Robert Ballard has spent a great deal of time beneath the waves. During an ongoing career as a maritime archaeologist, geophysicist and educator, the world's most- notable deep-sea explorer has launched more than 120 undersea expeditions.
"I go on planet Earth where no one has gone before," he said.
Ballard, 70, discovered the wrecks of the Titanic in 1985 (sunk in 1912), the German battleship Bismarck in 1989 (sunk in 1941), the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in 1998 (sunk in 1942) and the remains of John F. Kennedy's PT-109 in 2002 (sunk in 1943).
To the world's scientific communities, he's perhaps best known for his discovery of hydrothermal vents in 1977. The vents form in undersea mountain ranges, in areas where hot volcanic magma meets ice-cold sea-water, and gush liquids heavy with minerals.
Ballard's résumé keeps going. The former U.S. Navy officer helped to pioneer deep-diving submersibles. He's an explorer-in -residence for the National Geographic Society, director of the Center for Ocean Exploration at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography and holder of a National Endowment for the Humanities Medal.
In 1989, he founded the JASON Project, a global mentoring program and conduit between students and the scientific community.
We caught up with Ballard, who will be in town Tuesday as part of the Sacramento Speaker Series, at one of his offices in Mystic, Conn., during a rare break in the action.
Do you see the planet's oceans as our last frontier?
We have better maps of Mars than we do of Earth, which is ludicrous. More than half of the United States lies under the oceans, and we have yet to mount Lewis and Clark expeditions to explore our own backyard, where we know there are vast oil and gas deposits, mineral deposits, new fisheries. You're not going to explore that? What a way to run a business.
What has been your main motivator as an explorer?
The exhilaration of discovery is the payoff for any form of exploration, whether it's on top of a volcano or in a Mayan jungle. The real cool ones are the "Oh, my God!" discoveries, when you find something you didn't know was on the planet.
We were (down 9,000 feet) exploring an under- water mountain range in the Galápagos Rift (in the Pacific Ocean). It's where the Earth is torn open and sends up its blood from inside its body to heal the tear.
This was during a time when a revolution in science was taking place, an earth-shaking theory called plate tectonics, which (ultimately) threw the geology books out the window.
You were on an exploratory research expedition for that?
Yes. We saw volcanoes and lava flows, everything we expected. Then we turned the corner and we were in Disneyland. There was an unbelievably high concentration of bizarre life that wasn't in the biology books. The dominant form was thousands of giant tube worms 10 feet tall. It was bizarre.
And there were giant clams no one had ever seen before. We were going, "What's happened to reality?" When we dissected them, we discovered their bodies had been taken over by a bacteria we now call extremophile. It had figured out over eons how to duplicate photosynthesis using the energy from the volcanoes instead of the sun. This threw out all the biology books (and) dwarfs the discovery of the Titanic.
How does that compare with the discovery of hydrothermal vents?
A few years later, off the coast of Mexico along a segment of the same mountain range, we came across 40-foot-tall giant chimneys that looked like factory smokestacks. Black "smoke" was pouring out of them. They were blasting so hard they were (affecting the course of) our submarine.
We stuck a thermometer in there and it melted (at 650 degrees). Turned out the black smoke was minerals commercial-grade copper, lead, silver, zinc and gold. So we found vast mineral deposits along that entire mountain range.
Now, that's a payoff.
What about sunken galleons with lost treasures?
There's a lot of history down there. You want money, go rob a bank.
How badly polluted are the world's oceans?
Everywhere you go there's trash floating on the surface of the oceans. But it's not getting down to 20,000 feet, where I go.
It's a fact that many of the ocean's fisheries are in peril.
I look at it very differently. Are the lions and tigers and bears in peril? Yes, all the top predators on land and in the ocean are in trouble. How are you going to feed the population of the U.S. on lions and tigers and bears oh, my!
On land, we have cattle, which are at the bottom of the food chain, so we're not eating top land predators. What do we do about the oceans? Right now we're eating tuna and salmon and other top predators, but not plankton.
The point is to turn to farming and herding, and all of a sudden the oceans become amazingly productive. (Do a computer search) for the Velella Project and watch the videos on deep-water mariculture. Homesteading the ocean could be the answer, and this idea is brilliant.
(Kampachi Farms of Hawaii) takes wild-stock hamachi yellowtail tuna broods them in pods in 1,200 feet of water and brings them to market in five months. I've eaten them and they're sushi quality. That's fish-farming on a grand scale.
You're involved in so many different areas. What drives you?
I love living and I love the epic journey I'm on. It's all a quest.
To see and hear some of his lectures at the TED Talks video site, visit www.ted.com.
Maritime archaeologist and ocean explorer Robert Ballard will give a presentation and answer questions to conclude the eighth season of the Sacramento Speakers Series. The event will be at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento; doors will open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $49 and $63. For tickets and more information: (916) 388-1100, www.sacramentospeakers.com
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.
This story was changed April 1 to correct Robert Ballard's age.