Depth Perception: An In-depth Discussion With Nautical Explorer Robert Ballard

Depth Perception: An In-depth Discussion With Nautical Explorer Robert Ballard

By Sphera’s Editorial Team | April 22, 2020

Dr. Robert Ballard, the man who found the Titanic, talks about what he believes went wrong that fateful night in 1912, his career in deep-water exploration, the environment and how he’s not ‘in the business of failure.’

IT WASN’T A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT. DREARY, MAYBE, BUT THE PACIFIC WATERS OF THE ATLANTIC WERE NOTHING SHORT of serene. On April 14 and 15, 1912, a peaceful evening turned into a perilous fight for survival for the people who sailed on the Titanic. Yet, the band played on. Tragically, most of the passengers and crew, including the captain, did not survive the night after the “unsinkable” ship hit an iceberg and sank to its final resting place in Davy Jones’ locker at the bottom of the ocean. The chairman of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, did survive, which drew senatorial inquiries about why he, too, did not go down with the ship; after all, a tragic tale needs a villain as much as it needs a hero.

It would take more than seven decades before the ship would be discovered by Dr. Robert Ballard and his crew. With only 12 days to find the famed vessel as a negotiated side project to the real mission, which was to explore two wrecked nuclear submarines, Ballard and his team located the Titanic 2-1/2 miles deep and roughly 370 miles from the Canadian island of Newfoundland. Ballard is a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and a world-renowned nautical explorer who has also found the battleship Bismarck, the USS Yorktown among many other discoveries.

As Ballard explains, when the sea is calm much like the night the Titanic sank, he’s at his most cautious because it’s easy to let your guard down—and that’s when mistakes, accidents and near-misses occur. It’s an important lesson not only for deep-sea explorers but also for companies trying to keep workers safe or operations working smoothly. Ballard has had his share of near-misses over a nearly 60-year career, but he takes pride in saying his crews have always come back home safe and sound.

Although technology has advanced dramatically since the Titanic’s maiden and only voyage, there are still lessons to be learned about safety. Whether it’s seemingly obvious things—at least from a modern-day perspective—like having enough lifeboats for all passengers and crew or perhaps less-apparent teachings about trusting technology even when instincts have previously served you well, the Titanic tales are textbook examples of where things could go wrong.

When I shared some of the old Titanic schematics with Narendepal Marwaha, Sphera’s principal solutions architect, he had some questions, such as: Did the makers of the Titanic perform any type of quality risk assessment? He noted that the Failure Mode, Effects and Criticality Analysis (FMECA) developed by the U.S. military came about much later in 1949. Although there are many theories, at least one Canadian engineer, Roy Brander, thinks they did not take risk seriously enough. He wrote in an essay titled “The Titanic Disaster: An Enduring Example of Money Management vs. Risk Management”: “What gets far less comment is that most of the problems all came from a larger, systemic problem: the owners and operators of steamships had for five decades taken larger and larger risks to save money— risks to which they had methodically blinded themselves. The Titanic disaster suddenly ripped away the blindfolds and changed dozens of attitudes, practices and standards almost literally overnight.” Even though Ballard’s name will always be associated with locating the Titanic, today, he says he does not spend much time thinking about the infamous ship—although he did get a message from a person trying to acquire Titanic artifacts during our talk.

He also doesn’t take risks he doesn’t have to. He developed what he calls “telepresence” in the early ’80s—robotic technology that can “fool my mind” into thinking he or anyone using it is at the bottom of the ocean when they’re not. It’s much safer that way, and it eliminates the need to spend hours going down to the bottom of the ocean and then back up again on a submersible.

Ballard says he doesn’t like to fail, so he only takes on missions he believes he will be able to accomplish. With all the successes he has had, learning from his risk mitigation philosophy and techniques seems like a safe bet.

The Exploration Vessel Nautilus (above) is equipped with some of the latest technological systems, helping advance the frontiers of ocean exploration. Primary capabilities include science class remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) (below), high-resolution seafloor mapping and real-time satellite transmission of data.

The following is an edited transcript from an interview with Dr. Robert Ballard. Ballard will also be the keynote speaker at Sphera’s inspire conference, which took place May 6-9, 2019. You can also listen to a longer version of this interview on the SpheraNOW podcast (

Spark: I’d like to talk about the news. The Fourth National Climate Assessment came out recently. Did you have a chance to look at that at all?
Robert Ballard:
 I did not. My son brought all of his college graduate roommates to descend upon our house.

