An Explorer’s Life: Drawn from hours of never-before-seen footage, Bob Ballard: An Explorer’s Life will air June 14 at 10/9c on National Geographic.
“If the plane was in there, it would have seen it,” says Robert Ballard, referring to the 14-foot autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) launched from his 211-foot exploration vessel, the E/V Nautilus.
He is sitting in his cabin on the Nautilus, gesturing at a map of the seafloor on his computer screen. The ASV, a remote-controlled boat equipped with multibeam sonar, had generated the underwater image as it skirted the reef surrounding Nikumaroro, the remote Pacific island where Ballard was searching for Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E.
More than four decades after discovering hydrothermal vents and black smokers on the seafloor, three decades after finding the Titanic, and nearly 20 years after locating John F. Kennedy’s World War II patrol boat, the 78-year-old National Geographic explorer-at-large is still in the business of solving the ocean’s great mysteries. Earhart, who disappeared while trying to become the first person to fly around the world at the Equator, has been missing for more than eight decades. Before this expedition in 2019, Ballard had announced that if her plane was there, he would find it.
“We did the whole enchilada,” he says over the thrum of the Nautilus’s motors as the ship navigates away from the island. He’s uncharacteristically subdued after an intensive period of late-night watches and eye-straining examinations of sonar backscatter and underwater video footage. But he soon spins in his chair to explain the images on his screen. Above Ballard’s desk is an illustration from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea of a giant squid battling humans. To his left, a TV monitor linked to the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that he helped design serves as his porthole into the ocean’s depths.
Ballard conducted the search for Earhart’s plane with his usual relentlessness, focusing his attention on the northwestern edge of the 4.7-mile-long island, where a 1937 photograph showed what looked like an Electra’s landing gear jutting from the reef. Drones aimed their cameras at the surf breaking over the reef, the ASV surveyed the water down to 754 feet, and the ROVs Hercules and Argus inspected the jagged slopes nearly 5,000 feet down to the ocean floor. The Nautilus, with its multibeam sonar, circumnavigated the island five times, the ASV did so three times, and the drones once. Ballard and his crew watched it all from the ship’s monitors.
“We gave it a hell of a shot,” says Ballard, pointing out that his discovery of the Titanic in 1985 was the third attempt by searchers to locate the ocean liner, and that it took him two expeditions to find the Bismarck, the Nazis’ largest battleship, in 1989. “Sometimes I get it right off the top,” he says. “Sometimes it takes … ”
He shifts gears. “I learned a lot,” he continues. “I was eliminating possibilities. It was fun.”
Ballard doesn’t let setbacks—or anything else really—slow him down. But after 157 expeditions, the man who introduced the public to deepwater exploration is taking stock. This spring he’s publishing a memoir and releasing a documentary, both with National Geographic. His team at the Ocean Exploration Trust has funding through the next decade, whether he’s at the helm or not.
“I’ve started divesting my world,” he says. “I’m letting my brain loose, which is scary.”
When Ballard was 12, he saw the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which the mysterious Captain Nemo roves the waves in an opulent submarine called the Nautilus. “It just captivated me,” he says. Although Ballard spent his childhood in Southern California beachcombing, fishing, and bodysurfing, it had never occurred to him that there was an entire world under the ocean’s surface. He told his parents that when he grew up he wanted to be Captain Nemo.
But the path from dream to reality wasn’t smooth. The middle child of an aviation engineer and a brilliant housewife, Ballard struggled in school. He found reading and writing difficult; homework took him twice as long as it did his older brother, Richard, who sailed through school and eventually earned a doctorate in physics. (His sister, Nancy Ann, had a genetic mutation that required her to be cared for all her life.)
Once Ballard locked on to becoming an oceanographer, a real-life Captain Nemo, he had a purpose. “I just knew that the only way I could overcome things was to be dogged,” he says. He did well at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but not well enough to get into graduate school at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which he’d been gunning for since he was a kid.
Salvation came in the form of the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, which he’d joined as an undergraduate. When it was time for active service, he requested a transfer to the Navy. He received it, along with orders to move to Massachusetts to serve as a liaison with research organizations such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “Somehow,” he writes in his memoir, “I’d ended up in the perfect place.”
