Famed film director James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) considers underwater archaeologist Bob Ballard a personal inspiration and “a true exploration pioneer.” Now, Ballard delves into his own amazing exploits for Into the Deep, a memoir accompanied by the premiere of a new National Geographic TV special.
Ballard may be best known for finding the long-lost wreck of the luxury liner Titanic—after a secret and successful mission to locate two missing U.S. nuclear submarines—but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the oceanographer’s impactful undersea
expeditions. “When I found the Titanic in 1985,” Ballard says, “what fascinated me the most was its high state of preservation—which led me on a 20-year quest to find shipwrecks as far back into time as I could." Among other important sunken ships he’s located and explored are the USS Yorktown, the German battleship Bismarck, and John F. Kennedy’s Word War II patrol torpedo boat PT-109. But his book also describes several significant scientific discoveries he’s made, as well as a shocking personal one.
Ballard has developed robots that can roam the ocean floor, has advanced the knowledge of underwater plate tectonics, and has proved that the ancient mariners used deepwater trade routes. His proudest moment? “It was the discovery of the first hydrothermal vents ever seen in the Galapagos Rift,” he says. “We threw away our biology books and had to rewrite them.” Before this 1977 revelation, scientific theory posited that sunlight-triggered photosynthesis was necessary for any kind of ecosystem to develop. But Ballard and his team proved that bacteria living in total darkness, in a harsh underwater environment, were also able to support such a complex community.
“In the years since,” Ballard says, “scientists have come to recognize that these communities hold critical clues as to how life evolved on Earth—and could evolve on other planets. It’s the discovery that is now driving NASA’s efforts to explore moons revolving around Jupiter and Saturn. They have ocean worlds beneath their ice surfaces that are far larger than our own oceans and perhaps have life-forms unknown to us.”
And though he’s documented some of his 157 voyages before, Into the Deep is the first time he’s written about personal tragedies as well, including the death of his 20-year-old son. “My past books talk about various things I have discovered hidden beneath the surface of the sea,” Ballard says. “This book tells you why I was able to do these things before others did them. This book is not so much about what I have done but how I did it.”
Those realizations were triggered by the surprising self-discovery he made late in life, after reading a book called The Dyslexic Advantage. Ballard had already surmised that he was “a visual thinker,” which helped in both his science and his shipwreck searches, but he never understood why he seemed to process information differently from others around him. “The book,” he says, “makes the point that although the brains of those with dyslexia are wired differently, their thinking isn’t defective, just different—and a gift.” It was a revelation to Ballard to discover his own dyslexia. “Tears were streaming down my face as I was reading it,” he says. “Here I was, 72 years old, and this book, finally, was explaining me to me. Even now I think of it as my first autobiography. That’s how much it mirrored who I am.”
Armed with this new self-knowledge, Ballard is prepared to help write the future. “The very survival of the human race will depend upon our ability to live in harmony with ‘Mother Earth,’” he says, “and the oceans will play the biggest role in making that happen.” He’s also got some more exploring to do, including his longtime quest to find out what happened to famed pilot Amelia Earhart, whose plane disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937. “It’s a work in progress,” he says of that quest. “You never want to accomplish something that is easy to do."