I love the sea and for a time had the fortune of sailing the ocean in Newport, RI, one of the capitals of New England charm for many reasons, one of which is its people. I find that people who live close to the sea tend to have a fluid quality to them that agrees with me.
Acclaimed ocean explorer Robert Ballard made that same impression on me last night. Dr. Ballard is also professor of oceanography and currently serves as Director of the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography, at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography. That is archeology of the deep sea, where the sun light never shines -- a new discipline he helped found.
Last night, he kicked off the 2007-2008 Philadelphia Speakers Series with a deep dive into the mysteries of the ocean. An explorer-in-residence of the National Geographic, Mr. Ballard discovered the Titanic or rather its wreck in 1985 while on his way to a far more secret mission since declassified. He then went on a discovery binge, finding the Bismarck, the Lusitania and other ships lost at sea, eventually going back to the RMS Titanic 19 years later with the aid of new technology, including improved robotic subs, high-definition cameras and better lighting to see the remains in much greater detail. Yes, Director James Cameron consulted with him through the making of the movie.
Dr. Ballard is about to immerse himself again in an exploration of the Aegean and Black Seas -- waterways that have served as major trade routes for centuries to discover the mysteries that lie underneath. According to the Science Daily:
Shipwrecks in the Black Sea often are remarkably well-preserved due to the waterway's chemistry. Nearly 90 percent of the Black Sea is a no-oxygen “dead zone,” where only a few bacteria live.
What did he learn about life in the depths of the ocean? The largest mountain range on earth is located underwater -- the Mid-Atlantic Ridge extends for 42,000 continuous miles with tens of thousands of active volcanoes. If you're curious as I am about this sort of thing, you will be intrigued to learn that 72% of our planet is beneath the sea and in total darkness. We live on the remaining 18%. In fact, some of Dr. Ballard's greatest discoveries do not involve ship wrecks, they are about life.
- In 1977, while exploring in the submersible ALVIN near the Galapagos Islands (in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador), Dr. Ballard and J. F. Grassle, on Project FAMOUS, discovered giant worms (called Riftia) and other organisms living deep in the sea, beyond the depth where people though that life could be sustained. These huge worms were clustered around underwater hot springs (near ocean rifts) from which they get energy. The underwater vents substitute for the Sun's energy. The worms grow in long tubes and are over 10 feet (3 meters) long.
- In 1979, Dr. Ballard found deep water volcanoes called "black smokers" located off the coast of Baja California in the Pacific Rise; they spew extremely hot mineral-rich water up chimneys formed by mineral deposits (it is so hot that it could melt lead).
- The water of the earth's oceans is cycled through the earth's crust, changing its mineral composition in the process. The water goes down through cracks in the crust until it hits very hot rock where it becomes superheated and dissolves minerals from the rocks. Then it shoots upward through the vents. This explains why sea water contains the minerals it does (this was unexplained by previous theories).
- The plates from our planet's crust are constantly ripping open and bleeding lava. Most of the earth is generated through lava force in a continuous process of genesis. This also explains the regenerative power of the earth. Our planet has a regular face lift!
More modern-day Captain Nemo than The Old Man and The Sea, after receiving a tremendous amount of mail from children about the Titanic adventure, Dr. Ballard founded the JASON Foundation for Education in 1989. The JASON project is named for Jason, the mythical Greek explorer who sailed the seas in a ship named "Argo" in order to find the golden fleece.
This project lets children learn about and follow global deep sea exploration. A Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) called Jason is sent to explore the sea down to 20,000 feet, and Jason's video signals are broadcast live via two-way satellite to students in schools and museums around the world. "All kids dream a marvelous image of what they want to do. But then society tells them they can't do it. I didn't listen. I wanted to live my dream," he said.
My favorite quote -- "If you can plan it out and it seems logical to you, then you can do it. I discovered the power of a plan."