Robert Ballard

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search
Robert D. Ballard

Robert Duane Ballard (born June 30, 1942 in Wichita, Kansas) is a former commander in the United States Navy and an oceanographer who is most noted for his work in underwater archaeology. He is most famous for the discoveries of the wrecks of the RMS Titanic in 1985, the battleship Bismarck in 1989, and the wreck of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in 1998. Most recently he discovered the wreck of John F. Kennedy's PT-109 in 2003 and visited the Solomon Islander natives who saved its crew.


Early life

Ballard grew up in Pacific Beach, San Diego, California to a mother of German heritage and a father of British heritage.[1] He has attributed his early interest in underwater exploration to reading the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,[2] living by the ocean in San Diego, and his fascination with the groundbreaking expeditions of the bathyscaphe Trieste.

Ballard began working for Andreas Rechnitzer's Ocean Systems Group at North American Aviation in 1962 when his father, Chet Ballard, the chief engineer at North American Aviation's Minuteman missile program, helped him get a part-time job. When Ballard first joined North American, he worked with Rechnitzer on North American's failed proposal to build the submersible Alvin for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

In 1965, Ballard graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, earning undergraduate degrees in chemistry and geology. While a student in Santa Barbara, California, he joined Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and also completed the US Army's ROTC program, giving him an Army officer's commission in Army Intelligence. His first graduate degree (MS, 1966) was in geophysics from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Geophysics where he trained porpoises and whales to make a living. After getting married, Ballard returned to Andreas Rechnitzer's Ocean Systems Group at North American Aviation.

Ballard was working towards a Ph.D. in marine geology at the University of Southern California in 1967 when he was called to active duty. Upon his request, Ballard was transferred from the Army into the US Navy as an oceanographer. The Navy assigned Ballard as a liaison between the Office of Naval Research and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

After leaving the Navy in 1970, Ballard continued working at Woods Hole persuading organizations and people, mostly scientists, to fund and use Alvin for undersea research. Four years later Ballard received a Ph.D. in marine geology and geophysics at the University of Rhode Island.

Ballard's first dive in a submersible was in the Ben Franklin (PX-15) in 1969 off the coast of Florida during a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution expedition. In the summer of 1970 , Ballard began a field mapping project of the Gulf of Maine for his doctoral dissertation. The project used an air gun that sent sound waves underwater to determine the underlying structure of the ocean floor and the submersible Alvin which was used to find and recover a sample from the bedrock.

During the summer of 1975, Ballard participated in a joint French-American expedition called Phere searching for hydrothermal vents over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, but the expedition did not find any active vents. A 1979 expedition was aided by deep-towed still camera sleds that were able to take pictures of the ocean floor, making it easier to find the vent locations.

When Alvin inspected one of the sites they located, the scientists observed black smoke billowing out of the vents, something not observed at the Galápagos Rift. Ballard and geophysicist Jean Francheteau went down in Alvin the day after the black smokers were first observed. They were able to take an accurate temperature reading of the active vent (the previous dive's thermometer had melted), and recorded 350 °C (662 °F). Ballard and Francheteau continued searching for more vents along the East Pacific Rise between 1980 and 1982.

Military career

Ballard joined the United States Army in 1965 through the Army's Reserve Officers Training program and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve and designated as an intelligence officer. He was called up to active duty in 1967 but requested to fulfill his obligation in the United States Navy. His request was approved and Ballard was transfered to the Navy Reserve on the reserve active duty list. After completing his active duty obligation in 1970, Ballard was transfered back to reserve status where he would remain for a good portion of his military career being called up only for mandatory training and special assignments. He was honorably discharged from the Navy as a commander in 2004 after reaching the statutory age limit.

Marine archaeology

Giving an impassioned presentation on the importance of exploring the oceans at TED 2008

While Ballard had been interested in the sea since an early age, his work at Woods Hole and his scuba diving experiences off Massachusetts spurred his interest in shipwrecks and their exploration. His work in the Navy had involved assisting the development of small, unmanned submersibles which could be tethered to and controlled from a surface ship, and were outfitted with lighting, cameras, and manipulator arms. As early as 1973, Ballard saw this as way of searching for the wreck of Titanic. In 1977, he led his first expedition, which was unsuccessful.

