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Banner photos courtesy of The Institute for Exploration, Mystic, CT

Navigating the Oceans and Prepping Young Explorers – A Good Day's Work for Bob Ballard

It's about the tools. Underwater discovery has been fascinating explorers for years but the risks to personal safety, costs to dive and time commitments so high it hindered progress. Enter SLAS2012 Keynote Speaker Bob Ballard and his amazing team of scientists, technologists and plain old big thinkers. Add a remotely operated vehicle or two and incredibly powerful Internet capabilities and the game is completely different. It is played on man's terms and much of it happens above water.


"I call it deep water archaeology," says Robert D. Ballard, president of the Institute for Exploration at Mystic Aquarium and director of the Institute for Ocean Exploration at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography. "There is so much to gain from underwater exploration. How many more discoveries are waiting for us?"

Ballard's team recently finished an exciting expedition on the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus to explore ancient history and learn more about the ocean. The expedition started in the Black Sea in July, continued in the Aegean, Mediterranean and Atlantic in the summer and fall and finished in November off the coast of Israel. Nautilus expedition scientists mapped the sea floor, studied underwater volcanoes, investigated unusual life forms, explored shipwrecks and more.

He'll share expedition stories and talk about the technology utilized when he appears as SLAS2012 closing speaker, Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 3:30 pm. But, mostly, he'll talk about the passion driving his career and his burning desire to do his part to energize tomorrow's explorers – the young children of today. Ballard stated it this way in a 2008 TED Talk while showing a photo of a young girl: "When you get a jaw drop, you can inform."

While E/V Nautilus expedition outcomes were many, Ballard is perhaps most proud of the initiatives taken to share the group's efforts. A satellite dish on the ship transmitted live video and other data from the expedition 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "Live streaming allowed any one to travel along with us," he boasts. "This nurtures the budding scientist, allows us to involve other oceanographers and allows me to captain the ship one hour and pick up my son from play practice the next."

The Technology that Makes it Happen

"On this expedition, finally we were able to implement many of the elements I predicted way back in 1981 in a special issue of National Geographic," he shares. "There have been several limiting factors to undersea exploration – among them safety of divers and the time factor of 'getting to work.' It used to be that I would have to spend two and a half hours of my eight-hour workday safely diving to ocean depths. Needing another two and a half hours to get safely back to the surface, this left only three hours on the ocean floor. I was spending most of my time not working, not exploring."

When asked by National Geographic Editor Sam Matthews back in 1981 to dream about what was needed to effectively explore the ocean's depths, Ballard talked telepresence, or how to get his eyes, his hands and his mind to the ocean floor, while his body remains safely on the ship.

From that 1981 article:

Unmanned exploring and working craft that propel themselves in the depths, controlled by tethers from "doghouses" lowered and powered by cables from the surface. Soon, say their builders, such craft will transmit images of what they see back over gossamer strands of glass, fiber-optic cables so fine that five miles will fit into a canister scarcely the size of a coffee can.

Bob Ballard is hard at work on such a new unmanned systems. He calls it Argo, for the craft that Jason and the Argonauts sailed in search of the Golden Fleece. In partnership with the U.S. Navy and NASA, Woods Hole has received government funds to begin building this successor to Alvin.

'A pilot-scientist aboard a surface ship will sit before a bank of TV screens,' Ballard envisions. 'Far below him, 'flying' at the end of a cable some 100 feet above the bottom, an unmanned exploring craft will carry supersensitive imaging cameras and lights, capable of recording as much as four acres of seafloor at once.'

This new deep-seeing vehicle, Argo, will enable the scientist to project his eyes – his mind – into the abyss in perfect safety and with virtually no time limit on his 'dives.' Should Argo spot something of interest, such as an undersea hot-water oasis or active volcanic vent, a smaller, self-propelled vehicle, Jason, can be sent forth to take a closer look or gather specimens of the new discovery, using claws or other samplers.

Argo will thus be an extension of the scientist's eyes and hands as he sits on the surface – or even in his laboratory thousands of miles away, watching the televised images transmitted by satellite. When he tires or goes to lunch, another can take his place.

