Ballard is a real-life version of Indiana Jones

5 mins read


It’s Saturday night and I’m jammed into a room with 300 well-dressed, well-nourished diners who are listening to a tall, casually dressed Californian named Robert Ballard. We are not supposed to be in this room.

We are supposed to be in an elegant, wedding reception-sized tent with crystal chandeliers, fresh cut flowers and heavy, hotel-grade silverware. We’re supposed to be eating “surf and turf” or “vegetable barley risotto” and listening to this famous oceanographer tell us about his exploits. 

But Tropical Storm Nestor and its 35 mph winds changed those plans and moved us into Port Royal Sound Foundation’s bass and mackerel-filled exhibition room.

And it’s a tight fit.

Robert Ballard is 77 years old but moves through the audience with the athleticism of a man of 50. Though Nestor has deprived Ballard of a stage, and the guests are actually crammed into two rooms, the scientist has a wireless microphone and shuttles between the two rooms with agility and a sense of humor. 

Meanwhile the young, attractive servers are getting risotto and the wine to relocated, disoriented patrons — the staff doing its best to salvage it’s “Night on the Sound.”

Ballard begins by telling us that back in 1982 he needed money to finance his search for the Titanic. He went to the Navy but the Navy wasn’t interested. They were interested in two sunken nuclear submarines — the Thresher and the Scorpion — and the condition of their nuclear reactors. The Navy said it might help Ballard if he found the missing submarines first.

The oceanographer found that the submarines had imploded scattering thousands of pieces of debris all over the ocean floor. Following the trail of debris he found the hulls of both submarines. Ballard concluded that this same technique might help him find the Titanic.

On the morning of Sept. 1, 1985, he and his team noticed anomalies on the otherwise flat ocean floor. Eventually debris was sighted, then a boiler and after that the hull of the Titanic. A year later the Ballard returned with the submersible “Alvin,” along with “Jason Junior” for tight spaces, all the while taking photographs of the exterior and interior of the lost ship.

After the Titanic, Ballard began to look for the Bismarck — it’s hull was believed to be in 15,000-foot deep water off the coast of France. This was 4,000 feet deeper than where the Titanic was found.

After finding the Bismarck he began searching for the Lusitania off the Irish coast Then it was the Japanese warship Kirishima near Guadalcanal. In 1998 Ballard found the wreck of the U.S.S. Yorktown and then John Kennedy’s PT 109 in 2002.

Ballard then turned his curiosity and energy to the Black Sea and the theory that no fresh oxygen reached its deep waters. This lack of oxygen created an environment hostile to wood eating organisms and very good for preserving sunken vessels.

In 2000 Ballard and his team found ancient shorelines, freshwater sea snails and three ancient wrecks near a long-submerged town called Sinop. Later Ballard found a fourth wreck where the entire hull, cargo, deck structures and mast were intact. Carbon dating suggested this ship went down between 410 and 520 A.D.

At the end of the evening Ballard said he was just back from Nikumaroro Island in the South Pacific where he and his team have been searching for Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. Nikumaroro atoll is actually the tip of a 16,000 foot mountain surrounded by sheer underwater escarpments. 

Ballard showed us a diagram that illustrated how the Electra would have been dragged over the reef and then fallen down the escarpment. In spite of using submersibles “Hercules” and “Argus” he didn’t find the airplane. But said he was “not giving up on the project.”

As the evening ended, I realized that I had been watching, and hearing, the living, breathing, nonfiction personification of Indiana Jones. 

In the telling of his story Ballard took us away from the rain, and the confusion, and turned the Foundation’s “Night on the Sound” into a “Night to Remember.”

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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