RMS Titanic

In the summer of 1985, Ballard was aboard the French research ship Le Suroît, which was using the side scan sonar SAR to search for Titanic's wreck. When the French ship was recalled, Ballard transferred onto a ship from Woods Hole, the R/V Knorr. Unbeknownst to some, this trip was being financed by the U.S. Navy specifically for secret reconnaissance of the wreckage of two Navy nuclear powered attack submarines, the USS Scorpion and the USS Thresher, that sank in the 1960s and not for the Titanic. Back in 1982, Ballard approached the Navy about his new deep sea underwater robot craft, the Argo, and his search for the Titanic [3]. The Navy however was not interested in spending that type of money in searching for the large ocean liner, but they were however, very interested in finding out what happened to their missing submarines and ultimately concluded that the Argo was their best chance to do so.[3] In an agreement made with the Navy, the Navy would finance for Ballard's Titanic search only if he first searched for and investigated the two sunken submarines [3], find out the state of their nuclear reactors after being submerged for such a long period of time [3], and if their radioactivity is impacting the environment [3]. Ballard would be placed into temporary active duty in the Navy and in charge of finding and investigating the wrecks, and after the two missions were completed, time and funding permitting, Ballard would be free to use the resources to hunt for Titanic [4].

After their missions for the Navy, the Knorr arrived on site on August 22, 1985 [5], and deployed the Argo. Ballard and his team discovered when they searched for the two submarines that they imploded from the immense pressure depth [6]. That implosion littered thousands of pieces of debris all over the ocean floor [6]. Following each of the submarines' large trail of debris lead Ballard and his team directly to both of them [6]. The trail of debris made it a whole lot easier for them to find the submaines than if they where to search for the hulls outright [6]. Ballard already knew that the Titanic imploded from pressure depth as well, much the same way the two submarines did, and concluded that it too must have also left a scattered debris trail [6]. Using that lesson, Ballard and his team had Argo sweep back and forth across the ocean floor looking for Titanic's debris trail [5]. Ballard's team took shifts monitoring the video feed from Argo as it searched the monotonous ocean floor two miles below.

In the early morning hours of September 1, 1985, observers noted anomalies on the otherwise smooth ocean floor. At first, it was pockmarks, like small craters from impacts. Eventually debris was sighted as the rest of the team was awakened. Finally, a boiler was sighted, and soon after the hull itself was found.

Ballard's team made a general search of the vessel's exterior, noting its condition; most significantly they confirmed that Titanic had in fact split in two, and that the stern was in far worse shape than the rest of the ship. Ballard's team did not have much time to explore, as others were waiting to take Knorr on other scientific pursuits, but his fame was now assured. Ballard originally planned to keep the exact location a secret to prevent anyone from claiming prizes from the wreck. Ballard considered the site a cemetery, and refused to desecrate it by removing artifacts from the wreck. However, in an address to Congress shortly after he returned to the United States, Ballard implored future explorers to devote time to retrieving artifacts to create a museum.

On July 12, 1986, Ballard and his team returned onboard Atlantis II [5] to make the first detailed study of the wreck. This time, Ballard brought Alvin, a deep diving submersible which could hold a small crew. Alvin was accompanied by Jason Junior, a small remotely operated vehicle which could fit through small openings to see into the ship's interior. While the first dive (taking over two hours to dive down) saw technical problems, subsequent dives were far more successful, and produced a detailed photographic record of the wreck's condition.

Other wrecks


On 19 May 1998, the wreck of the USS Yorktown was found by Dr. Robert D. Ballard. The wreck was found 3 miles (5 km) beneath the surface and was photographed.


Ballard undertook an even more daunting task when he and his team went searching for the Bismarck in 1989. The water in which she sank is 4,000 feet deeper than where the Titanic sank. Ballard attempted to make clear whether the German battleship had been sunk by the British or was scuttled by her own crew. Three weeks after the expedition however, personal tragedy struck the famed explorer when his 21 year old son Todd who had aided his father in the search, was killed in a car accident.


