing with 16,000 letters.
The desire to share the experience resulted in Ballard’s live broadcast of an exploration of the Titanic in conjunction with National Geographic. For a live broadcast, National Geographic referred him to Ted Turner, who in turn referred him to an unusual group of partners.
“I went to these guys who were doing WWF and I explained to them what I was doing – Tears were coming out their eyes. ‘Please, please! Free us! Please!'”
Ballard’s wish to share his discoveries with the world has led him to create an educational program of telecasts for use in classrooms. The program, known as the JASON Project, currently reaches 1.3 million students across the globe.
Ballard said he realized the potential of remotely viewing television feeds the first time he took a biologist down to the sea floor in the research submarine, Alvin. On the expedition, Ballard tested a new set of cameras on Alvin for the first time.
“I looked over and all of a sudden I saw him with his back to the porthole,” Ballard said. “He was looking at the TV monitor. … I said, ‘We went through a lot of trouble. We dove to 9,000 feet and we searched all over God’s green acre to find you these hydrothermal vents and you’re not looking at them out of the window.’ He said, ‘Well, there’s a better view on the monitor.’ A little light went off in my mind. I said, ‘I think there’s something wrong with this picture.'”
Ballard began using robot submersibles with video cameras for research and now uses satellite broadcasts to beam video signals to classrooms around the world.
He concluded the lecture by discussing some of his most recent research, including a search for the biblical flood and the exploration of shipwrecks from antiquity in the Black Sea.