He is the celebrated deep-sea explorer who discovered the Titanic, as well as the German battleship Bismarck and other historic sunken ships around the world.
Now, Dr. Robert Ballard is a pioneer in cutting-edge technology: autonomous underwater vehicles that will “revolutionize” the search for more than three million shipwrecks that are strewn across the ocean floor, 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’ll find them like crazy,” Ballard told the Observer. “It is going to be a quick discovery thanks to this technology. New chapters in the history of mankind must be read.
“All the work that I did in the past in archeology used vehicles that were connected to a ship. What we are building now are new and revolutionary vehicles, capable of working in extremely complex and rugged terrain, a new class of autonomous underwater vehicles that have their own intelligence and that are going to revolutionize the field of marine archeology. “
They are even more extraordinary because they allow marine archaeologists to explore the ocean floor without going to sea themselves. In the US, he recently went on an expedition to explore Lake Huron and found a 19th century shipwreck, a search that was conducted from land.
“I don’t have to be on my boat right now,” Ballard said. “We don’t even have to have boats. But I come because I want to escape. “The explorer, who has just turned 79, is on his 158th expedition, conducting a scientific exploration of the deep sea of the Pacific.
National Geographic this month he publishes his memoirs, In the deep, in which he writes about a passion for ocean exploration that was inspired by Nemo, the fictional captain of the submarine Nautilus in the classic Jules Verne novel. Twenty thousand leagues of underwater travel. At age 12, he saw the Disney film adaptation: “It blew my mind… I wanted to be Captain Nemo. I wanted to walk on the bottom of the ocean. “
He now owns and operates the Nautilus exploration ship, a state-of-the-art ship equipped for research in oceanography, geology, biology and archeology, which can be followed by the public online.
As a pioneer in the early use of deep-dive submersibles, he is particularly excited about the latest technology as it is much cheaper to operate. A mobile system that can go on smaller boats or work from shore costs a few thousand pounds a day, instead of tens of thousands.
Vehicles can travel to the deepest depths and stay down for days and days. They can also descend into a wreck much faster. “You can’t instantly get to the deep end as a diver,” Ballard said. “Terminal speed is reached at about 100 meters per minute. To get to the Titanic, it took me 2 and a half hours to descend 4,000 meters. With these vehicles, it would have taken just 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 had access to a lot of technology that was classified and slowly leaked … the social sciences tend to be slow to adopt new technology because it is not their strength. “
For years, Ballard had dreamed of finding the wreckage of the Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912: “In 1985, a top-secret navy mission to explore sunken nuclear submarines gave me the opportunity to pursue that dream.”
When asked if he would have found it earlier with this latest technology, he said, “Oh God yeah.”
He is one of the marine archaeologists, scientists and geophysicists involved with a new Podcast series “Dive & Dig”, presented by historian Bettany Hughes and funded by the Honor Frost Foundation.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism