Bob Ballard knows most people only remember him for discovering the Titanic. He also knows that some of his colleagues, former bosses, and academic rivals think he is an insufferable showboater. He doesn’t seem entirely worried about dispelling the latter impression in his memoir. He describes his tiffs with other oceanographers and marine archaeologists, who disapprove of his publishing and T.V. deals with National Geographic and consider him merely “lucky” in “tripping over” his deep-sea discoveries.
“Well, let me keep tripping,” he says.
When he discovers artifacts that demonstrate that the trade route between Rome and Carthage is a pragmatic straight line across the Mediterranean, rather than a timid hug-the-shore course as many archaeologists believed, he gloats: “Now, did I have to have a degree in archaeology to figure that out?” Along the way, he tosses out anecdotes about beating Arthur Ashe in a college tennis tournament, receiving an invitation to a White House dinner party where he meets the Prince and Princess of Wales, and attending a film premiere with James Cameron and being besieged by paparazzi. No one would accuse him of false modesty. But the bulk of this memoir brings readers along on exciting, sometimes harrowing, journeys to the depths of the ocean, where Ballard discovers everything from astonishing natural phenomena such as the black smokers that spew ultra-hot fluids from deep beneath the ocean floor to ancient shipwrecks at the bottom of the Black Sea.
The personal history of how he put himself in position to make these discoveries is interesting as well, and sometimes poignant. He describes a childhood that was full of local adventures from an early age, such as slipping out of the back yard as a toddler by launching himself off the roof of the chicken coop and wandering over to the local grocer’s—twice—until his mother fastened him to the clothesline with a leash.
Yet he also describes forever feeling second best compared to his brilliant older brother, Richard, whom his father favored. He, on the other hand, struggled with reading and studying. He read and re-read his textbooks, but the words “broke apart” in his mind. He preferred watching movies, and at 12, seeing Jules Vernes’ Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea set him on course for a future oceanography degree.
That degree, however, would not come from his dream school, the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography, thanks to a combination of mediocre grades and lukewarm faculty recommendations. He talks about realizing, as an adult, that the way his brain works—the difficulty reading combined with an ability to visualize three-dimensional space easily—was a result of dyslexia. That awareness makes him try even harder to reach kids, especially those with learning disabilities like his, with the excitement of science, letting them know that they, too, can be explorers. He talks about the moving experience of bringing U.S.S. Yorktown survivors face-to-face with their aircraft carrier that was sunk by the Japanese in World War II in the Pacific. As they watch on the monitor as the Yorktown’s command center comes into view, one of the veterans with them chokes up at seeing the ship again. “‘Too much … too much,’ he said, staring at the screen. ‘All the people that did their jobs … I can see them doing them now.’”
Perhaps the most emotionally resonant story in the book is Ballard’s recalling the death of his 20-year-old son Todd in a car crash. That tragedy led to the dissolution of his marriage and a feeling that he was drowning. Ultimately, he says, he was saved by the JASON project, which brought live broadcasts from the ocean floor to school kids around the U.S. and Canada in an effort to motivate “the next generation of young minds to fight the fight and overcome setbacks, to get up after being knocked down.”
That theme of resurgence recurs throughout the book. The failures threaded through this memoir—the failure to please his father, the failure to get into Scripps, and finally, the failure to find Amelia Earheart’s plane—have all been lessons, he says, “not something that you should try to avoid, but rather embrace and learn from—and then beat … I’ve failed lots of times, but I don’t quit, so I always win.”
Robert Ballard, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography
(GSO) and returned there years later as a professor of oceanography, spoke about his explorations at GSO’s annual Charles and Marie Fish Lecture in October.