In 1993 Ballard investigated the wreck of the RMS Lusitania off the Irish coast. The ship was struck by one torpedo, whose explosion was followed by a second, larger one. Ballard determined the ship's boilers were intact, and speculated the second explosion was caused by coal dust. Others think it more likely the torpedo breached a component of the ship's propulsion system, which relied on steam heated to 300 degrees F. Cold seawater coming in contact with this high-temperature steam would create a catastrophic explosion.

Battle of Guadalcanal

Ballard and his team have also visited the sites of many wrecks of World War II in the Pacific. His book Lost Ships of Guadalcanal locates and photographs many of the vessels sunk in the infamous Ironbottom Sound, the strait between Guadalcanal Island and the Floridas in the Solomon Islands.

JFK's PT-109

In 2002, the National Geographic Society and Ballard fielded a ship with remote vehicles to the Solomon Islands. They succeeded in finding a torpedo tube from the tiny shipwreck of John F. Kennedy's PT-109 which was rammed in 1943 by a small destroyer off Ghizo Island. The visit also brought to light the identity of islanders Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana who had received little recognition for finding the shipwrecked crew after searching for days in their dugout canoe. A TV special and a book were produced, and Ballard spoke at the John F. Kennedy Library in 2005.

Institute for Exploration

In the 1990s Ballard founded the Institute for Exploration, which specializes in deep-sea archaeology and deep-sea geology. It joined forces in 1999 with the Mystic Aquarium located in Mystic, Connecticut. They are a part of the non-profit Sea Research Foundation, Inc.

Black Sea

In a series of expeditions, a team of marine archaeologists led by Ballard identified what appeared to be ancient shorelines, freshwater snail shells, and drowned river valleys in roughly 300 feet (100 m) of water off the Black Sea coast of modern Turkey. Radiocarbon dating of freshwater mollusk remains indicated an age of about 7,000 years.

The team discovered three ancient wrecks to the west of the town of Sinope at depths of 100 m. Wreck A and Wreck C probably date to the late Roman period (2nd-4th century A.D.), while Wreck B probably dates to the Byzantine period (5th to 7th century A.D.).

To the east of Sinope, the team discovered a remarkably well-preserved wreck at 320 m depth, in Black Sea's deep anoxic waters. The vessel's entire hull and cargo are intact, buried in sediments. Its deck structures are also intact, including a mast rising some 11 m into the water column. Radiocarbon dating of wood from the wreck provides a date of 410-520 A.D. This ship has been named "Sinope D" by the Ballard team.

According to a report in New Scientist magazine (May 4, 2002, p. 13), the researchers found an underwater delta south of the Bosporus. There was evidence for a strong flow of fresh water out of the Black Sea in the 8th millennium BCE. Ballard's research has contributed to the debate over the Black Sea deluge theory.

Awards and honors

Other works


In 2004, Ballard was appointed professor of oceanography, and currently serves as Director of the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography, at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography.


Ballard served as the technical consultant on the science fiction series "seaQuest DSV" during its first season from September 1993 until May 1994. During the end credits, he would speak about the scientific elements that were present in any given episode and place them in a contemporary context. Although he exited the series in the second season, he was referenced in the third season, with the "Ballard Institute" being named after him.


In 1989, Ballard founded the JASON Project, a distance education program designed to excite and engage middle school students in science and technology. Ballard began the JASON Project in response to the thousands of letters he received from students following his discovery of the wreck of the Titanic.[7]


  • "Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne is who I always wanted to be. Absolutely no doubt about it. I always had this dream of being inside his ship, the Nautilus."
  • "If you can plan it out, and it seems logical to you, then you can do it. I discovered the power of a plan."
  • "All kids dream a marvelous image of what they want to do. But then society tells them they can't do it. I didn't listen. I wanted to live my dream."
  • "Salesmanship is a critical part of accomplishment in any field. You have to look people in the eye and not blink when you say you can do it."


Further reading

  • R. D. Ballard, F, T. Hiebert, D. F. Coleman, C. Ward, J. Smith, K. Willis, B. Foley, K. Croff, C. Major, and F. Torre, "Deepwater Archaeology of the Black Sea: The 2000 Season at Sinop, Turkey" American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 105 No. 4 (October 2001).

External links

Personal tools