Robert Ballard: What Hidden Underwater Worlds Are Left To Discover?

Mar 18, 2016
Originally published on August 31, 2018 10:48 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Hidden

About Robert Ballard's TED Talk

Ocean explorer Robert Ballard makes the case for exploring the deep oceans, where he is discovering new species, resources and mountain ranges.

About Robert Ballard

Robert Ballard is a pioneer in ocean exploration. He is perhaps best-known for his work in underwater archaeology, finding the wreckages of the Titanic, the Bismarck, the USS Yorktown, the nuclear sub Thresher, and John F. Kennedy's PT-109.

He has made major contributions to our scientific knowledge of the ocean through submarine expeditions and robotic remote exploration. He was the first to discover deep-sea vents, and to understand how life can thrive in deep black waters.

He's also a passionate scientific educator. He founded the Ocean Exploration Trust, and through the Nautilus Exploration Program, has pioneered distance learning in classrooms around the world.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Today on the show, ideas about the hidden things in our world and the people who go looking for them.

Can you - can you remind us what you are best known for?

ROBERT BALLARD: Well, I'm best known for finding the Titanic.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: There is no more famous shipwreck in the world, and the discovery of the Titanic in the Atlantic off the coast of...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Historians have waited nearly three quarters of a century to see.

RAZ: Just the Titanic - you know, nothing - no big deal. Just, like, an afternoon of work.

BALLARD: Well, you know, it wasn't a discovery. It was lost and found.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The expeditions director, Robert Ballard, described the images...

RAZ: Robert Ballard...

BALLARD: Call me Bob.

RAZ: ...Is an oceanographer. He found the Titanic back in 1985. And since then, he spent his career exploring a place most of us don't give much thought to, the ocean, the 72 percent of our planet that is covered in water and most of it completely unexplored.

BALLARD: There's a lot down there. And there's a lot we don't know that's down there. You know, there's bigger mountain ranges underwater than above water. And there's canyons down there that make the Grand Canyon look like a ditch. And there's thousands and thousands of volcanoes. And there's more history in the deep sea than all the museums of the world combined.

RAZ: In fact, the greatest mountain range on Earth lies below the ocean's surface. It's called the mid-ocean ridge. And as Bob Ballard explained from the TED stage, we've known about it for a long time.


BALLARD: But no one had actually gone down into the actual site of - boundary of creation, as we call it - into the Rift Valley 'til a group of seven of us crawled in our little submarines in the summer of 1973, 1974, and were the first human beings to enter the Great Rift Valley. Almost a quarter of our planet is a single mountain range, and we didn't enter it until after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went to the moon. So we went to the moon, played golf up there before we went to the largest feature on our own planet. We went down into the Rift Valley, and it's pitch black. It's absolutely pitch black because photons cannot reach the average depth of the ocean, which is 12,000 feet. Most of our planet does not feel the warmth of the sun. Most of our planet is in eternal darkness. And for that reason, you do not have photosynthesis in the deep sea. With the absence of photosynthesis, you have no plant life. And as a result, you have very little animal life living in this underworld - or so we thought. We discovered a profusion of life in a world that it should not exist - giant tube worms 10-feet tall. I remember having to use vodka - my own vodka - to pickle it 'cause we don't carry formaldehyde. We went and found these incredible clam beds sitting on the barren rock, large clams. And when we opened them, they didn't look like a clam. And when we cut them open, they didn't have the anatomy of a clam - no mouth, no gut, no digestive system. Their bodies had been totally taken over by another organism, a bacterium that had figured out how to replicate photosynthesis in the dark through a process we now call chemosynthesis - none of it in our textbooks.


RAZ: Bob Ballard - coming up, his plan to fill those textbooks faster than we ever have before. That's in just a minute. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio hour from NPR.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Hidden, ideas about how things we can't see are sometimes right in front of us or even shaping our behavior. And before the break, we were hearing from ocean explorer Robert Ballard, who's found giant worms, massive clams taken over by parasites, new life forms that we had never seen before and, oh yeah, the Titanic.

So what else do you think is down there?

BALLARD: I don't know. I didn't know there were 13-foot worms that had new life forms, that had another creature in their body that had taken over their body and was inhaling poisonous hydrogen sulfide. Who would've ever dreamed that? And the most horrible science fiction movie in the world would have never done that to a worm. And yet, it's real.

