Deep sea archeologist, explorer recruiting in Chattanooga

(Photo: Staff)

Authored By Mary Barnett

Deep sea explorer Dr. Robert Ballard may be best known for his underwater shipwreck discoveries including the Titanic in 1985, the German battleship Bismarck in 1989, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown in 1998 and the wreck of John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 in 2002.

But he told Chattanooga area high school students Thursday morning during a talk at UTC that he was most envious of the discoveries they would make in their lifetimes.

“Your generation is going to explore more of our planet than all previous generations combined,” he told the students.

Ballard was in town for two speaking engagements as part of the Tennessee Aquarium’s Our Blue Planet speaker series. Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, is the next scheduled speaker on Sept. 6.

The series is part of a grant the aquarium received from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) three years ago.

“One of the components of that grant was to conduct a community lecture series that brings scientists from around the country and the world into Chattanooga to expose our community to an awful lot of environmental opportunities and information,” Charles Arant, Tennessee Aquarium president and CEO, said in his opening remarks.

Ballard has spent much of his acclaimed career exploring vast underwater mountain ranges that no one knew existed when he was still in high school. 

Ballard said his next greatest discovery is the one he is about to make.

“But I can’t tell you what it is because I haven’t a clue,” he said.

His message throughout the hourlong talk underscored America’s need for future scientists. He opened the discussion by openly stating he was there to recruit.

“Every generation stands on the shoulders of the last generation and sees further. What you’re going to see I can’t imagine. And so if you look at all of my really important stuff, I was looking for one thing and found something far more important,” he said.

Ballard said in a culture so enamored of celebrity, he understands the need to have a popular hook to get the general public interested in “inner space” exploration. But far more important than discovering the Titanic, Ballard said, was his team’s deep water sightings and identification of hypothermal vents.

“We were exploring along this mountain range, turned the corner and saw something unbelievable in the windows of our submarine,” Ballard said.

The tall, chimney-like, smoke-blowing “pipe organs” coming out of the sea floor blew smoke measuring 650 degrees Fahrenheit into the dark water.

Copper, lead, silver, zinc and gold were all right before their eyes, far more significant than any discoveries yet to be made on the moon, he said. 

“We’re finding in our own planet vast undiscovered resources that your generation will benefit from,” he said.

Drawing the distinction between prioritizing outer space exploration over inner space, or deep sea, exploration is a sticking point for Ballard.

“NASA’s budget to explore outer space is 1,000 times larger than our budget to explore underwater America. Doesn’t that bother you a little? We’re not even exploring our own real estate, ” he said.

In 1973 Ballard’s team were the first humans to go to the bottom of the ocean and look at the “boundary of creation.” Explorations that were only possible by making a daily five-hour round trip commute to the bottom of the ocean are now done by remotely operated vehicles Ballard has helped revolutionize.

“I am exploring 10 times more now than I have ever explored. And less and less have to physically do it, ” he said.

Today, Ballard owns one of only two oceanic exploration ships in the world. The other belongs to NOAA.

His ship, the Nautilus, is about to embark on a trip around the world in order to get situated in the American Pacific Ocean later this year.

“This ship is the coolest ship you want to see. The ship is outfitted with the most advanced remotely operated vehicles that technology can build,” he said.

The mission is not simply to go where no one else has ever gone before but to share discoveries within 30 minutes via satellite with a team of “on-call” experts from around the United States, “no matter when, no matter where and no matter how deep.”

A program called Teachers at Sea will also be embedded on every leg of the expedition to help create live shows streamed into schools, libraries, aquariums and other educational institutions.

Ballard is the director of the Center for Ocean Exploration at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, president of the Institute for Exploration and president of the Ocean Exploration Trust.