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Bob Ballard On Assignment

Bob Ballard On Assignment

Bob Ballard
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Photo captions by
Margaret G. Zackowitz

By Peter de JongePhotographs by David McLain

The explorer went looking for deepwater shipwrecks. As usual, he found them—but not without deep trouble.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

For the past 48 hours the 280-foot (85-meter) oceanographic research vessel Knorr, temporary if not harmonious home to some 30 engineers, scientists, and academics, as well as a rotating roster of friends and financial supporters, has been lashed to a pier in the northern Turkish city of Sinop, kept from its appointed mission by the lack of research visas. The American ship and crew have come to the Black Sea to investigate ancient shipwrecks, but the local media are skeptical. During the day packs of journalists scramble up and down the stone dock, aiming their cameras and questions at anyone on the deck within earshot.

"Why are you really here? Are you searching for oil? Are you on a secret mission for the U.S. military? Are you looking for Noah's ark?"

Hundreds of residents, curious to see for themselves, stroll arm in arm to the waterfront in the lovely late July evenings to marvel at the great ship stuffed with high-tech wizardry bobbing in the bay of their historic walled city.

But for expedition leader Robert D. Ballard, who is spending $40,000 a day on the project and is losing priceless research time—having invested millions in a state-of-the-art remotely controlled submersible, deep-sea high-definition cameras, and a futuristic high-bandwidth satellite communications system—there's nothing magical about the nightly carnival on the dock.

"We're bleeding to death," he says. "We're hemorrhaging money."

Nor has this latest delay been the only setback of the summer. Ballard's original itinerary called for testing his machines on a series of Greek and Byzantine wrecks off Bulgaria and Turkey before moving on to a pair of 2,700-year-old Phoenician wrecks off Egypt. But weeks earlier, just before the Knorr left its home port at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, complications in his negotiations with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences forced Ballard to scuttle that leg of the cruise for now. Later, after the expedition was under way, Ballard would also get word that Egyptian security had denied him permission to explore the Phoenician ships.

"Five years of wrecks have been taken off the table in weeks," he says with a sweep of his arm.

For Ballard, a restless, 61-year-old oceanographer whose role models skew toward explorers and mountain climbers—"I believe in the Hillary approach," he says, "climb the mountain, plant the flag"—the only thing worse than the wasted money is the diminishing prospect of realizing a personal dream. This is the summer Ballard intended to plant the flag for a new multidisciplinary approach in which the worlds of maritime archaeology and oceanography would merge. Ballard's plan calls for remotely controlled vehicles to carry out the careful excavation of deep-sea wrecks, and for their activities to be broadcast live via satellite to scholars and students back on the beach over Internet2, the next-generation network not yet available to the public. Once the kinks are worked out, research vessels laden with ROVs would begin systematically searching the deep for wrecks of antiquity.

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VIDEO Photographer David McLain gives you the scoop on the high-tech gizmos aboard the research ship Knorr.
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AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections).
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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) is a robot that can be sent underwater for a variety of needs, ranging from the recovery of lost weapons to the scientific study of ocean habitats. ROVs essentially take the place of scuba divers and are able to go to depths not previously explored. They are used for tasks such as underwater observation, search and recovery of ship or aircraft wreckage, ocean-floor surveys for scientific studies, inspection and repair of underwater telecommunications cables, oil and gas drilling operations, and construction support. ROVs come in many shapes and sizes. The smaller ROVs range in price from about $5,000 to $100,000 and are mostly used by private individuals. The larger and more expensive ROVs get, the deeper they can dive and the more equipment they can hold.
The greatest use of ROVs is by the oil and gas industry. Many offshore reserves are located in water depths of 7,000 feet (2,100 meters) or greater  and therefore are not accessible by divers. ROVs assist in drilling, installation, and construction. They are also used by the military; the U.S. Navy is credited with advancing the technology in its quest to develop robots that can conduct underwater observation and recovery of ordnance lost during tests. Thirty-nine million dollars' worth of ROVs were built for the first gulf war, to destroy ship mines.
ROVs are also used for academic and scientific purposes, to conduct ecological studies of deep-sea habitats and to obtain high quality photographic and video documentation of previously unavailable locations. Hercules, the ROV Bob Ballard used on his expedition to the Black Sea and Mediterranean in 2003, was developed in collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in Massachusetts, which has pioneered research with the use of ROVs for science. WHOI is currently working on autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which are similar to ROVs but are able to dive underwater and collect information without any form of cable or other physical attachment to the surface, allowing them the freedom to stay under for much longer periods of time.
National Geographic Society has owned various ROVs over the years. The main individuals working with these machines are Emory Kristof, a National Geographic photographer-in-residence, and Chris Nicholson, president and founder of Deep Sea Systems. Nicholson built the first low-cost ROV in the early 1980s, funded by National Geographic, and sold it elsewhere for $25,000. The money earned from the sale helped Nicholson build a larger vehicle for National Geographic that could carry more camera loads. When an ROV made it onto the cover of National Geographic magazine in July 1983, the technology received national news coverage.  Shortly thereafter, National Geographic obtained a number of other ROVs, including one named Geek that was used in the deep-sea thriller film The Abyss, directed by James Cameron.
Most recently, Emory Kristof used a 25-ton (23-metric ton) ROV, called the Max Rover, in the Arctic Ocean for a story that was published in the January 2004 issue.  It took four years for Nicholson and Kristof to design this $800,000 machine, which can dive as deep as 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). The next voyage Kristof has planned for the Max Rover is to explore the waters of Indonesia, in search of new species.

—Erika Hunter Lloyd
Did You Know?

Related Links

Institute for Exploration
Explore the latest in deep-sea exploration at this website.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Learn all about the undersea world with images, news, and research information.


Ballard, Robert D., and Will Hively. The Eternal Darkness: A Personal History of Deep-Sea Exploration. Princeton University Press, 2000.
Ballard, Robert D., with Malcolm McConnell. Explorations: My Quest for Adventure and Discovery Under the Sea. Hyperion, 1995.
Goodheart, Adam. "Into the Depths of History." Preservation (January 1999), 36-45.
Rosen, Marjorie. "Titanic, Bismarck, PT 109: Robert Ballard's Amazing Deep-Sea Discoveries." Biography (February 2003), 67-69.
Shachtman, Noah. "Old-shipwreck expedition runs afoul of rocky politics." Chicago Tribune, August 23, 2003.


NGS Resources
Johnson, Rebecca, L. Robert Ballard: Discovering Underwater Treasures. National Geographic Books, 2003.

Morrison, Marianne. Divers of the Deep Sea. National Geographic Books, 2002.

Kennedy, Edward, M. "The Search for PT 109," National Geographic, (December 2002), 78-89.
Ballard, Robert D., and Malcolm McConnell. Adventures in Ocean Exploration: From the Discovery of the Titanic to the Search for Noah's Flood. National Geographic Books, 2001.
Gore, Rick. "Ashkelon: Ancient City of the Sea." National Geographic (January 2001), 66-93.
Ballard, Robert D. "Deep Black Sea." National Geographic (May 2001), 52-69.

Allen, Thomas, B., and Robert D. Ballard. "Ghosts and Survivors Return to the Battle of Midway," National Geographic (April 1999), 80-103.
Gonzales, Laurence. "Ballard Surfacing." National Geographic Adventure (Spring 1999), 126-32, 162-7.

Ballard, Robert, D. "High-tech Search for Roman Shipwrecks," National Geographic (April 1998), 32-41.
Vesilind, Priit. "Why Explore?" National Geographic (February 1998), 40-5.


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