The December 1981 issue further captured Ballard's thoughts – along with what that might look like in a schematic drawn with Ballard's direction. They described that:

…a mother ship will cruise at one or two knots, navigating precisely by terrain-following multibeam sonar. From her stern a cable descends to sledlike Argo, which has two sonar systems, one forward-looking to detect obstacles, the other side-looking to investigate bottom geology. Argo's five cameras give shipboard operators a panoramic view of the bottom. When scientists spot something interesting, they command Jason to deploy from Argo. Complete with lights and stereo cameras, Jason is maneuvered for close inspection and sample collecting. Both Argo's and Jason's high-resolution images can be transmitted by satellite anywhere in the world.

Editor's note: references to National Geographic pagination removed in above text.

Compare this to the equipment description from Ballard's recent 2011 expedition:

Hercules: Hercules is a neutrally buoyant remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Using its sensor array consisting of a pressure/depth sensor, altimeter and Doppler, Hercules can conduct a variety of precision documentation functions.

Argus: Argus is a remotely operated vehicle that is tethered via a steel-armored fiber-optic cable directly to the ship. Argus is equipped with a number of cameras so that it can watch over Hercules while it works on the seafloor, giving us an eye-in-the-sky perspective.

Echo: Echo is a side scan sonar tow sled, an instrument that uses sound to create images of the sea floor and objects on it. The images created look very much as though the surface was visually viewed from above, with lighting from very low and to the side. Because sound waves travel much farther than light underwater, they can be used to search large areas of the sea floor much more quickly than lights and cameras.

Extreme Telecommuting

"Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work in many wonderful and exciting places on about 130 expeditions," Ballard explains. "I treasure that. But you know, many times I choose to work in the cloud from my home in Mystic (Connecticut). And today's technology allows me to do that."

He describes his home as in the "middle of the wetlands of Connecticut" where he can't see a "human-made anything" from his backyard. He has workstations powered by Internet 2 moving 10 gigabytes of bandwidth that allows him to stream activity from his many projects. On a typical day, he may be in the cloud at home, under the water in Spain from one of his command centers and driving his own car on a real road to pick up his son from school.

The Beginnings for Ballard

"My career started back in Kansas where I was born – you know – where all great oceanographers come from," he jests. "But I grew up in San Diego just after World War II. San Diego was really a great ocean city, a base for the United States Navy and home of the largest oceanographic institution in the world – Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. I was a young kid wanting to be Captain Nemo. I was interested in the sea and technology and wanted that to be my life."

That desire continued to grow, and in high school he wrote a letter to Scripps asking for advice on the best way to pursue my dream. "Well it just so happened that Scripps had a program for young scientists funded by the National Science Foundation," Ballard quips. He applied for and won a scholarship to attend a summer program.

"That was 52 years ago when I was 17 and I've never looked back," he shares. "On my first expedition, we got in a storm and had to be rescued by the Coast Guard. I thought it was so exciting; I was too young to be scared."

© Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

© Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

During that Scripps program, Ballard met Bob Norris, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who encouraged him to attend his school. He applied, got in and there he majored in geology and chemistry and minored in mathematics and physics. This was the early 1960s and all young men were required to register for the draft. For Ballard, this led to the U.S. Army ROTC, officer training and placement in U.S. Army intelligence.

"Since I had been accepted to graduate school at the University of Southern California, they put me on delayed assignment," he explains gratefully as the Viet Nam war was raging. "One night there was a knock on my door, and it was a Naval officer," he recounts. "The officer said 'you are no longer in the army. You have been transferred into the Navy and have six days to report to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.'"

His Navy career lasted 30 years and he earned his Ph.D. in marine geology during this time. He also began working with the National Geographic Society in 1975.

"I learned many lessons along the way, and my military training was important in helping me deal with dangerous situations," he says. "But my most important lesson was about teamwork. What I do cannot be done solo; you need an amazing group of talented people – very smart people. Get them to believe in what you believe in and to believe in themselves. Help them see that the impossible is actually possible. Then leave them alone."

The Journey

Joseph Campbell and his book, The Power of Myth, motivates Ballard.

"We're all on a journey, an epic journey," Ballard states. "It's about the act of becoming – we never arrive. You have a vision about what you want to do. The next step is to prepare yourself for your journey – this is generally the education process and then you form your team and go forth. You are tested, basically in two ways. The first is, did you mentally prepare yourself for your quest? The second is the real test – it is the test of your heart – of your passion."

Ballard relays the obvious – you don't always get where you want to get to on your first attempt. That's where that second test of the heart comes in – how badly do you want to get there?