“The sub is now falling peacefully toward the rift floor 9,000 feet below us,” Ballard wrote in his first article for National Geographic, which ran in the May 1975 issue. Ballard was describing his descent in Alvin, the cramped submersible operated by Woods Hole, during Project FAMOUS. This French-American expedition was the first to explore the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the longest mountain range on the planet. One of 10 scientists involved in the venture, Ballard witnessed with his own eyes the evidence for plate tectonics, which was then a controversial theory.
Ballard has always preferred seeing—“direct visual observation,” as he puts it—to theorizing, and Alvin was the perfect tool for the science he wanted to do. The only submersible operated by a U.S. oceanic institution, Alvin could go as deep as 12,000 feet. If Ballard wanted to explore deep water, he needed to stick with Woods Hole and its “little white sub.” After he left the Navy, he got a Ph.D. at the University of Rhode Island and joined Woods Hole as a research scientist.
Ballard’s visual approach to science would open up new worlds. In 1977 he joined an expedition north of the Galápagos, where previously collected samples indicated puzzling amounts of hot water. He brought Alvin and a new tool called Angus, a tethered sled lugging three cameras that could go as deep as 20,000 feet. The team discovered hydrothermal vents, cracks in the ocean floor that released scalding water.
They also came across life where they least expected to find it, nearly 9,000 feet deep and in total darkness. Enormous clams. Massive mussels. Giant tube worms—all flourishing near vents in the Earth spewing hydrogen sulfide. The creatures lived off the malodorous gas through a previously unknown process called chemosynthesis, which Ballard and his team didn’t realize existed until they saw the evidence firsthand.
Ballard set about trying to figure out how to predict where hydrothermal vents might appear. In the process he discovered another unknown phenomenon. On an expedition off Baja California, his team encountered what appeared to be underwater chimneys billowing black smoke. The water near these structures was so hot it melted the tip of Alvin’s thermometer. The chimneys were constructed of polymetallic sulfides—the minerals had precipitated when they hit the cold seawater—and their composition revealed that enormous amounts of water cycled through the ocean floor.
Ballard’s discoveries were groundbreaking, but crewed submersibles had definite disadvantages. For one, the long commute time to the ocean bottom and back didn’t leave much time for exploring. More crucially, they could be dangerous. During Project FAMOUS, a fire broke out on a French submersible, with Ballard aboard, and Alvin got stuck in a fissure. On a mission to the Cayman Trough, he was in a Navy bathyscaph that hit a rock wall, rupturing a gas tank. It took six hours for the vessel to return to the surface; the crew weren’t sure they’d make it until they saw the sky. Ballard began to wonder if camera-wielding robots would be better for this job.
In 1977 Ballard decided to take on the Titanic, but his first attempt was nearly catastrophic. Instead of submersibles, he was using pipes—3,000 feet of them lowered to the ocean floor from a derrick on a ship called the Seaprobe. A pod containing 600,000 dollars’ worth of borrowed sonar and camera equipment dangled from the bottommost pipe. But before Ballard could even begin looking for the luxury liner, the entire structure collapsed in the middle of the night—derrick, pipes, borrowed equipment—most of it ending up on the bottom of the Atlantic.
He wasn’t daunted. Finding the Titanic was the Everest of ocean exploration, “the number one quest on everyone’s list,” he writes. He was too competitive and too ambitious to give up.
Again, the military opened the door. The Navy would fund Ballard’s development of ROVs if it could have access to them and to Ballard’s expertise for certain secret missions.
The first ROV developed was Argo, which transmitted live video, allowing scientists to make immediate decisions about where to explore. To the Navy, it seemed like an excellent tool for examining the wreckage of two nuclear submarines—the Thresher and the Scorpion—in the North Atlantic. To Ballard, those missions, which were kept secret until the late 1990s, would serve as a perfect jumping-off point for the Titanic. The admirals agreed to give him two weeks to search, as long as he first recorded the condition of the Scorpion to their satisfaction.
Ballard’s work on the submarines proved crucial to his discovery of the Titanic. The Thresher expedition in 1984 and the Scorpion in 1985 taught him how wreckage scattered underwater. Heavier objects fall directly to the ocean floor, while currents carry lighter items farther away, creating a debris field shaped like a comet.
Because time was tight and a team funded by a Texas oilman was hot on the Titanic’s trail, Ballard partnered with a French group, which scanned the search area with a sophisticated sonar system. Ballard assumed the French would find the ship first, and he would come afterward to provide visuals. But the French didn’t find it.