RAZ: Does it drive you crazy to think that there are all these hidden things that are yet to be discovered and that...?

BALLARD: Yeah. I mean, I never grew up, see? I used to be - I used to always look under rocks for salamanders and, you know, I love discovering things. The human being - imagine, OK, you open your eyes, and you're in a room, OK? Do that right now.

RAZ: All right.

BALLARD: You're going to close your eyes...


BALLARD: ...And then you're going to open them.

RAZ: All right.

BALLARD: And there's a door. How fast are you going to go to that door?

RAZ: Fast.


RAZ: Really fast.

BALLARD: That's us. We want to know what's on the other side of the door.

RAZ: Right.

BALLARD: It's Alice's looking glass.

RAZ: Yeah.

BALLARD: It's - we're programmed to want to know what's on the other side of that door.


RAZ: But for ocean explorers like Bob Ballard, that door is miles away, straight down at the bottom of the ocean.

BALLARD: You can only go up and down so fast. So you spend all your time up and downing.

RAZ: Which means for the 25 years he spent exploring the ocean with a submarine, Bob has spent a lot of that time just getting to the places he's trying to learn about.

BALLARD: Well, imagine a day at the office, OK? Six hours to commute to work, six hours to get home. How long are you going to stay at work? Like, minutes, OK, and you're going to - and you still had a 12-hour day. That's why I'm trying to accelerate it.

RAZ: So the best way to accelerate the time it takes to get to the bottom of the ocean is not to go at all but instead to send robots...

BALLARD: What are called UUVs or AUVS - autonomous vehicle systems.

RAZ: ...That don't have to come up and down all the time, but they can spend days, even weeks, underwater.

BALLARD: That's what's going to be the force multiplier. That's what's going to accelerate everything, when we just build these massive numbers of swarms of vehicle systems that are swarming onto the ocean. And that's - that's soon.

RAZ: So you can sit in a lab in Rhode Island or Connecticut or sub-Saharan Africa, wherever you are, and you can work with this underwater robot and explore the ocean.

BALLARD: Yeah, yeah, I can put it on my cell phone.

RAZ: And last year, one of Bob Ballard's robots, called Hercules, was off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico when something amazing happened.

BALLARD: So we're down in the Gulf of Mexico and we're doing this thing.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We're going to take a super sample at all of those holes.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Just going to need your help getting it in position.

BALLARD: And then a - an adolescent sperm whale comes in at a couple thousand feet and...


MAN #2: What the heck is that?

BALLARD: ...Says hello.



MAN #2: Oh, my goodness, what is that?

MAN #1: Look at it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Guys, we have a humpback whale.

MAN #2: We need to...

BALLARD: Listen to how we transformed into children...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm going to turn the M3 off, guys.

BALLARD: ...In a nanosecond.


MAN #1: He's going to bump you.

WOMAN: No, he's bumping us.

MAN #2: It's a sperm whale. We have a sperm whale.

MAN #3: He's swimming underneath me. It's OK. Zoom out on (unintelligible) just a little bit.

BALLARD: The wows. Start counting wows.


MAN #1: Awesome.

MAN #2: Oh, wow.

MAN #3: I hope we are screen grabbing.

BALLARD: How often do you hear (unintelligible) go, wow?


WOMAN: That's as far as I can go.

MAN #1: Oh, beautiful.

MAN #2: Oh, wow.

WOMAN: Holy cow.

MAN #3: Wow.

WOMAN: Oh, man.

RAZ: And so where were you guys while this was all happening?

BALLARD: I was in my house when it happened, watching.

RAZ: Oh, you're in your house. And this robot is, like, thousands of - hundreds of miles away from you.

BALLARD: Thousands of miles away from me.

RAZ: And that's kind of the idea, that a group of scientists thousands of miles away can feel like they're there in a world hidden from view. And with more and more robots exploring the ocean, Bob Ballard says it might not be hidden much longer.

BALLARD: I mean, I envy the generation in middle school right now. I'm going to be eclipsed by some kid in eighth grade that's going to have the technologies to do a thousand times more exploration than I've been able to do because of the advent of new technologies where they don't have to physically do it. They can move at amazing speeds. And now, with autonomous vehicles, underwater drones just really pouring into the ocean now, you're going to see the rate of discovery in the ocean skyrocket.

RAZ: Robert Ballard, he's an ocean explorer. You can see his entire talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.