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the lost liners
meet bob ballard
ocean evolution
under the sea
diagram of a colossus
meet bob ballard
PBS: Okay, let's start. What did you do before you became interested in undersea exploration?

Bob Ballard: Well, I guess, wet my pants because from the moment I can remember, I wanted to do underwater exploration. It was something of a childhood dream.

PBS: Which leads into the second question, how did you first become involved or interested? And was your interest a casual one in the beginning or did you begin intently to under... begin a career in undersea exploration?

BB: It began very early in my life. Actually, I was a little boy growing up on the beaches of southern California and San Diego. My father was a... an engineer, aerospace engineer and working for aerospace company in the San Diego area. And we had a... our first house was just a matter of a hundred yards or so away from the ocean and right nearby was a pier, Rainbow Pier. And as a little boy, I spent my entire life on that pier, under the pier, on the beach, beachcombing... spending countless hours in tidal pools. And right nearby was the... and still is the largest oceanographic institution in the world, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. And then to the south is where the US Navy was based, so having the Navy in my backyard and having the largest oceanographic institution in my backyard, it's no surprise that I went on to become a Naval officer and get a PhD in oceanography. So it's been a very early passion and one I've always wanted to pursue.

PBS: What was your first experience as an underwater explorer?

BB: I would have to say, for me, was when I got a scholarship -- and I was in high school between my junior and senior year -- and I wrote a letter to Scripps. I... my father then moved up to ... to Los Angeles and he was head of the Minuteman Missile Program at Downey, California, an... an LA suburb. And given my... my childhood in San Diego, when I was in high school, I wrote a letter to Scripps saying, "What do I have to do to become an oceanographer? It's something I want to pursue." And I... a kind man by the name of Norris Rickstraw wrote me back a response and from that... application form to apply for a scholarship. And this would have been the summer of 1959, so forty-one years ago this summer. And I got the scholarship and I spent my childhood or my junior year in high school on Scripps ships. And the first ship we went out on, we... almost got sank. The ship got caught in a storm and we got rescued by the Coast Guard and... and so it was just a... for... for a young boy, it was an incredible experience and certainly convinced me I was going in the right direction.

PBS: What goes into planning an underwater expedition and is it... is it an expensive enterprise?

BB: It's... it's expensive if a million dollars is expensive. Typically, a deep-sea exploration costs about a million dollars, assuming that you have all the people and the equipment necessary to do it. So if you've... if you have the people and equipment, then the cost of doing an expedition is about a million... million dollars. Really, what goes into planning an expedition is first convincing someone to fund it. I'll say the hardest part is convincing myself that it's something I can do and yet, at the same time, difficult, challenging, and nothing I've done before. I'm not interested in doing a clone of an expedition. Why bother? You've done that. So I'm always trying to dream up new expeditions that... really technology has now just made them possible for the first time. Then after I've sort of convinced myself that it's worth doing and that it can be done, then you go through the process of... of laying out the people and the equipment, the ships and the scheduling. And that sort of becomes fairly straightforward, once you know the nature of the beast. You know, where are you... where are you going to mount this search? Is it in a mountain range? Is it on the great plains? Is it in a remote area? A close area? If the search area's large or small -- there's all sorts of factors that go into shaping an expedition but they're pretty much turn of the crank. They... they tend to be pretty straightforward.

PBS: How did you become interested in finding the Titanic?

BB: I... I think... you know, in... in my field, underwater exploration, certainly the Titanic is the Mount Everest or was at the time, the great, great ship of all ships that had never been found just by efforts to find it. So it was certainly a challenge. I think also the fact that it was in my backyard, that the Titanic sank just to the east of where I was working at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. And I... I... I really think, for me, it was the challenge, the challenge of doing it. I... I... I must say I never expected the public reaction to it or, even recently, to the movie. So I didn't do it expecting that reaction 'cause I didn't expect it. I did it thinking it would be pretty neat and that it would be challenging and opportunity presented itself.

