Robert D. Ballard headed up the discovery of two fabled sunken ships, the Titanic in 1985 and, just last month, the World War II German battleship Bismarck. In both cases, poignant reminders of human frailty persist on the dark, cold ocean floor, he says, lingering testaments to the dead, dragged far beyond air and light by plummeting hulks of steel and iron.
Pairs and pairs of shoes resting on the sea floor as if their owners had just stepped out of them.
"People say, 'What was it like to go to the Titanic, particularly out in the debris area, the stern section where everyone died?' " Ballard recalls of the ocean liner that sank to a depth of 12,000 feet in the North Atlantic in 1912, killing 1,500 of the 2,200 passengers and crew. "There are pairs of shoes all over there where people actually came to rest on the bottom of the ocean. Their shoes are still there. Shoes all over the Bismarck, boots all over the place. Animals won't eat processed leather. They eat the body and the clothes but they won't eat the leather."
Oceanographer Ballard, in Los Angeles to announce that he will host a television series about underwater explorations and other scientific ventures, is somewhere in the middle of a long explanation about why he pursues the sunken past with such avidity. Partly, he concedes, it's for the sensations that only discovery can provide.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 18, 1989 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 2 Column 6 View Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
A photograph in the Monday View section identified as that of the German battleship Bismarck is actually a photo of the British battleship King George V, one of the ships that gave chase to the Bismarck.
The Moment of Discovery
"I think the thrill of exploration is to see something, to be the first to set eyes on something that has never been seen before," he says. "The first time I saw the Titanic, wow! There it was, this monstrous ship just came out of the gloom and there it was."
For Ballard, the moment of discovery is intellectually kinetic--an instant when he connects palpably with history. "The best experience that I can give that's sort of an analogy is like going to Custer's Last Stand," he says. "To go and stand where Custer stood and imagine, you know, bad day to be in the cavalry. That's the sense, it's your hallowed grounds. You sense Crazy Horse there . . . and you just realize the hopelessness of the situation. Well, when you're out at the Titanic and all of a sudden it happened right here . It's no longer abstract."
Unknown territory, scientific and historic, has been Ballard's country for more than two decades, perhaps even as far back as his childhood in Southern California, when he was smitten by accounts of African exploration and became captivated by the Pacific Ocean. Now, four years after the discovery of the Titanic catapulted him from mere well-known scientist to global fame, the 47-year-old seems to be in the throes of another transformation. This time around he apparently is eager to shape both the future and the past with the technology that he developed in more than a decade of underwater exploration.
Furthermore, he plans to use his new tools as the new host of National Geographic Explorer, a weekly two-hour program produced by National Geographic and Turner Broadcasting System Inc. It is the kind of popularizing of science that Ballard has been criticized for in the past by his peers. But Ballard says he sees his metamorphosis into TV personality as an educational mission that may help convince children that science is a "contact sport."
Discussing the search for the Bismarck, Ballard obviously savors the contact with history and science.
Because the Bismarck was engaged in a running battle hundreds of miles from land when it sank, neither the British nor the Germans were able--or much interested--in keeping precise records of their locations. So Ballard's expedition had to search about 150 square miles of ocean floor, initially with sonar and then with remote control, computerized robot sensors and cameras controlled from a surface ship before locating the wreck June 8. (This kind of exploration isn't cheap, Ballard notes, joking that "we had 100,000 pounds of equipment and 10 vans and six robots and a partridge in a pear tree.")
"You have to understand that the Bismarck battle was waged in a Force 8 sea--50-knot winds, 15-foot waves--(with) overcast and no celestial navigation," Ballard says.
The search for the Bismarck--which, like the Titanic, sank on its maiden voyage--was further complicated by the nature of the Atlantic Ocean. The battleship was in "16,000 feet of water and it was in a mountain range," Ballard says, not without enthusiasm. "It was in an awful place and it was in the northern latitudes, up at 48 degrees North latitude, which is not a nice stretch of ocean--ever, even in the summer."
Despite the difficulties, Ballard was drawn to the wreck because, like the Titanic, it is one of the most famous lost chunks of history to litter the ocean floor. "I do it because of the challenge to do it," he says. "But I'm also interested in the fact that this ship is well preserved. . . . There is probably more history preserved in the deep oceans of the world than in all the museums of the world."