Now Dr Robert Ballard is pioneering cutting-edge technology – autonomous underwater vehicles that will “revolutionise” the search for more than three million shipwrecks that lie scattered across ocean floors, according to a Unesco estimate. Many will offer new insights into life on board at the time of sinking, hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
“We’re going to be finding them like crazy,” Ballard told the Observer. “It’s going to be rapid discovery because of this technology. New chapters of human history are to be read.
“All the work I’ve done in the past in archaeology used vehicles that were connected to a ship. The ones that we’re building now are revolutionary new vehicles, able to work in extremely complex and rugged terrains – a new class of autonomous underwater vehicles that have their own intelligence and that are going to revolutionise the field of marine archaeology.”
They are all the more extraordinary because they allow marine archaeologists to explore the ocean floor without needing to go to sea themselves. In the US, he recently undertook an expedition exploring Lake Huron and found an 1800s wreck – a search that was all done from land.
“I don’t have to be on my ship now,” Ballard said. “We don’t even have to have ships. But I come because I want to get away.” The explorer, who has just turned 79, is on his 158th expedition, conducting a scientific exploration of the deep sea in the Pacific.
National Geographic this month publishes his memoir, Into the Deep, in which he writes of a passion for ocean exploration that was inspired by Nemo, the fictional captain of the submarine Nautilus in Jules Verne’s classic novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Aged 12, he watched Disney’s screen adaptation: “It blew my mind … I wanted to be Captain Nemo. I wanted to walk on the ocean floor.”
He now owns and operates the exploration vessel Nautilus, a state-of-the-art ship rigged for research in oceanography, geology, biology and archaeology, which can be followed by the public online.
As a pioneer in the early use of deep-diving submersibles, he is particularly excited by the latest technology as it is far cheaper to operate. A mobile system that can go on smaller ships or work from the shore costs a few thousand pounds a day, rather than tens of thousands.
The vehicles can travel to the deepest depths and stay down for days on end. They can also descend to a wreck much faster. “You can’t just instantly get to the deep bottom as a diver,” Ballard said. “You reach terminal velocity at about 100 metres every minute. To get to the Titanic, it took me 2½ hours to descend 4,000 metres. With these vehicles, it would have taken little over an hour.”
While the technology is being used in marine research and environmental monitoring, the archaeological world has been slow to adopt it, he said: “It started in the military, like most of these advanced technologies. I served in the US Navy for 30 years, and I had access to a lot of technology that was classified and that slowly leaked out… the social sciences tend to lag in adopting new technologies because it’s not their strength.”
For years, Ballard had dreamed of finding the wreck of the Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912: “In 1985, a top-secret navy assignment to explore sunken nuclear subs gave me the opportunity to follow that dream.”
Asked if he would have found it sooner with this latest technology, he said: “Oh God, yes.”
He is among marine archaeologists, scientists and geophysicists involved with a new “Dive & Dig” podcast series, presented by historian Bettany Hughes and funded by the Honor Frost Foundation.