PBS: Was your interest in the ship an archaeological one?

BB: No, that came later with... with ships that have archaeological significance. Titanic has... is not an archaeological site. It's... it's a well-known site. An archaeological site is when you don't know something and you have to excavate to... to... to figure it out. Titanic we knew in spades so it wasn't that, it was that it was a great story.

PBS: What was the notoriety that you've... that you'd have if you found the Titanic any more... was the... notoriety...

BB: No, it really wasn't. I mean, it was a challenge. I wasn't thinking that I was going to become well-known because I found it. That... that wasn't in my mind at the time.

PBS: Describe the process of looking for the Titanic.

BB: Well, previous people had tried to find the Titanic. And they were good people, people from Scripps, from... from LeMont-Dougherty which was the... was the oceanographic institution associated with Columbia University. And these are two of the top three, with Woods Hole being the third. So these are great institutions and the scientists. And Fred Shpietz from Scripps and Bill Riot from LeMont were first-rate scientists. And their logic and their tools and, I mean, they... they were very, very good... yet they didn't find it. And the reason being was that the area was fairly large, a hundred square miles deep, twelve thousand feet, and... and... and complex. It had canyons and gullies and ridges and it... it was a... it... you could easily swallow up a Titanic in... inside the sub-marine canyons that run through the area. So my good fortune came from, like, coming up with a different strategy instead of using sonar, which was the traditional approach to finding objects on the bottom of the ocean. Because you can't see in the total... total darkness, you tend to want to then be like a bat and tow(?) a sonar that can search beyond eyesight, way beyond eyesight, and pick up targets in the gloom. And then... once you get some targets, then go look at them. Well, the area with sub-marine canyons is... has a lot of natural targets so there's a lot of fake targets that could throw you off, plus it was a sizeable area and the... and the terrain also can act as a shadow. You can hide things behind them so it's a shadowy area. So I decided not to use the traditional approach, but instead to look for it in a different way. And... and that really came from my efforts just the year before under a secret mission by the navy. Was a top secret mission. I was asked to use my technology to find the... the nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons that were lost when we lost the... the USS Scorpion and the USS Thresher(?) in the '60s. And when I was asked to look for those nuclear reactors and weapons, the navy asked me to completely map both loss sites, one to the east of Titanic, one to the west of Titanic, so also in the same neck of the woods, one about five thousand eight hundred feet and the other one at about eleven thousand five hundred feet. The Scorpion was at eleven thousand and east of the Titanic and south of the Azures(?). And as I was mapping those two sites, I... was trying to map everything. And... and so as I tried to get what you would call closure and completely cover the search area, I found that the... that the debris from the sub-marines was stretched out over a long distance like a comet, like a debris trail that had been distributed by the currents as the objects fell towards the bottom... the heavier objects going straight down, the lighter objects being carried by the undersea current or I think it was an underwater wind. So when I tried to map the submarine, then I realized that the wind, the underwater wind had carried objects a great... great distance, more than a mile in length. And I thought, "Well, gee... it'd be a lot easier to find something that's a mile long than it would be something that's ninety feet wide like the Titanic." So I thought that maybe the best thing to do is to not look for the Titanic 'cause obviously, these other people had tried and failed, but to look for the debris that came off of her. And since we knew the current -- well, it was the Labrador current that brought the icebergs down in the first place -- we know that... knew that the current ran north-south so the debris should run north-south. So we then decided to run our lines east-west to intersect that north-south line. And instead of close... spacing them closely together, like the previous search people had done, to tow their sonar much like mowing the lawn, we decided to widely space our lines. We knew that we were looking for something much bigger, so we could space our lines a mile apart. And it was because we had that huge line spacing that we were able to get through the area pretty quickly and pick up that debris trail. And then once we found the debris trail, we could then home in on it.

PBS: Now, you say that... you mention in the film that 90% of the search area was covered before locating the first traces of the ship. What was that time and... and the time and(?) failure(?) like for you and the expedition crew?