Ballard set up a search grid for Argo based on his estimate of the size of the Titanic’s debris field. Then his team began what he calls “mowing the lawn,” traversing the grid back and forth, back and forth. It’s tedious work—until you find something. At about 1 a.m. on September 1, 1985, they did—a boiler nestled amid debris.
Public response to the discovery was immediate and overwhelming. Ballard had become, to his joy and chagrin, “the man who found the Titanic,” a moniker that would eclipse even the most significant of his scientific discoveries.
Even so, the publicity fanned a flame in Ballard that had first been sparked by an encounter with National Geographic Society President Melville Grosvenor at a Boston diving club in 1972. Grosvenor suggested that he write for the magazine. Ballard had taken scientists down to see the wonders of the deep ocean; he thought the public should be able to witness them too.
Ballard had begun inviting reporters and photographers on his expeditions early in his career, and he’d participated in several National Geographic television specials about his work—drawing some scorn from academic colleagues. The barbs stung, but Ballard stuck to this outreach. Now he wanted to reach children, thousands of whom had sent him letters after he discovered the Titanic. Perhaps he could guide their fascination toward science and exploration. Plus, he says, “if you can’t tell a five-year-old what you’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing.”
This mission became more vital to him after tragedy struck.
Ballard had married Marjorie Hargas in 1966, and they’d had two sons, Todd and Douglas. The marriage became strained over the years, but Ballard took great joy in his boys. As soon as they were old enough, he began bringing them on expeditions, beginning with Todd, the eldest. Todd was with Ballard on the first hunt for the Bismarck when they didn’t find the Nazi battleship, and he was with his father on the second try in June 1989 when they did. But three months later, Todd, not yet 21, was killed in a car crash. Ballard’s marriage ended soon after.
A shattered Ballard threw himself into the JASON Project, which had launched that year and featured live broadcasts to students from an archaeology expedition in the Mediterranean—with footage provided by Jason, his newest ROV. Soon he’d scheduled a second Jason expedition to Lake Ontario and a third to the Galápagos. National Geographic was a partner in the project; the Society’s point person was a young woman named Barbara Earle. In 1991 Earle and Ballard married; their children—Benjamin and Emily—would join their father on his expeditions.
Ballard was now fully in the business of finding things and taking the public along with him on his journeys. In the Mediterranean he identified an ancient trade route by the amphorae that littered the seabed, and he discovered a Phoenician ship. In the Black Sea he found a fully preserved ancient ship and evidence of a Noah-like flood. In the Pacific he located the U.S.S. Yorktown and Kennedy’s PT 109, wreckage from World War II battles. He was roaming the world just as Captain Nemo did. Now all he needed was his very own Nautilus. He tried to buy an East German research vessel that appeared to have been outfitted as a spy ship. When he couldn’t afford the asking price, the owner, New York billionaire Vincent Viola, gave it to him. Enamored by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, Ballard created a Corps of Exploration, the team that would operate the Nautilus’s technological tools on expeditions around the world.
Ballard emulated Lewis and Clark in another way too. As it did with the 19th-century explorers, the U.S. government asked Ballard to map United States territory—the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that extends 200 miles along the country’s shores. That’s what brought Ballard to Nikumaroro in 2019: The Nautilus was mapping the EEZ around American Samoa and Howland Island, the unincorporated territory where Earhart had intended to land in 1937. The EEZ assignment also has allowed Ballard to pursue a project along the California shore looking for underwater caves that may hold signs of the first humans who traveled down the coastline.
But Ballard’s most compelling quest these days may be to understand himself. Throughout his life he wondered why his brain seemed to work so differently from other people’s. Although he’s the author of 26 books and more than 150 scholarly and popular articles, reading and writing remain a struggle.
Then, in March 2015, he heard a radio interview with the authors of a book about dyslexia. He ordered the book and read it in one sitting, crying when he was done, he says, “because it explained me to me.” He realized that he’d created a world in which he could flourish, one that requires spatial thinking, or visualizing in three dimensions. He can stand in the middle of his ship’s command center and transform its dozens of displays into a single image in his mind. During his first dive in Alvin to the Titanic, the submersible lost its sonar, but Ballard still knew where to go.
The ocean is “a world of total darkness, and it’s not dark to me,” Ballard says. “I see it.”
Rachel Hartigan, a staff writer for National Geographic, is working on a book about the search for Amelia Earhart.