"Failure is the greatest teacher you'll ever meet," Ballard advises. "I can remember when I found the Titanic. No one thought I could do it. When I did it and then wanted to find the Bismarck, everyone then assumed I could. On my first attempt, I failed. A reporter asked me how I felt about failing. My reply was 'Round one to the Bismarck; I now know where it isn't. Give me another shot at it. They did and I found it.'"

He went on to explain that what gets you up when you get knocked down is your passion for the quest. "Follow YOUR passion. Not your mother's, your father's, your teacher's – it has to be your passion," he expresses. "Look at your life as a journey and know that the journey is never over until you return to society and share the truth. Then you are free to go on the next one."

For Ballard, there have been many journeys, many discoveries and a whole lot of passion.

"It is ironic that I'm most noted for finding ships – the Titanic, Bismarck, PT-109," he quips. "These occurred late in my career and weren't really discoveries because we knew they existed; we just found something after it had been lost. My greatest discoveries, the ones I am most proud of, were actually found by accident. We were looking for something else and found something we never even knew existed."

Ballard is speaking of his late 1970s discoveries of hydrothermal vents and the exotic life forms that live around them and black smokers.

"Hydrothermal vents was by far my greatest achievement and certainly has had the greatest impact upon science and our view of the origin of life and where we might find it elsewhere in the universe," he explains. "We discovered this whole life system that we had no idea existed. We had been told that all life on the earth was due to the sun, to photosynthesis. But we discovered life in total darkness – not living off the energy of the sun but off the energy of the earth itself. That was huge and still is huge."

© Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

© Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

"Black smokers are these great undersea hot springs pouring out commercial grade copper, lead, silver, zinc and gold," he continues. "With that discovery, we understood the chemistry of world oceans for the first time. In both of these cases, we were looking for something else and found something far more important. The act of true discovery is when you find something you didn't even know existed. That is really what is driving my life today – when I understand that my greatest accomplishments were made by accident and realize that we've only seen a small percentage of the ocean floor, I can only continue to dream – how many more discoveries are waiting for us?"

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'

-- Isaac Asimov


Why He Mentors

It's that realization that makes him invest so much of his effort in helping other scientists dream the dreams necessary for achievement. It's why the Nautilus had live streaming 24/7. It's why Ballard is invested in working with National Geographic, the JASON Project and educational institutions.

"The real coup de gras to all of this work is how we are generating the excitement of fundamental exploration to turn children on to the science and engineering needed to be explorers and really help our human race survive," he summarizes. "We do things to energize the next generation of explorers who will stand on our shoulders and see things we can't see."

Ballard has personally assisted numerous young scientists, just like Scripps, Bob Norris and others helped him as a young explorer. One such young man is Michael Brennan.

"Mike approached me at an event at the Norwalk Aquarium and told me he wanted to be a Jason Argonaut and asked how he could do that," Ballard remembers. "He was just 12, and you can't be an Argonaut until you are 15. It was like the letter I wrote to Scripps saying I wanted to be an oceanographer. I can't ignore those letters because I know they changed my life."

He talked with Brennan about how he could begin to prepare. Brennan came back when he was 15, accompanied a Ballard team to Yellowstone and has continued to listen to career advice all along. He was a member of the Nautilus team and in May defends for his Ph.D. in geology and archeology.

"You have to do the mental push-ups to stay in the game," Ballard offers. "I remember understanding a lesson I learned when playing college basketball under the great coach Gene Bartow. At the end of each practice, when I knew I should be heading home to study, Coach Bartow made us do 30 wind sprints followed by shooting free throws. We were already tired, the wind sprints hurt and our bodies were trembling. Why do that to us? It's simple – you might be called upon to make that free throw at the end of the game that wins it all. That's preparation."

"When I started dreaming back in Kansas, I knew I wanted to see the bottom of the ocean," Ballard summarizes. "Today, we're having out-of-body experiences – the telepresence using advanced telecommunications and robotics technology to carry my spirit and replace my body that I described to that National Geographic editor and art director in 1981.

"The average depth of the ocean is 12,000 feet, which means 50% of it is deeper. If my physical frail body isn't required to go there, we can accomplish so much more. While having a conversation I can pull Nautilus streaming up on my iPhone. I have command centers at all my offices. If needed, I can simply turn my car around, be beamed aboard the Nautilus and I'm in charge. I'm simply a doctor on call waiting to get called.

"Put your real body where you want it to be and let technology help you with the rest," he concludes. "I know where I want mine to be – home with my family very safe and sound even if I've spent the day under the water off Spain."

January 16, 2012