BB: Well, at... at the time, it's just... it's just nerve-wracking because you're moving along at one... one mile an hour. I mean, you can crawl faster than that. So it's a very slow, methodical process. You wish you could speed it up, but you can't because of the drag on your cable twelve thousand feet down. It's... it's like an anchor. So you can't move very fast. That's nerve-wracking. And naturally, when we worked with the French which was... they tried the old approach. They tried this(?) sonar approach that the other teams had failed at. And... and I remember sailing in with them after the... that search effort had failed and it was a horrible feeling. It was like, you know, losing the World Series after getting so close and down to the ninth inning and then missing it. So it was a bitter... bitter taste in one's mouth and certainly the French crew were... were very disappointed. And we started to feel that ourselves on our expedition... when we shifted from the French ship to our ship and began the visual search strategy. We were almost over, we almost ran out of time, down to just four days, and I was starting to feel the same taste in my mouth when, fortunately, we found her.

PBS: Compare the fruitless section of the search to locate the first... compare the fruitless section of the search.

BB: Well, again, I just sort of did. A disappointing, awful feeling when we came off the French expedition. One started to really wonder if the Titanic was find-able. Obviously, there was a Titanic. Obviously, it sank. But in this area, there was a great earthquake and landslide in 1929. That would have been after the Titanic went down. And one had to wonder: did this avalanche, gigantic, monumental avalanche that broke all the transatlantic phone lines, so we knew it happened, could it have covered the Titanic? Could it have been unfind-able, that no matter how long we looked, we would never find it 'cause it was gone forever? So that little thing was creeping in the back of your mind all the time, all the time.

PBS: Says(?)... compare the fruitlessness to locating the ship.

BB: Okay, well, obviously, here we are, it's late at night, September first, 1985. The watches have changed, it's past midnight. John Louis' watch has come on. As chief scientist, I'm there for the changes of the watches and then I... once I know that the new watch leader has his night orders and knows what to do and settles into the boring routine of searching, I... I said, "Well, I'm going to go up to my room and see if I can catch some sleep or something." I get up there and I couldn't... I couldn't fall asleep. And... I was reading Chuck Yeager's biography, autobiography. And just sitting there, I was in my pyjamas and... it's two in the morning and there's a knock on the cabin door and a cook sticks his head in. Well, you know, a cook's never stuck his head into my cabin ever before so that was an odd... because I'm way up near the captain, up high up on the ship, in the top decks near the bridge. And... sort of a ghost town up there. No one ever comes up to "officer country," so to speak. And so the cook's up there, it was very odd, and he says, "The guys think you might want to come down." Well, I knew something was up. So I didn't even change my pyjamas. I just jumped into my jumpsuit, put my pyjamas on and never took them off for about four days. It got pretty bad. And I bolted down the steps and just as I got into the control van(?), they were passing over the debris trail over one of the boilers. And there it was, a boiler of the Titanic. So we knew we were close and we exploded and great celebration and laughing, like... just like you'd just won the game at the buzzer. So you're all falling over one another, celebrating. And then someone looked at the clock and said, "You know, it's two o'clock in the morning. The Titanic sinks in twenty minutes" which was two-twenty when she sank. And all of a sudden, we realized we were dancing on someone's grave. We felt very embarrassed and ashamed of ourselves for whooping and hollering. We were at the very spot where all these people had died. And we felt terrible, actually, and we stopped the ship, we pulled up the equipment, and we went out under the fantail(?) and had a... a very private, private moment. It was dark and chilly, very much like the same conditions of her sinking. And we were there, we were at the spot where all these people died.

PBS: How does it compare?

