The state of deep sea expeditions

Jeremy Hobson Apr 3, 2012

Jeremy Hobson: Next week will mark 100 years since the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. 100 years later, most Americans know the tragic story of the Titanic very well — in part because of the success of the movie ‘Titanic.’ Its director, James Cameron, you may have heard, just made a solo voyage down to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench. He went in one of those tiny deep sea submersibles.

One man who knows what that kind of journey feels like is Robert Ballard, who discovered the Titanic wreck in 1985. He’s now advising the search for Amelia Earhart’s plane. And while he’s on land, he’s a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. He joins us now. Good morning.

Robert Ballard: Good morning, nice to talk to you.

Hobson: Nice to have you here. Well there’s been a lot of deep sea exploration news lately, and I want to get your thoughts on some of this — movie maker James Cameron just went deeper into the ocean than anyone has gone before; CEO Jeff Bezos said that he found the Apollo 11 engines at the bottom of the ocean. You’re a scientist — what do you make of these celebrities going down and doing all this deep sea exploration?

Ballard: I think it’s always wonderful when people draw attention to the ocean. And I think also, it’s very apropos, since with the Law of the Sea Convention, half of the United States of America lies beneath the sea. And I think people are starting to turn their focus back on to the planet itself. I don’t think people think we’re really going to live on Mars in any significant number. And the ocean is taking on a greater importance because of its natural resources that we’re discovering; human history that we’re discovering. So I think it’s very timely.

Hobson: But what do you think it says that it was a private citizen and not a government or a research institution that made it down to the farthest reaches of the ocean, James Cameron?

Ballard: Well you know, the government did go down there in 1960 to the very spot. Cameron’s dive was the first solo dive, but humans had been there before.

Hobson: Yes, they went back down there in the 1960s, but this is 2012 and the person who did it is not somebody from the navy, it’s James Cameron.

Ballard: A lot of firsts are done by adventurous individuals who scale a mountain and show that it can be done, and then things follow after that. It’s great that all of these people are getting involved; it’s drawing a lot of attention. And I think it just bodes well for the future of the oceans.

Hobson: Now as someone who has spent so much time looking for things at the bottom of the sea, tell us what is the point of finding something like Amelia Earhart’s plane at the bottom of the ocean.

Ballard: There’s more history in the deep sea than all the museums combined. And a lot of that history is at peril. We’ve just recently found a ship, 500 B.C., that is in a high state of preservation. So when you think about there’s one million — estimated to be one million — ancient shipwrecks in the deep sea; think of all the human history that they contain. It’s also because the technology’s now making it possible. Jim’s dive was made through new technologies. A lot of what we’re seeing is the emergence of newer technologies that make the ocean not seem so deep.

Hobson: As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Titanic shipwreck, you are the guy who found the Titanic at the bottom of ocean. What’s going through your mind right now?

Ballard: You know, every generation rediscovers the Titanic, and we’re going through yet another phase. As you know, Cameron’s movie’s being re-released in 3D. There’s a huge, unbelievable exhibit center being built in Belfast, Northern Ireland — where they built the Titanic. And so, the 100th anniversary is sort of giving people to finally come to grips with the fact that they should embrace the Titanic as an amazing piece of technology that they built.

Hobson: Robert Ballard is professor of oceanography at the graduate school of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. Thanks so much for talking with us.

Ballard: My pleasure, thank you.

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