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Titanic Discoverer Bob Ballard Says Deep Sea Robots Will Let Us Visit Shipwrecks In The Future

“The sea is the largest museum in the world,” says celebrated deep-sea explorer Bob Ballard, the man who discovered Titanic in 1985.

4-min read

According to the United Nations, an estimated 3 million shipwrecks — some of them a few millennia old — are scattered across the oceans around the planet. Each wreck is a time capsule and time portal that offers a glimpse into past civilisations.

And that’s why “the sea is the largest museum in the world,” says Dr Bob Ballard, the renowned American marine geologist, deep-sea explorer, and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence.

And Ballard happens to know a thing or two about shipwrecks: he’s the man who discovered the wreck of RMS Titanic in 1985. But that’s just Part 1 of that adventure: Turns out the Titanic search was a cover narrative for a then-classified US Navy mission to trace two nuclear subs lost in the 1960s.

titanic photo 1985
Ghost of the abyss: View of the propeller of the RMS Titanic from the Mir submersible porthole.

It’s a fascinating story that never gets old and one of many Ballard’s maritime adventures recounted in the just-out Nat Geo documentary Bob Ballard: An Explorer’s Life, and its companion book, Into the Deep: A Memoir from the Man Who Found Titanic.

“I was a Cub Scout, Boy Scout and Explorer Scout and I was always taught to tell the truth, and I must say, it sort of waited on me for so many years that I couldn’t tell the full truth [about the Titanic expedition], and so this book has given me the opportunity to clear my conscience,” Ballard, 79, tells 8days.sg via Zoom from his Connecticut home.

Ballard’s other ‘greatest hits’ include the discovery of the hydrothermal vents near the Galapagos, the remains of John F Kennedy's WWII patrol boat PT-109 in the Solomon Sea, and the German battleship Bismarck in the Atlantic. In 2019, he embarked on the search for Amelia Earhart’s airplane (“we’ve not given up”). (Trust me, a one-hour docu barely scratches the surface of his remarkable career, let alone a 15-minute interview.)

Seriously, can regular folks like us ever get to visit Titanic? Ballard thinks it's possible: “I believe the age of creating an underwater museum is upon us now."

“I know this sounds like a little crazy,” he says, “But if you follow our ship [Exploration Vessel Nautilus] when it sails this August, we’re working with Ocean Networks Canada to [study] the subducting zone — a collision between two of Earth’s tectonic plates — beneath Canada.

ev nautilus
Making waves: Aerial shot of Bob Ballard's research vessel the E/V Nautilus in the South Pacific; he secured the ship in 2008.  

“Naturally, there’s a concern that they will trigger a tremendous tsunami, so we’re installing a warning system made up of robots placed 3,000m underwater, off British Columbia in the Pacific, that is hardwired all the way to Germany, where people are driving it halfway around the planet because there’s a continuous fibre link, not a satellite with delay.”

If they can do that, he reckons, then they can easily do the same by tapping on the Transatlantic cables — which run near Titanic — and let people visit the wreck site remotely.

titanic 1997
King of the World: James Cameron on the set of 1997’s ‘Titanic’ with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Ballard says he and the Oscar-winning director are “very good friends”.  On the movie, he says, “I knew what the old lady looks like in her grave, but [James] showed me the young beautiful lady that sailed from Southampton.”

“Part of what we see in our advancement in teleoperated robotics is the dawn of electronic travel,” he enthuses. “Well, that’s the beginning of what’s possible where you’ll be able to rent robots and go anywhere you want and get a phone bill.”

And it’ll be easy as hosting a Zoom meeting, he adds. “[Because of the Covid-19 pandemic], how many people do you think have never Zoomed before but are now Zoom experts?”

seaquest dsv
‘Star Trek’ in water: Ballard served as a consultant on Steven Spielberg-produced sea exploration series ‘seaQuest DSV’, starring Roy Schneider (extreme left). “It was a lot of fun working with Spielberg,” he recalls. “Our job was to stretch reality, not break it.”

Are there any wreck sites Ballard would love to visit? “I would love to go back to the Black Sea,” he says. “We found one from 250 BC with human remains on it. The ship was perfectly preserved. That’s the real deep-sea museum because that’s where [Greek mythical hero] Jason went to search for the Golden Fleece. Some people believe that’s where the [Noah’s] Biblical Flood took place.”

Meanwhile, Ballard spends a great deal of his time in various educational outreach programs, either working with staff across New England via the Internet or travelling on E/V Nautilus, the 68-m state-of-the-art research ship named after the submersible fortress of his childhood hero Captain Nemo in Jule Vernes’ Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

In An Explorer’s Life, Ballard says his mission is to pique everyone's curiosity in Mother Nature: “I’m hoping to continue pouring fuel on everyone’s pilot light, so it doesn’t go out.”

“The ocean is going to play a critical part in our survival because we will not be able to feed the planet in 2050,” Ballard warns us. “Then we'll have to turn to the sea where we are literally clear-cutting the life in the ocean,” he continues.

“We hunted down and killed 90 per cent of all the big animals — the lions and tigers and bears of the sea. We now need to go to open ocean aquaculture, so there is a solution and I’m confident we’ll go down that road.”

Catch Bob Ballard: An Explorer’s Life on National Geographic Channel (Singtel TV Ch 201, StarHub Ch 411); please refer to channel for telecast details. It’s tentatively slated to debut on Disney+ later this year. Into the Deep: A Memoir from the Man Who Found Titanic is now in stores. You can also learn more about Ballard and the ongoing research from him and his team at nautiluslive.org.

Photos: Emory Kristof (Titanic)/National Geographic, National Geographic, TPG News/Click Photos

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