It had some interesting thoughts on oceans and coasts, and since you’ve spent a lot of time on the ocean over the years, I just wanted to get your thoughts on climate change and the oceans. Have you seen any noticeable changes?
 Well, clearly since I spend a great deal of time at sea, I’ve certainly noticed the ocean is getting more energized. In fact, ironically, my insurance company has just increased the insurance policy on my exploration vessel, The Nautilus, because of the increased incidence of rogue waves. So yes, the Earth is fighting back if you want to know the truth.

Have you seen a lot of changes with plants and animal life as well?
 Not so much where we go. Our mission, literally, is to go where no one has gone before in the deep sea. We’re working in very remote areas of the world, and we’re working at extreme depths. Where we go, the water is already freezing cold. It’s typically 4 degrees Centigrade, and that’s because that’s the densest water gets that’s generated at the polar regions. As long as the polar regions are creating water that’s 4 degrees Centigrade above freezing, that falls to the ocean floor, so we will probably be the last to see an effect.

When you’re on the top of the water, are you seeing a lot of flotsam and jetsam these days? Is it getting better? Is it getting worse?
Well, clearly, we see massive amounts of plastics. Depending upon where we go, particularly if we’re in the central gyre regions of the northwestern Pacific, where the ‘garbage patch’ is, yes, you have a tremendous amount of plastic. Even when we worked in the remotest areas, on the island of Midway, for example, where a quarter million Laysan albatross come ashore to nest and mate and have a chick, you find a third of those chicks dying from ingestion of plastics. Even in those remote areas, plastic is reaching everywhere.

That’s very sad. You spent a lot of time in the Pacific Ocean in the past six months if I’m reading your calendar correctly. What were some of the biggest takeaways?
 Well, quite a number, actually. We do lots of separate expeditions. Our ship has been at sea almost seven months. I wasn’t on for the whole seven months, but we run relay teams, and we do a lot of different programs. One that we worked with extensively is with the government of Canada. Canada, off the West Coast, is where the great Pacific plates are stuffing under North America, and subduction zones can generate a devastating earthquake and associated tsunamis, and so working with Ocean Networks Canada, they’ve installed a warning system to be able to give them warning if the plates should suddenly move. And so we work with them on this constantly keeping this warning system up to date, and they also use it for long- term studies. That’s a major program. We also did a big program with NASA off the islands of Hawaii, which, as you know, has been quite active, volcanically.

NASA is working with us to find life elsewhere in our solar system. When we first discovered hydrothermal vents in 1977, I was the chief scientist of that expedition. We discovered a whole new ecosystem living not off the energy of the sun, as we learned in our biology books, but living off the energy of the Earth itself, driven by a primitive bacteria that had figured out, over eons of time, how to duplicate photosynthesis in the dark. [It’s] a process we now call ‘chemosynthesis.’ We believe that we will find life elsewhere in the universe, even within our own solar system, because of this discovery. For example, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn have more water than Earth. Two particular moons, the Jovian moon Europa and the Saturn moon Enceladus, are ocean worlds covered by ice, but we believe they have similar conditions to the ones we discovered in the Galapagos Rift, and that in fact we will find life fairly soon and, certainly within the next generation, within our own solar system. NASA was using our program to develop the technologies to find those hydrothermal vents on those two moons. That was a pretty exciting program.

Scientists, along with Dr. Robert Ballard, watch closely as the ROVs are exploring the sea floor.

That’s really cool. I know in the past you’ve said that we spend a lot of money looking for life in outer space, and we don’t spend as much resources exploring our oceans. Have you kind of met in the middle there?
 Well, no, they have a lot of money, and they help support our program, but no, I do not believe there’s a Plan B for the human race. I do not see humans in any large numbers leaving this planet, and living on something like the moon or Mars. Why would you want to go there when this is the prettiest planet around? And there’s no other one within reach. I do not believe in a Plan B, and therefore I think it’s critically important for our planet to understand how it works so we can learn to live in harmony with it, which is not what we’re doing right now.

Another important thing that we’re involved in is we’re exploring the 50 percent of our country that lies beneath the sea. We own more land under the ocean than any other nation on Earth. In fact, half of our country lies beneath the sea, and we have better maps of Mars than we have of half of America. We’ve been charged by the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research to really conduct the modern-day version of the Louis and Clark expedition, except with one key difference: 50 percent of our team are women in positions of leadership and authority, so I like to refer to it as the ‘Lois and Clark’ expeditions.

