How the Titanic’s Discoverer Was Hooked On Marine Science

By Eryn Burkhart


It was the summer of '59 when a young explorer set to sea on a research vessel at Scripps Institute of Oceanography for a cruise that changed his life.

Still in high school, Robert Ballard and a handful of UC San Diego undergraduate students cruised out into the Santa Barbara Channel on a crisp morning with a geology class. Ballard was at Scripps for the summer under a grant from the National Science Foundation. His future undergraduate advisor in geology at UC Santa Barbara, Robert Norris, was busy completing his Ph.D. at Scripps, and was leading the class that day.

So began a journey that would eventually lead Ballard to discover the wreck of the RMS Titanic, which sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, 100 years ago last Sunday. His discovery of the remains of the tragic wreck ignited one of the most successful careers ever in deep-sea exploration. In 2003, Ballard was named a UCSB adjunct professor of geologic sciences.

Back to the vessel in 1959, Ballard recalls: "While aboard, Dr. Norris asked me what colleges I was hoping to attend and invited me to come to UCSB as an undergraduate the next year, which I did."

Norris remembers the field trip as the start of Ballard’s interest in marine science.

“I had conned the people down at Scripps to have a half-day boat time, which was kind of nervy of me, 'cause that cost about $4,000 or $5,000… to show students how marine geologists sampled the sea bottom. Bob Ballard told me later that that experience really headed him in the direction of marine study,” Norris recalls.

It’s not surprising that this superstar scientist took a while to put his undergraduate education in several sciences to the best use on his scientific journey. Norris remembers him as being a “bright guy” and one with a great amount of potential. But Ballard, by some accounts, did not spend all of his time hitting the books.

"He was a man about campus and he was having a glorious time with his social life," Norris chuckled.

Hopson remembers the youthful Ballard similarly.

“He was obviously very bright and lively,” Hopson said, “but his chief interests were basketball and girls, both definitely above geology.”

Of course, in addition to spending time with his college girlfriend, Ballard was also majoring in four difficult sciences: math, physics, chemistry and geology.

"To this day, I don't know why I took such a difficult major at UCSB," Ballard said in an email. "If my major wasn't enough, I also played basketball my freshman year, was junior class president, ran for student body president, was a member of SAE fraternity, and received a commission in Army Intelligence in UCSB's ROTC Program."

As Ballard put it, he may have spread himself a bit too thin.

During a geochemistry course, the first that Hopson taught at UCSB, Hopson said he thought that Ballard was not applying himself as he could have. In fact, he did poorly on both midterm exams, and was, as Hopson put it, “not very inspired.”

“I don’t think he studied for (the exams) and he wasn’t paying much attention,” Hopson said. “But then when it came to the final exam, he decided he’d better get with it, and he studied really hard.” Ballard earned the highest grade in the class on that final exam, so despite the poor midterms, Hopson awarded him a B+ in the class. “When it came down to the final exam, his true colors showed through,” Hopson said.

Fifteen years later, while the two scientists were collaborating on a study of marine rocks that were visible on land in the Middle East, Ballard brought up the issue.

Ballard told his former professor: “You know, Cliff, I got the highest grade on that final exam in geochemistry,” Hopson remembers Ballard joking, “and I think I should have gotten an A in the course.”

Ballard continued to bring up his geochemistry grade every time he saw his former professor until in 1985, just after he had discovered the wreck of the RMS Titanic, Ballard paid a visit to UCSB. In anticipation of his arrival, Hopson decided to play a joke on Ballard.

“I wrote a mock serious note to the registrar saying that back in 1964, I’d made a mistake in giving Bob Ballard a grade, that this B+ should be changed to an A. I kept the blue tissue-paper copy, and when we met with Ballard at (professor Bruce) Luyendyk’s home that evening I said, ‘By the way Bob, I have something to give you.’ and I kind of reached toward my inner coat pocket, and those brown eyes of his just zeroed in and he said, 'You’ve changed may grade!' We all had a good laugh over that.”

It seems that a B+ in geology was not an obstacle to Ballard's career in marine science, and though he may have taken on too much at the time, "I wouldn't change a single thing," Ballard said.

Ballard has come a long way since that geochemistry class at UCSB, and in fact he has collaborated and led expeditions with UCSB faculty numerous times since his graduation.

He received a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii and a Ph.D. from the University of Rhode Island before discovering the Titanic, as well as other deep-sea wrecks. He was a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute for 30 years, started and runs his own Institute for Exploration in Connecticut, and remains an explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society.

Certainly Ballard is one of UCSB’s most illustrious graduates, and as Norris put it, “He’s one of our people.”

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