One of my favorite all-time interviews is Dr. Robert Ballard, the man who in 1985 discovered The Titanic.
In February of 2012, Ballard told me there were three major finds that remained at the bottom of the ocean: “The ones you hear about are Shackleton's ship The Endurance. We know where it is, it would just take money to get to it,” he told me. “Certainly The Indianapolis is a famous ship that has never been found. Everybody has been going after Amelia Earhart's airplane.”
Speaking of money ... all it takes is one billionaire with millions to burn to find one of those three.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced on his Twitter feed that his personally-funded expedition discovered The USS Indianapolis, one of the most famous ships involved in WWII.
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The story of the Indianapolis, made more famous by a speech delivered by Robert Shaw in the movie “Jaws,” is worth reading. There is hell, and there is surviving The Indianapolis.
The discovery of the boat that sank in June of 1945 reminded me of this interview with Ballard. I kept him on the phone for 30 minutes, and it felt too short.
We covered Titanic, his thoughts on global warming, and why he wants to empower women.
The Big Mac Blog: What are you busy with today?
Dr. Robert Ballard: I have my own ship now. I have been at this for 52 years and on 130 expeditions and during that time I said, 'Never own a ship'. In this latter part of my career and got my own ship. That changed my life. Historically I would go out and do my expeditions in the summer because the weather is good. Then I got this ship. I'm doing a lot but in many different areas.
You'll see that it's three (things): One is exploratory technology. I've been doing that for forever. I had to build my own toy. This has been an on going thing for me, and it's changed. The first was to use manned submersibles. The second was not to use manned submersibles and use robots. The third is you don't go yourself at all. It's just technology.
The Big Mac Blog: Don't you miss actually going on the water to do this research and the feel of it?
Dr. Robert Ballard: I'll give you this analogy. Every year I go Jackson Hole, Wyoming and I ride a horse. But I ride a car to work. I'm trying to get something done as opposed to having a nice trip. Submarine, you spend all of your time going up and down an elevator and very little time exploring. Maybe but two hours. You are crammed inside a sphere you can die; you are looking outside a small window and no one else can see what you can see because they are looking out a different window.
There is no bathroom. It’s cold. You are hitting your head. You get headaches. Do I enjoy diving? Yeah. I do it once in a while like horseback riding. But when I want to get work done I want to do it the best way.
The Big Mac Blog: Is it true the the best days of owning a boat is the day you own it, and sell it; will that be true with you?
Dr. Robert Ballard: Not really. I'm having a ball. It's really focused my life. I'm very Nautilus centric. It's simplified my life, and made it more complex. My reign of exploration has increased dramatically. We are getting the amount of work I did in five years completed in one.
So if you are in a hurry before you die, and I turn 70, I am in a hurry. I know there is a lot of amazing things yet to be discovered that I want to find. I know that I am playing this statistical game - it boils down to math. You don't live forever and the older you get the harder it is to go to sea. And I also know we have seen so little of the ocean.
And I know that most of my major discoveries - not the Titanic, we didn't discover that, we just found it - it was when we were looking for something else and found it. If you don't know it's there you can't tell people you are going to find it.
The silliest question I get asked is, 'What are you going to find next?' I don't have a clue because I don't know what it is I'm going to find.
And people don't realize how unmapped this world is. Seventy two percent of the planet is water. The ocean literacy of the American people is abominable.
The Big Mac Blog: In terms of global warming, has the water you explored changed dramatically since you began your career?
Dr. Robert Ballard: No. I'm at great depth. The average depth of where I go is 12,000 feet. It's pitch black. The world I go to is forever dark, and forever under pressure and forever cold. Cold water sinks there. It will be the last place on the planet that will get warm.
The Big Mac Blog: Is the water in the ocean getting "larger" so to speak?
Dr. Robert Ballard: Not a lot. You can do those numbers but you don't get much. If you look more into the history of the earth before there were human beings, during the crustacean period for example, there was less land. What we are finding under the ocean is a tremendous mountain range called the Mid Ocean Ridge. Largest feature on earth. Covers 23 percent of your planet. It's hot rock. It's not like the Rocky Mountains. It's recently released ocean crust that is swollen with heat energy. The rate of which it's being created varies by the speed of the plates. The faster the plates move the faster the heat comes up from the earth and the more it swells.
During the crustacean period there was more spreading going on which causes the ocean basin to swell but not the water. If you have a bath tub and you fill it up to the brim and then put in a bunch of rocks, what happens?
The Big Mac Blog: Spills over.
Dr. Robert Ballard: Correct. That's what we are talking about. We're not talking about the water swelling we're talking about the bathtub swelling and pushing the water out. That's what we are seeing.
The Big Mac Blog: Then are you believer in global warming?
Dr. Robert Ballard: Yeah. But what do you mean about that? It's been doing that for billions of years. The point is are we on a warming cycle? Yep. What's causing it? You have two camps, and they are both right. There is a natural warming and a human induced warming. Who is causing it the most? That's where the argument set in.
The first casualty of war is the truth. The truth is they are both right. Unfortunately you polarize it instead of trying to reach the center where we find the truth.
Yeah, I believe in global warming and I believe both arguments are correct. It's a question of percentages - how much is natural, and how much is human induced?
You have things going on right now that accelerate it. If humans went away tomorrow, would global warming decrease? No. It's in the system.
Right now the permafrost is melting. The whole top Canada and Eurasia is thawing out and releasing warm methane. The cat is out of the bag. The earth is going to heat up and going to continue to heat up. The earth is responding now. A lot of people think of the Earth as this passive victim to human behavior. The earth will be here long after humans are long gone, but we don't want on our tombstone that we came and went but we were politically correct. The earth is reacting right now and honestly we don't know how it's going to react because we don't have a past history of earth reacting to human beings. So what is it going to do and how is it going to respond? Is it going to dream up some microbe that actively eliminates us? I think the Earth is an active player in this game and not just this poor victim. I'm not worried about the earth, I'm worried about survivability of the human race.
I am more concerned about empowering women. Because that is the only way the human is going to survive.
The Big Mac Blog: Explain that.
Dr. Robert Ballard: What is the average age of a mother on earth right now? Teenagers, OK? What happens if you empower women? There is a lot of data on it and they stop having babies when they are teens. And the population collapses. And you are not a grand parent when you are a 30, or a great grandparent when you are 45. And you're not a great, great grandparent when you are 60. So this whole issue is really collapsing our footprint. There are different ways of collapsing our footprint; one is by not having as many people. The second is to be more conscientious about the use of energy to create a carbon footprint.
The Big Mac Blog: When you speak of being able to do all of your research from a computer screen are you not missing anything of actually being in that location?
Dr. Robert Ballard: Is this because I want to pick some roses and smell them or do I want to make a living? I have a job, or a vacation? Which are we talking about. I was able to pick my son up at school, and if I was in my telecommunications center I'd be at the bottom of the ocean.
It's a question, do I miss watching people vomit? No. Do I miss being away from my family? No. Do I miss a sunset at sea? Yes. Do I go to sea? Yes. Do I go to sea less than I used to? Absolutely. Do I discover more? Yes. I am trying to have my cake and eat it too and I think I pulled it off.
The Big Mac Blog: People ask you about discovering The Titanic but you said you found it ...
Dr. Robert Ballard: The discovery wasn't that I found it it was that the rate of preservation was so high. That lead me on to this road to finding lots of ancient ship wrecks. That was the discovery. It was that the deep sea is the largest museum on earth. We are now realizing what destroys human history and what preserves it and where to find it and accelerating our discovery of it. The first time I looked for an ancient shipwreck I spent a month and found one. Now I find one every 11 hours because I cracked the Rosetta Stone.
The Big Mac Blog: Is there any ship or wreck that is on your bucket list?
Dr. Robert Ballard: Yeah. I have children write me who ask, 'Will you stop so there are some left for me.' I don't mind that I left some on the table. The ones that seem to be high on people's list are treasure ships. I have no interest ships. The ones you hear about are Shackleton's ship The Endurance. We know where it is, it would just take money to get to it. Certainly the Indianapolis is a famous ship that has never been found. Everybody has been going after Amelia Earhart's airplane.
I am more interested in that unknown ship of the bronze age that is perfectly preserved in the Black Sea with the crew draped over the oars. That would be cool.
The Big Mac Blog: When did you recognize that your discovery of Titanic had changed your life to allow you do things that previously you may not have considered?
Dr. Robert Ballard: Well, after Titanic I came home and there were 16,000 letters from children that buried my desk. When my TV show got the No. 1 rating in the history of cable TV which it still holds. When my book was No. 1 on the NY Times best seller list and London Times. I was not anticipating any of that.
The Big Mac Blog: Why did Titanic resonate with so many of us, kids especially?
Dr. Robert Ballard: It depends upon which button it pushed. It pushed all the buttons people have. Start with kids, who are brought up if they are lucky in a Garden of Eden of innocence. The Titanic was this giant parental screwup. Kids it was sticking their finger in a flame; kids couldn't quite process doing something like sinking a ship. For women, it was the grandeur and celebrity of it. The stars of society back then were not news anchors or athletes they were the super wealthy - the Astors, the Strausses, the Guggenheims. And they died.
For men, it was the largest moving object on the planet. It was the highest tech thing we had.
And it didn't just sink it took a while. It was theater played out on a deck. The whole thing was straight out of central casting. You could not have written a better book than Walter Lord's book.
The Big Mac Blog: Do you ever tire of talking about?
Dr. Robert Ballard: A little. I accept that I am wedded to it. And that it's allowing me to talk about other things. People come to hear me, and I do mention it, but it's embedded in a larger story and they won't feel cheated and they walk away knowing more than just Titanic.
The Big Mac Blog: What are your greatest hopes and fears for your profession after you are done?
Dr. Robert Ballard: I have picked a successor. I have a new generation of people who are in place. That is gratifying. I am ready to let the new generation go and have fun.
Mac Engel: @macengelprof