Robert Ballard: Explorer of the drowned world

Tim Hulse on the scientist who has shown us the shape and creatures of the planet's deepest waters - and who has now found a clue to the myth of Noah's Ark
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Under normal circumstances, the discovery of the remnants of a Neolithic settlement 12 miles off the coast of Turkey would perhaps not be considered newsworthy. But when the person making the find is Dr Robert Ballard, telegenic undersea explorer and famed discoverer of the Titanic, and when there is a tentative link with the story of Noah's Ark, there are no limits to the headlines. The Daily Telegraph, for instance, on Thursday reported the finding of some carved beams and fragments of wattle-and-daub walls as "'Home of Noah' is found 300ft below Black Sea".

Under normal circumstances, the discovery of the remnants of a Neolithic settlement 12 miles off the coast of Turkey would perhaps not be considered newsworthy. But when the person making the find is Dr Robert Ballard, telegenic undersea explorer and famed discoverer of the Titanic, and when there is a tentative link with the story of Noah's Ark, there are no limits to the headlines. The Daily Telegraph, for instance, on Thursday reported the finding of some carved beams and fragments of wattle-and-daub walls as "'Home of Noah' is found 300ft below Black Sea".

Such hyperbole tends to follow the 58-year-old Ballard around, perhaps not least because his main backers at the Washington-based National Geographic Society, where he is one of a handful of "explorers-in-residence", know a good story when they see one. It was they who informed the world of his latest discovery last week. Ruins in the depths of the sea, were, it was suggested, the remains of buildings destroyed in the Flood. Ballard has made a series of high-profile underwater discoveries using cutting-edge technology since first coming to global fame after finding and filming the Titanic in 1985: the Lusitania, the Bismarck, American and Japanese warships in the Pacific, and more recently ancient Roman and Phoenician ships in the Mediterranean. All have been featured in loving detail both in National Geographic magazine and on the National Geographic TV channel.

Ballard is currently in the Black Sea on his ship New Horizon, a former Hull trawler converted into a state-of-theart exploration vessel, looking for proof that Noah's Ark might have existed, as well as searching for wrecks from the Bronze Age. The inspiration for the Noah part of the expedition comes from a book called Noah's Flood, by William Ryan and Walter Pitman, geologists at Columbia University. Published in 1997, it put forward the theory that the Black Sea was a freshwater lake until it was flooded on a cataclysmic scale around 7,000 years ago as a result of melting glaciers raising the level of the Mediterranean. Thousands were killed as a result, the book maintained.

Somewhat tenuously, Ryan and Pitman suggest that this was the flood which ultimately inspired the Old Testament tale of Noah. But as Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, never tires of telling journalists who ring him up inquiring about the story, serious Bible scholars regard the Noah tale simply as a legend. "If you want to say the Black Sea flood is Noah's flood, who's to say no?" he says. In fact if there was indeed a real flood which inspired the story, most scholars would be more likely to place it in Mesopotamia.

Nevertheless, beyond the hype, last week's discovery was a significant one in archaeological terms. Dr Fredrik Hiebert from the University of Pennsylvania, the project's chief archaeologist, said the find would "begin to rewrite the history of cultures in this key area between Europe, Asia and the ancient Middle East". The archaeology writer David Keys largely agrees. "It's not a huge surprise that there are habitations at the bottom of the Black Sea," he says, "but I think this will massively flesh out our knowledge of the details of how these people lived. To find well-preserved wooden houses or bits of wooden houses from that period is the architectural equivalent of finding the Ice Man or a bog body."

Ballard is fond of saying that there is more history preserved under the sea than in all the museums of the world combined, and he has spent the past 15 years trying to find it. Until recently nobody had ever discovered a shipwreck at a depth of more than 200ft, but this has all changed since Ballard began refining the technology of remote-controlled underwater robots. "I think his importance is more as a developer of techniques that will make a great contribution to archaeology rather than as an archaeologist in his own right, and I'm sure he wouldn't claim otherwise," says Dr Colin Martin, a reader in maritime archaeology at St Andrews University. "In that sense I think that he's showing the way to where archaeology will be going."

The son of a missile scientist, Ballard grew up in San Diego, California, and quickly grew interested in the sea's hidden treasures. His childhood hero was Captain Nemo and he was fascinated by the different forms of marine life he found in rock pools on the shore. After gaining a PhD in marine geology and geophysics he went on to spend 30 years at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, specialising in deep sea research.

In the early 1970s, Ballard was an outspoken proponent of manned submersibles for underwater exploration in the face of a scientific establishment which preferred more traditional surface ships and sonar. He spent years mapping the mountain ranges that lie beneath the oceans and went on to make hugely important discoveries. In 1977 he led an expedition to the Galapagos Rift which found deep-sea hydrothermal vents surrounded by giant worm-like organisms, some more than 8ft long, living inside white tubes. The discovery of these "tube worms", and the way in which they synthesised energy, had enormous implications for the possibility of life on other planets. Two years later, he was part of the first team to come across "black smokers", submarine volcanoes in the Pacific Rise whose emissions are hot enough to melt lead.

Such expeditions were not without risk and on more than one occasion Ballard came close to death. By the early 1980s he had decided that remotely operated vehicles were the way forward and, with funding from the US navy, he put together a team which developed Jason Jr, the robot that would eventually beam back pictures from the Titanic. It was following the Titanic expedition that Ballard decided he had "seen enough pillow lavas and tube worms for a lifetime" and turned his attention full-time to human history.

His subsequent rise to become arguably the world's most famous modern explorer has sometimes obscured his previous achievements. "OK, he's very high-profile and he's a television personality, but he's also a very good scientist," says Dr John Hemming, former director of the Royal Geographical Society and author of The Golden Age of Discovery. "He's much more proud of his scientific research, like finding the hydrothermal vents, than of his great headline feats like the Titanic and the Bismarck and so on." Hemming has a favourite quote of Ballard's: "The key is science. Science gives legitimacy and worth to exploration. You see a lot of stunts today but if you're not doing worthwhile science, you're not an explorer, you're just wandering around."

Ballard is very much a popularising scientist. After receiving letters from thousands of children following the Titanic discovery, in 1989 he founded the Jason Project, which allows children all over the world to watch live transmissions from his expeditions and even to operate the robots. In the future, he wants to have real-time cameras mounted around underwater sites sending live pictures to the internet. He believes strongly that wrecks should not be plundered but should be left as underwater museums. When he heard of a proposed luxury cruise to watch part of the Titanic's hull being raised, he said: "It is as if a fleet of tractors had ploughed the battlefield of Gettysburg."

Three years ago Ballard founded the Institute for Exploration in the fishing village of Mystic, midway between New York and Boston. There he continues to pioneer the new science of deep-water archaeology and has also built a $52m "Challenge of the Deep" interactive experience in which visitors can "share the excitement of a full-scale oceanographic expedition". As for the future, he has plans to cut a hole in the Antarctic ice and look for Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance, which sank on an expedition in 1914. Expect more headlines.

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