Deep-Sea Explorer Brings History to Life

By Lehrer, Eli | Insight on the News, May 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Deep-Sea Explorer Brings History to Life

Lehrer, Eli, Insight on the News

Scientist/explorer Robert Ballard, who has found the Titanic and many famous sunken ships, combines oceanography with archaeology to bring forth the seas' historical treasures.

In an era when climbing Mt. Everest is just a matter of laying out the right amount of cash, and when it's even possible to buy tickets for trips into space, authentic explorers' are few and far between. Robert Ballard is one of them. This scientist, educator, author and explorer arguably has the highest public profile of any serious scientist working today.

In 1985 Ballard found the wreck of the White Star Line's Titanic, lost in 1912. His high-profile expeditions are a seaman's laundry list of the famous lost ships of the 20th century: the Lusitania, the Bismarck and, most recently, the American aircraft carrier Yorktown. (His discovery of the Yorktown is fully reported in the National Geographic Explorer Documentary, The Battle for Midway, aired April 14 on TBS at 8:05 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Time).

In recent years, Ballard has founded the Institute for Exploration at Lyme, Conn., and plans to work toward developing the new academic field of deep-water archaeology. "I've come to realize that the deep sea is a preserver of human history. There is more history preserved in the deep sea than in all the museums of the world combined," he tells Insight.

Insight: You were born in Kansas. How did you become fascinated with the sea?

Robert Ballard: During World War II, my father moved to the West Coast, to San Diego. I was born three days after the Yorktown was sunk and, for the most part, I grew up on stories of the war. I was weaned on Crusade in the Pacific and Victory at Sea. That is how I got interested in going out to find the Yorktown. If you know anything about the history of California, you'll know that during the war San Diego was a Navy town. All my childhood was in the Navy and, to me, going to sea was the most natural thing in the world. When I opened my eyes, I didn't see amber waves of grain, I saw the sea. My house was one block away from a pier and, growing up, that pier was my playground.

Insight: Your National Geographic documentary describes the search for the Yorktown as an almost impossible one. What made it so hard?

RB: It was one of our toughest ever. Midway is aptly named: It is midway between nowhere and nowhere. Despite all of our technology, ships still go 10 to 12 miles an hour, so it took forever to get our research ship from San Diego to way out in the middle of the Pacific. It's also very deep out there. We had to work 17,400 feet down. The search area was larger than that for Titanic and Bismark put together. Mixed into that real estate then were some very tall volcanic mountains -- places where you easily could hide an aircraft carrier. An aircraft carrier is big, but so are the features at the bottom of the sea. There are places that it could have gone down where we probably never would have found it.

Then we blew up our [deep-submergence explorer] vehicle.

There we were with this delicate piece of machinery, all of our delicate instruments, damaged like two sticks of dynamite had exploded fight there. It should have knocked us out of the game.

Any one of these problems would have been bad, and we had all of them. Looking for the carrier was sort of like the battle itself. We found it partly through luck, and we won our battle in the last 20 minutes.

Insight: What is it like to find a ship such as the Yorktown?

RB: It's always a complicated set of emotions. We are coming in on this thing, we've got it on sonar, we're zooming on it -- and there's a tremendous amount of excitement. At the same time, sitting next to me are the survivors. What's going through their minds? They are very emotional, and I've found that all of these survivors have a tremendous sense of guilt. They wonder why they were the ones to live. …

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