Robert Ballard graduated here in 1965 and is widely considered to be UCSB’s golden child – and he has certainly gone a long way.
While at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and his own Institute for Exploration, Ballard has led over 100 deep-sea science expeditions. He is also responsible for discovering the wrecks of the Titanic, the Bismarck, the Britannic and the Yorktown and for exploring the wreck of the Lusitania.
He is generally considered the successor to Jacques Cousteau, and has produced the only other body of work in oceanography to match.Come see him in Campbell Hall on Wednesday at 8 p.m.
– Josh Braun
You were a student at UCSB?
Yes I was, from 1960 to 1965.
Where did you live?
I lived in Anacapa Hall to start with and then I moved into the SAE on Pardall Road, and then I lived in various places in Isla Vista.
Do you have any memories that stand out?
Well, I loved it. I had a great time there. I did everything I could do there. I majored in four different disciplines: math, physics, chemistry and geology. I played intercollegiate athletics. I played on the freshman basketball team with Gene Bartow, and I played for the volleyball team. I was SAE in the fraternities. I was an ROTC deputy brigade commander. I was class president. I did it all. The full monty. I had a great time.
Do you come back often?
Not a lot. I graduated from Santa Barbara with a commission in the army right in the middle of the Vietnam War and then I was transferred into the Navy, then on active duty, and I actually ended up on the East Coast. Two years after I graduated from Santa Barbara, I went east and never came back. I’ve lived on the East Coast most of my adult life. I was a “distinguished alumni” and I got an award there [at UCSB], so I’ve been back a few times, but it’s not really on the beaten path. I’ve been back there maybe half a dozen times over 30 years. Something like that.
What will you be speaking about on Wednesday?
I’ll be talking about what I’ve done since I left Santa Barbara. Mostly deep-sea exploration. I’m an oceanographer – an explorer. I’ve conducted about 110 expeditions over the years. I really will start talking about the work I’ve done since about 1974 on, so the last quarter century of exploration and what we’re doing most recently with National Geographic. I’m an explorer in residence for National Geographic and I do a lot of expeditions for them. There was one on television just the other night called “In Search of Noah’s Flood.” I’ll be talking about all of our work and what we hope to do in the future. It’s really just a deep-sea exploration of the past, present and future.
The flyers are highlighting the shipwrecks you’ve explored. Will you be talking primarily about them?
Sure, I’ll talk about them. They represent a big part of what I’ve done. I’ve done a lot of other things as well, and I’d like to touch upon them as well. Certainly I’ll talk about the deep-water archeology and the maritime history I’ve been involved in, but I’d also like to talk about the exploration of the oceans themselves. I’ll touch upon a lot of things.
So you will be talking about discovering tube worms and exploring the Mid-Atlantic Ridge?
Absolutely. That’s a critical part of my early career. I’ll be talking about my children’s foundation, the JASON Foundation, and how we have 1.3 million children in it right now in distance learning programs. I’ll be talking about the work we’re going to be doing off Santa Barbara next year in the Channel Islandsand the marine sanctuaries. There will be a lot to talk about.
Can you tell us a bit about what it’s like to go out on a deep-sea expedition?
I started them before I came to Santa Barbara, actually. I went on my first oceanographic expedition when I was in high school. I went out to sea on Scripps ships in the Summer of 1959. I enjoyed going to sea. I enjoyed the process. I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy leaving society and punching it out – getting away from it all and doing something in a very focused way. I must say at times that I find it hard coming back and plugging back in. Sometimes it’s fun to just stay unplugged.
You were at Woods Hole for quite some time. What were your reasons for leaving to start the Institute for Exploration?
I was the head of the Center for Marine Exploration at Woods Hole, but I really wanted to start this new field of research in deep-water archeology and Woods Hole just wasn’t the place for it. I also wanted to get more involved in public outreach – more involved in pre-college science education. Woods Hole is a graduate program only. My interests took me away from Woods Hole. Although I still am an emeritus there, still have an office there and I still do research there, it’s not my center of gravity anymore. But it’s still certainly a very important part of my life.
You’ve done so many science expeditions. Now you’re focused on archeology. What’s next for you?
We’re in the middle of our Black Sea project. This is where we found evidence of the biblical flood. We’ve also found the most preserved ships in the world there. We’ve been going there for past three years. We’ll be going there this coming summer. We’ll be going there the summer after that. Our big focus right now is the Black Sea.
The Black Sea has no oxygen. It’s unique. So it has perfectly preserved ships of antiquity. We did a special on PBS about it. Just a few days ago we had a major article in National Geographic Magazine and we just had a book come out last week called “Adventures in Ocean Exploration” that talks about all of our Black Sea work. It’s a very unique place where there are well-preserved time capsules that go back thousands of years.
Are there any personal highlights in your career that you enjoy looking back on?
It’s hard to say. I’ve had a wonderful time. It’s been a very enjoyable career and I hope it doesn’t end any time soon.
How long did it take you to assemble your crew and the collection of robots you use on expeditions?
It’s been something I’ve been working on for over 30 years, and I started building my first robots in the ’80s. It’s taken me about 20 years to assemble the team and the technologies I have working for me right now. Many of the people I have working for me have been with me for those 20 years.
You were the technical adviser on seaQuest DSV. Did you rethink your contract when they introduced the guy with gills?
No, because I had it written into my contract that I could leave as soon as they did that. I didn’t have to rethink – I left. I had it in my contract that if they went goofy, I went south. So when they went goofy, I went south. It’s sad because I thought if they had stuck with the original format for another year, it would have been a very big success. But no, that lost me right there.
Thanks for talking with us.
Thanks. I hope to see you there.