Tell me this. When you’re exploring under seas, how often are you saying to yourself, ‘What the heck is that?’
Constantly. In fact, we call it ‘telepresence.’ What we did is we made a promise, and very risky at the time, that we would deliver the best minds in America to the site of discovery, no matter where, no matter when or no matter how deep the ocean, within 30 minutes. If we find something, which we constantly do, we reach off our ship with a high bandwidth satellite system, and we’re able to network scientists to the bottom of the ocean in a fraction of a second. Basically, the concept of telepresence is much like the movie ‘Avatar’ where Jake left his body and entered a Na’vi’s body. Humans cannot live on most of the Earth. Ninety-five percent of the human race lives on less than 5 percent of Earth, so the only way that we can actually ‘go’ to these other places is by our ‘spirit,’ and another end effector. Another robotic device that can live in these harsh worlds, and that’s what we’re doing. We literally are spend- ing most of our time ‘out of our bodies.’

Talk to me a little about telepresence. You first came up with this concept for National Geographic in the early ’80s I believe. Tell me a little bit about how telepresence has evolved, and how it helps keep people safe because they’re not having to go down themselves.
I’ve been at this for[almost 60] years. I started my first expedition in 1959. I spent the first quarter-century of that literally getting in a submarine and going to the bottom of the ocean. I spent a tremendous amount of time in all sorts of submarines, both Navy and research ones, including the submersible Alvin. What’s frustrating about this, although we made wonderful discover- ies and it was quite an experience for a quarter-century, you spend most of your time going in an ‘elevator.’ The average depth of the ocean is 12,000 feet. It gets down to 35,000 feet, but if you just take an average dive, let’s say to the Titanic, which is at 12,000 feet, it’ll take you 21/2 hours in the morning to commute to work and 21/2 hours to get home at night. You’re spending five hours a day just going to work and coming home. When I dove to 20,000 feet, it took me six hours each way. That’s 12 hours. There is not a whole lot of time left to work at the office.

In 1979, I took a sabbatical and went to Stanford, and I was teaching geophysics at Stanford, and I saw Silicon Valley beginning to explode. I saw microprocessing, digital imagery, fiber optics, all of this new technology that has so altered our lives. I saw in that the opportunity to replace my physical presence with a telepresence. That I could build a technology that would fool my mind into thinking I’m there. Remember, your brain is deaf, dumb and blind inside of your skull, and it’s fed information that then uses it to visualize the world around you. What we can now do with high-definition television [and other technology], we can now fool you into thinking what your eyes are seeing, you are not in your own body, but in fact your eyes are in a robot.

When I’m operating it, I am convinced I’m down there. In fact, in discussions with our legal counsel, they said, ‘Well, we need to talk to you about this because if you get this better and better, you’re going to give people heart attacks ’cause they’ll think that a shark’s going to eat them.’

One of the most exciting things to do on board Nautilus is to go on the deck and watch Hercules being deployed in to the water. – Ocean Exploration Trust

It’s sort of like the silent films with the train coming at the patrons, and they all freaked out back in 1910, but now it’s 3-D sharks?
Well, actually, if you look at the Air Force that are flying drones in combat, those operators, although they’re in New Mexico, are given combat pay because it’s that stressful. They’re that convinced they’re engaged in the battle.

Let me ask you this. I read your book ‘Return to Titanic’ not too long ago, and there’s a figure that you had in there that there were a million shipwrecks at the bottom of the sea. I did some research, and I came up with 3 million, and my jaw just dropped. I said, ‘Why does anybody want to go on the water if there’s 3 million ships at the bottom?’
Well, most of them were sunk a long time ago. There’s much less ships sinking nowadays than back then because they didn’t have the technology or the safety that we have now. But yes, the deep sea is the largest museum on Earth. There’s more history in the deep sea than all the museums of the world combined, and we’re only now opening that door to that museum.

