As a very active young boy in Wichita, KS, and then San Diego, California, Bob Ballard was interested in sports, scouting, YMCA Club, fishing and his studies. But when he was asked who his hero was growing up, his answer, “Captain Nemo and his submarine the Nautilus”, was not a surprise. He dreamed about undersea exploration. Could he have imagined one day being the modern day Captain Nemo?
His journey started in 1959. Ballard was a junior in high school when he applied for a summer scholarship to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. That summer, while on one of several expeditions, he met Robert Norris, a Ph.D. in Marine Biology. Norris invited him to attend the University of California, Santa Barbara, where Ballard later earned a B.S. in Geology and Chemistry with a minor in Math and Physics.
Ballard’s dad was an engineer at North American Aviation. He secured a part time job for his son while Bob was still a college student - working in the Ocean Systems Group on a proposal to build the submersible ALVIN for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). The proposal failed but not his interest in ALVIN, which was built by another vendor for WHOI. Ballard moved to Hawaii to attend the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Geophysics where he trained porpoises and whales. After receiving his Masters Degree and getting married, he returned to North American Aviation.
While at UCSB, he participated in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) for the army. When he was called to active duty in Vietnam, he requested a transfer to the Navy to make use of his training as a marine geologist. Due to his previous work in deep submergence, he was assigned as a liaison between the Office of Naval Research and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts to continue his research. He continued on at WHOI as a research fellow after leaving active duty. After earning a Ph.D. in geology and geophysics in 1974, he became a full time marine scientist at Woods Hole.
Using ALVIN, Ballard and his team were the first to successfully field map underwater and made countless discoveries that answered scientific questions with implications for life on other planets and alternate life on earth. (See future articles on these discoveries). Ballard then developed the next generation machine for undersea research, ANGUS (Acoustically Navigated Geological Underwater Survey), a submersible camera able to remain on the ocean floor 12-14 hours – taking up to 16,000 photos each lowering.
While at Stanford University (on a sabbatical from WHOI) he “conceived a new automated system for undersea exploration: a maneuverable, remote-controlled photographic robot which broadcasts live images to a remote monitor, where a large team of scientists can survey the ocean floor continuously and maneuver the remote camera.” As a tenured member of WHOI, he was able to assemble a team to build it – receiving funding from the U.S. Navy.
We all know of his historic discovery of the Titanic while on a secret mission for the U.S. government. Since then he has located the German battleship Bismarck, the passenger liner Lusitania, and JFK’s PT-109. Recently he found the Turkish plane shot down with 2 pilots off the coast of Syria.
Ballard is the recipient of numerous awards and honors for his ceaseless research and discoveries. In 1989, he founded the Jason Project. With this project he wishes to bring the wonders of the earth, air and sea into classrooms around the world (www.jasonproject.org). At 70, Ballard is President of the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Connecticut; Scientist Emeritus at WHOI; and Director of the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. He remains a passionate explorer, uncovering ancient mysteries and history secreted under the sea.