Dr. Robert Ballard: Explorer, Oceanographer, Author, Teacher

Apr 17, 2018

Dr. Robert Ballard
Credit Claire Kidwell

Dr. Robert Ballard is living his childhood dream.  The 75-year-old oceanographer, perhaps most widely known for his discovery of the Titanic wreckage in 1985, knew as a youngster that he wanted to be Captain Nemo. 

He shared his story during the Missouri State University Public Affairs Conference last week. 

Ballard’s life has been full of adventure and research including the discovery of hydrothermal vents and how life came to be on Earth as well as black smokers.

"It shows the vast amount of mineral resources we're discovering in the ocean and also how the ocean got its chemistry, so those two were seminal discoveries within science," said Ballard.

He’s found highly preserved ancient ship wrecks in the Black Sea, which he said point to “an amazing museum” underwater.

"We just found a shipwreck, 300 B.C., with human remains and with their DNA to tell us who those ancient mariners were," he said.

The United Nations estimates there are still three million ancient shipwrecks to be found, which Ballard calls “time capsules of human history.”

He said the ocean is the largest museum on Earth.

"There's more history in the deep sea than all of the museums of the world combined, but there's no lock on the door," said Ballard.  "So, if we're going to preserve that history, sustain that history, we really need to take steps to make sure that it isn't just finders keepers."

There are very few laws controlling history in the high seas, according to Ballard.  People must be made aware of what’s there, he said, and that it’s up for grabs if nothing is done to protect it. 

His excursion to find the Titanic was a cover up mission for the U.S. Navy, which had actually hired Ballard to search for two nuclear submarines that had sunk during the Cold War, the U.S.S. Thresher and the U.S. S. Scorpion.  When he found the boats he noticed they had left a debris field.  Because of what he learned searching for the submarines, he looked for a debris field in his efforts to find the Titanic.  That’s how he found it—400 miles east of Newfoundland and 12,000 feet down on the ocean floor. 

Most of Ballard’s last 60 years has been spent going where no one has gone before.  And his passion for the work is as strong as it ever was. 

He involves young people in his adventures through technology he developed called Telepresence.  Using satellite technology, students, teachers and scientists can view real time data and images from ships at sea.  It’s payback, he said.  When he was a teen, he wrote what he calls a “Santa Claus” letter to Scripps, the biggest oceanographic institution in the world.  A professor wrote him back and told him they had a program for juniors in high school like Ballard.  He applied and received a scholarship that he said changed his life.

"So, when I came home from finding the Titanic, in the first week there were 16,000 letters from 16,000 Bob Ballards, and what are you gonna do?"  he said.  "I mean, I read every one of them--it took me awhile--and I have a staff that answers them, letter after letter to this day, and so it was 'how can I return the favor?'"

He created the foundation, Ocean Exploration Trust, he said, to not only go where no one has gone before but to reach the next generation and motivate them to study harder.    

He encourages kids to follow their passion, and he tells them, "don't think you can avoid failure.  Failure is the greatest teacher you will ever meet.  You need to work your way through failure, and the only thing that's going to work your way through failure is the passion to get to where you want to get," he said.

He’s concerned for the future of the planet because of climate change, part of which he said is natural and part of which is human-caused.  According to Ballard, we’re in an interglacial period, but we need to work on the part of it we can work on.  He said the Earth has gone through other mass extinctions, but this would be the first one caused by humans.

"And, it's not a pretty story when you get mass extinction," he said, "so if we don't get that curve down, we will see a mass extinction, and maybe it includes us, so we need to take it seriously."

Young people, he said, are probably the most important generations of humans on our planet.  They’re going to make sure that we survive. 

"The human race is at a very critical moment right now, and it's the decisions of the generation that's now in school--are they going to be able to pull it off?  Because we're headed towards a cliff right now," he said.

According to Ballard, today’s young people are going to have “a pretty important job on their hands.” 

He said humans will need to turn to the ocean for their food source in the future as farmlands disappear due to development.

He’s excited for the future of ocean exploration with the continued advancement of new technologies.  He said there are many diverging technologies now that are making it possible to accelerate the rate at which we explore our planet.