Actually, that leads me to my question though. What are some of the most important maritime advances from the 20th and even 21st century that help keep people safe on the seas?
 Well, GPS. Obviously they now know where they are, and they now have maps that tell them where the rocks are. I mean, the ability to not run aground. Certainly weather forecasting. The ability to know that the weather is coming. I know on our most recent expedition we had to hide, literally hide, from some hurricanes as they approached Hawaii. We knew they were coming, and we were able to go and hide. Our ship thinks it’s on land; you can go in our ship, pick up the phone as if you were in your house, and dial an area code and number. I can easily get help. You can even do remote diagnostics. If someone gets injured, you can literally broadcast off the ship the person’s body. You can do amazing remote diagnostics, which is now becoming rather pervasive with the use of telepresence technology.

You once told the Smithsonian, ‘During my second cruise that summer, our ship was struck by a rogue wave that almost sank the ship. I was hooked for life.’ That’s sort of a counterintuitive response. Have you always been a risk-taker?
 I was a 17-year-old at the time. I’m not so enamored by rogue waves. I’ll do everything I can to avoid them having almost died on the first one. No, I love what I do, but I also like to minimize risk. There’s no doubt that my career has been filled with risks, but they’re calculated risks. And even then, one always does everything they can to minimize risk, but it’s always there.

When you’re testing out new technology, are you using Failure Mode and Effects Analysis on your vehicles to make sure they’re working safely?
Yeah, absolutely. Here’s the real advantage that we have is that we don’t have manholes because we built the equipment we’re using. Imagine if you always had the person, the engineers, that literally built what we’re operating. That really gives you quite the edge, and in fact, our partner engineers can reach aboard the ship, access all of our tech- nologies and computers from shore, and constantly do risk analysis, constantly monitoring. We actually have the person that built it on board, either through telepresence or physically.

We’ve also been at it for a long, long period of time. One of the major differences you have in the ocean, for example, that you don’t have in space is, in space, gravity is your enemy. In the ocean, buoyancy is your friend. All you have to do with your robotic technology is to become slightly light, and you come up automatically. We always have built in systems to be able to change our buoy- ancy and we come home.

The deep sea is very predictable. The most dangerous things in the deep sea are things that are not predictable. Most of my near death experiences have come with fishing nets tangling our submarine or something like that.

I must say though, when we first came across the first high-temperature black smoker ever seen, we didn’t know how hot it was, and when we went over to it with our submarine … we put a thermal probe into the black smoker. It pinged off-scale, and, when we looked, our entire instrument had melted. Our window was made out of the same stuff 3 feet away.

Yes, there are some times where you encounter new things that you’ve never seen before that turn out to be extremely hazardous, and that’s why we now hook temperature systems around us to warn us that we’re approaching something extremely hot.

That’s fascinating. You’ve had a lot of near-misses it sounds like. What is the most difficult decision you’ve had to make under water?
 Well, which one? I mean most of it is pure survival. When you have a fire, for example, I was in a bathyscaphe and a fire broke out inside the submarine, and the only way to extinguish it was to turn off the oxygen and … the engineer had failed to turn on my oxygen, so I struggled trying to convince him I wasn’t panicking, I just wasn’t getting any oxygen until he finally realized his mistake.

Which really made a big difference. It’s always having backups to backups to backups. But again, the biggest backup of all is: Don’t be there in the first place.

An Australian company says it is planning to re-create the Titanic with more safety features. Spark spoke with the organization’s chairman in an exclusive email interview. Go to to learn more.

It’s one thing to take personal risks, but it’s something different when you’re in charge of a crew. Has your risk philosophy evolved over the years at all?
 Well, knock on wood … I brought everyone home in one piece. Not even a broken this or a broken that. I’m very cautious. I know where the lines are, and I don’t cross them. It’s just through years and years of 150 expeditions. Ironically, I’m most cautious when everything is going nice. When the sea is calm is when I’m most cautious because that’s when people let down their guard. When you’re in a raging storm or a hurricane’s bearing down upon you, you are at maximum attention. It’s when it’s a flat calm is when I’m most nervous because people drop their guards.

Is that a lesson you learned from the Titanic because, the night the Titanic sunk, it was supposedly very calm.
 It was a beautiful night, and they ignored the warnings. The Titanic sank because of its captain ignoring the warnings, saying ‘I’ve done this before. I’ve never relied upon a Marconi. Those are just for tourists to send messages home.’ The Titanic was sank by its captain who went down with the ship.

