Wednesday, February 7, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, February 7, 2001

Titanic discoverer lectures at UH

Ballard project tags Kaua'i albatrosses

By Chris Oliver
Advertiser Staff Writer

When Robert Ballard found RMS Titanic, in 1985, in the deep, dark waters of the north Atlantic Ocean, the discovery opened a new chapter in the history of deep-sea exploration.

Robert Ballard, left, with researchers Luanne Johnson, center, and Kathleen Viernes, front, chat about albatross habits in front of the albatross landing strip at the Kilauea Point Wildlife Refuge.

Jason Project

Instead of scuba divers, Ballard used a new kind of search vehicle: a remotely operated vehicle tethered to a submersible. The vehicle could travel along the ocean floor and transmit photographs of its subterranean surroundings live to the mother ship at the ocean surface.

Ballard has since discovered a number of significant shipwrecks, and using similar technology, developed the JASON Project, an interactive science program involving middle school students via two-way satellite across the globe.

Ballard is in Hawaii this week heading up JASON XII with students on the Big Island, this time focusing on Hawaiian volcanoes. He’ll also be on Oahu to talk on "Deep Sea Exploration," as part of the University of Hawaii Distinguished Lecture Series.

The talk covers early explorations from the time of pioneers Jacques Piccard and William Beebe to the present day.

Deep Sea Exploration’

A public lecture by Robert D. Ballard. Sponsored by the Distinguished Lecture Series of the University of Hawai'i, 7 p.m. Friday, Campus Center, University of Hawai'i-Manoa. 956-9405. Free.

As director of the JASON Foundation for Education, Ballard’s mission is to engage kids on the battlefield of science and make it exciting. But it’s his reputation as a deep-sea explorer and shipwreck hunter that most captures the public imagination — a modern Captain Nemo from Jules Verne’s classic "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

And Ballard can’t recall ever wanting to be anything else.

"I grew up in San Diego where the bay was pristine, the U.S. Navy was there and Scripps Institute down the road," he said. "I just fell in love with the ocean."

The affair has lasted a lifetime, enabling Ballard, 58, to coax secrets from the sea on more than a hundred deep-sea expeditions using both manned and unmanned vehicles.

Ballard is president of the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Conn., and explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society.

He earned his doctoral degree in marine geophysics from the University of Rhode Island and spent 30 years as a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, where he pioneered using submersibles to do oceanic field work.

Among the best known of his expeditions:

The expedition to the Galapagos rift and the discovery of hydrothermal vents with "exotic" new life forms, in the sea floor, in 1977.

RMS Titanic, lying more than two miles deep in the North Atlantic, in 1985.

Tracking down the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic, in 1989.

Locating the Lost Fleet of the Guadalcanal, in 1992.

Using a University of Hawaii sonar system in 1992 to find the USS Yorktown, an American aircraft carrier, which sank in the fierce 1942 Battle of Midway.

The sunken remains of ships along ancient trade routes in the Mediterranean Sea, in 1997.

Two ancient Phoenician ships sunk off the coast of Israel, thought to be the oldest shipwrecks ever found in deep water, in 1999.

A National Geographic expedition led by Ballard last year to the Black Sea discovered four ancient shipwrecks 1,000 feet below the surface. Because of the oxygen-deprived waters of the Black Sea, one wooden trading ship was found almost intact.

On the same expedition, Ballard and his crew found evidence of a great flood, linked to the Noah’s Ark legend, that may have struck the region thousands of years ago.

"Before Titanic, deep-sea exploration could take hours, just coming and going to the ocean surface, and it was expensive," Ballard said. "I knew there had to be a better way."

Ballard’s better way, using a combination of manned submersibles and tethered ROVs to scan the ocean floor, opens a window onto the cold, dark and largely mysterious world of the deep ocean. Ballard talks of this as "marine archaeology," a relatively new science, now extending from the fringes of the oceans to the deepest seabed.

"Until recently, the study of shipwrecks has been restricted to sites no deeper than 200 feet, the limit for scuba divers," Ballard said. "This means 97 percent of the oceans remain unexplored."

Not every expedition turns up the treasure, however. Last November, 1,200 feet down off of Pearl Harbor, Ballard and his crew failed to find the remains of a Japanese midget submarine and her two submariners. The search for the elusive sub, sunk during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, will be part of a TV special, "Graveyards of the Pacific," to be aired later this year.

Neither would Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, show herself when Ballard tried to tempt her from the loch’s depths several years ago. "I’m convinced there’s nothing there," Ballard said.

But he admits he can’t reverse popular opinion.

Listing Captain Cook, Meriwether Lewis and Marco Polo among discoverers he most admires, Ballard confesses to being "just a kid whose curiosity has never been snuffed."

"We can go into space, we can go to the ocean floor, with the aid of the Genome Project we can travel deep inside the human body," Ballard said. "I wish I was 5 again: The greatest age of exploration is ahead."

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