BB: Well, it... it's hard to say. I mean, certainly, the Titanic was... was quite a home run and... and I've hit a lot of home runs and they're all fun to hit: finding the Bismarck after such a tough trip, finding the Yorktown, discovering hydrothermal vents, being the first to explore the largest mountain range on Earth, finding Roman ships, finding Venetian ships. They're all great, great moments and each of them are wonderful in their own right. There was a lot of controversy around the Titanic expedition. So it wasn't all just fun and cheers. There was a lot of controversy and lawsuits and... and stuff that really soured it. So it... it was... it was a bittersweet experience. What do I think of the film? Well, it was a good film. I mean, it had... it was two films. It was a love story which, you know, you could've had that in the back seat of any car. It was... it was a love story of Romeo and Juliet and ... Romeo dies and Juliet finds her way. And it certainly had a huge impact on a lot of young ladies. But really, what struck me the most wasn't so much the love story which was sweet and the music which was... was wonderful, but it was really... the effort Cameron went to to rebuild the ship. See, I had... I knew the old lady very well. I found her in her grave and I... I knew what she looked like in her wrinkled old state. But I'd never seen the young lady. I'd seen it in books and little clips. But to really see the magnificence(?) of the ship when she was just four days old and that's what I enjoyed most about the movie.

PBS: Was finding the Titanic the high point of your career as an underwater explorer? If not, what was the highlight? Are there a few moments that stand out? What are they?

BB: Well, clearly, it was a great moment and it had a great, great impact upon my life and, in most cases, a very positive impact upon my life. But as far as what I'm proudest of as a scientist and as an explorer, it wasn't so much finding the Titanic because it was... it was down there somewhere. It was just a matter of time, someone's going to get it. It was, for me, finding the hydrothermal vents... people say, "What's that?" You know, they know immediately what Titanic is, but hydrothermal vents, well, these were a new life system on our planet. I discovered them... I was chief scientist of the expedition in 1977. And these are a life system we didn't know existed on our planet. In fact, now that we've discovered it, understand it, we think maybe this is where life began on our planet, the origin of life. And... it's also guiding us to find... in our search for life outside the Earth. So clearly, finding the hydrothermal vents was... you know, fun(?)... the origin of life and a guide to finding life elsewhere is pretty big stuff. So I would have to say that.

PBS: How do you spend your time when you aren't in the middle of an expedition?

BB: Well, it's... it's what I'm doing right this minute. I'm at my home, in my home office on the couch with a beautiful view of the marsh and just spent some time with my little daughter, Emily Rose. We went up to see the horses and this morning, we went and... for the cow milkings up at the dairy. And Benjamin will be home, Benjamoni(?) Macaroni(?), I drove him to school today. He'll be home, want to come work out with me. And we'll just play and have a great time. So when I'm not on an expedition and I'm not having to raise money or blabber about it, I'm home. And I'm going to be home for two months now before I go off to the Black Sea.

PBS: Can you discuss why you founded the Institute for Exploration?

BB: Well, it's... there's a real good reason for why I did it. I'm a starter of things. I like to pioneer things and... and what I've learned -- and certainly a byproduct of exploring the lost liners -- is that the deep sea is a museum. It's a preserver of history and that the deeper you go, the better preserved it is. I think we have these... most people have seen underwater wrecks, but they've seen them in shallow water and they look ghostly and foreboding and covered in goo and... and not very pretty. And... and yet, when you get out, way out in the deep sea... when we found the Yorktown, for example, it came in and, hey, brand new, parked down there just like someone just parked her. Could read her name off the stern and look inside and see murals painted on the walls. And we've been now finding Roman ships and Venetian ships and we're going this summer trying to find evidence of the biblical flood, and as well as ships from the bronze age. There's probably one million ships of antiquity in the deep sea waiting to be discovered and no one's doing it. And so our institute, the Institute for Exploration, is the only institute in the world that is trying to do deep water archaeology. It's trying to bring together the world of oceanography, archaeology, anthropology, and ocean engineering to create a new field of research that takes the best of those disciplines, trying to create new students who will go off to school and study all those disciplines. And... and I think it's going to be a great period of exploration in the next few decades as we find missing chapters of human history and rewrite the history books. So... that's why I created IFE. Well, I hope this gives you enough to do what you need to do. Not, let me know unless(?) everything's going to be shipped out. Bye-bye.

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