Why do you think the Titanic is so interesting 100-plus years later? Why are we still talking about the Titanic, and are there still lessons to be learned from the Titanic?
 Well, there’s always lessons to be learned, but I think the main issue is that it was a slow news day in the world. You have to understand also that here was a ship that was supposed to be unsinkable. Now, they never advertised it was unsinkable, but it was sort of presented as the unsinkable ship, but I think the main issue was, if you go back into that period of time, this was when the wealthy were the stars. Now we have movie stars and all sorts, but back then the people everyone talked about were the wealthy. The Guggenheims and the Astors and the Strauses, and these were the cream of the crop. These were the royalty of our country who went down. It was the Edwardian era. The world was at peace. There wasn’t a whole lot going on.

Just remember that just a few years later the Lusitania would be sunk, and suffer the same amount of casualties, the same number of wealthy people, and it almost went unreported because it was World War I. They were dying in the trenches in France. There wasn’t a whole lot going on, plus it was straight out of central casting. In the case of the Lusitania, it sank very quickly. The case of the Titanic, this drama acted itself out on a stage in a calm sea as the band played on and the crew stayed at the engine room. Look at the movie. It was straight out of Hollywood. The owner of the ship left, [J. Bruce] Ismay got off the ship, the children in third class died. There’s something about the Titanic that hits a button in every person, a different button, but it hits a button.

The thing that surprised me when I was doing some research for this interview. I was always under the assumption that they didn’t have enough lifeboats, which is true, but apparently they had more than enough for what was required at the time.
 Well, they were legally right. They didn’t have enough for everybody, but they legally had enough. I think the important thing that is lost is they couldn’t even get some of the final lifeboats off the ship because they were running out of crew. Every time they launched a life- boat, a percentage of the deck force has to accompany the lifeboat. They have to lower it, they have to take command of it, so every lifeboat that launched took away from the deck force. You can’t have the steward’s department down in the kitchen come and launch lifeboats. Even if they had all the lifeboats in the world, they still would not have gotten them all launched in time.

Take me back to before you found the Titanic. I’m curious how much research you do on these ships before you actually go trying to find them.
I won’t go unless I’ve convinced myself I can do it. I mean, I’m not in the business of failure. You don’t sustain a career of the many years that I have by failing. Now, yes, have I failed in initial attempts to find the Bismark? Yes. I got it the second time because I now knew where it wasn’t. Also, analyzing the search area, what am I up against? What are my odds? Again, I passed on a lot of other hunts because they were just doomed to failure. Now [with] the technology, it’s getting easier and easier, I must say. It would be a piece of cake to find the Titanic now with the technology that we have, so all those 3 million shipwrecks, they’re going to find them.

We’ve moved away from tethered vehicle systems to autonomous systems. We’re now building autonomous vehicles, undersea drones. I don’t know if you saw the recent article on the small drones they’ve launched into orbit around Mars. These are getting less and less expensive. The swarming technology of Mars, of AUVs [autonomous underwater vehicles], where you have fundamentally a wolfpack of autonomous vehicles. You send them out like a bunch of dogs, and they track it down and come and tell you. We’re entering now an accelerated exploration of the Earth.

OK, but for you, having a 12-day window to find the Titanic in 1985, how confident were you that you were going to find it?
I was obviously very nervous about it, particularly as I got to Day 9. I had a strategy I dreamed up. It was very, very different than previous strategies, and it wasn’t working, and then it did. I rolled the dice and it worked. I had done that before on other expeditions that are less publicized. The search for the aircraft carrier Yorktown, the search for the Bismark, all these things that I undertake have their risks, or someone would’ve already done it. You’re constantly looking at it. I’m fundamentally a hunter. The human race has been around for thousands and thousands of generations, and for most of those generations they were hunter-gatherers, and I got the hunting gene.

Is it at all bittersweet for you that you found the Titanic, and afterward other ships have gone down and kind of, I don’t want to say plundered, but they’ve taken artifacts off the ship. I know you’re a big proponent of leaving the ship alone. Is it at all bittersweet for you?
Well, I think you have to know, we can’t be Luddites. We know that technology is a two-edged sword. Technology has no morality. Nuclear technology can heat your house or blow it up. Computers can free you or imprison you. It’s really the march of technology. It’s society that needs to be smart enough to understand the two edges to the sword and make those decisions. I’m not sad about anything that I’ve discovered. Yes, I’m sad about what sometimes follows, but that’s in the nature of human behavior. Until you can change those fundamental aspects of human behavior or put safety nets in to bar against bad behavior, there you are. That’s just the nature of the business.


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