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What deep sea exploration means to the man who discovered the sunken remains of the Titanic

Dr. Robert Ballard
Ocean Exploration Trust, Inc.
Dr. Robert Ballard

Dr. Robert Ballard is a renowned deep-sea explorer. You probably know him best as the person who found the remains of the RMS Titanic in 1985. Throughout his career and over more than 160 deep-sea explorations, he’s gained even more lifetime achievements — from the development of deep-sea submersibles to the discovery of hydrothermal vents.

Today, he continues to make discoveries as National Geographic’s explorer-at-Large, he’s the president of the Ocean Exploration Trust and a Research Scholar at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. His titles and accolades are many, but another honor he’ll receive is an honorary doctorate from Carroll University when he delivers the 2022 commencement address Saturday.

Ahead of coming to Wisconsin, Ballard shares his experiences with deep-sea exploration.

Despite the other shipwrecks he's found and explored, he's come to terms with the fact that he'll forever be known as the man who found "this rusty old boat," as his mother called the RMS Titanic. The discovery both held Ballard back in his career, but also opened up new opportunities outside of academia.

Still, discovering the Titanic has had its drawbacks, he reveals. Ballard says he was really criticized by his academic community for speaking with the public and writing for National Geographic for popularizing science.

Ballard also points out that he was granted ownership of the Titanic under one condition: to remove it from the bottom of the ocean. Out of respect for the people who died there, he declined though he was disappointed that others didn't feel the same.

"Then this used car dealer put together a company and hired the French and they went out and took stuff from from it, they were then awarded ownership. So I couldn't, I tried like heck to protect it, but I was unable to. That was sad. That was sort of a negative aspect of it — I couldn't protect it," says Ballard.

The United Nation estimates there are three million shipwrecks to find and protect. Ballard makes sure that young people he speaks to know that their generation will discover more history in the deep than all previous generations combined.

"It's humbling to just be at the mercy of the sea," he says. "And you learn to respect it. You also learn when to go on and when not to go," a lesson Dr. Ballards says he learned during the discovery of the Titanic.

"That's what's really cool about it is that every discovery and further back you go makes a major contribution to our history. I just think that what we're now doing with our technology, we can now find them much more rapidly than you can imagine. Yeah, there's a lot going on right now this is going to rewrite human history a lot," says Ballard.

Ballard continues to look forward to going out to sea, and in fact is going straight to Hawaii after the Carroll commencement for an expedition on the E/V Nautilus to continue visual exploratory surveys of the previously unmapped Liliʻuokalani Ridge Seamounts. You can follow along and see a livestream of the boat's expedition here.

Listen to the full conversation with Dr. Robert Ballard

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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