Titanic Discoverer Explores Flower Garden Banks By Remote, Norwich Bulletin, 03/10/07
By Amy Lawson
Source: Norwich Bulletin
Dr. Robert Ballard said he and his expedition crew know where they are and what they're doing.
|Ballard shows the underwater robotic vessel Argus.|
|VIDEO: Dr. Robert Ballard talks about the technology involved in remote underwater exploration|
As he sat in almost total darkness Thursday afternoon in a control room at the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration, the man who discovered the Titanic in 1985 and the military torpedo boat PT-109 in 2002, remotely controlled an expedition of the Flower Garden Banks underwater marine sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico.
The progress of the trip, called "Secrets of the Gulf," has been broadcast live all week to audiences at the aquarium, as well as at other museums and Boys and Girls Clubs around the country. Ballard was readying to wrap up his crew's work Thursday and Friday.
"It's the Yellowstone Park of the underwater world," Ballard said. "But if you ask the average person on the street to name one marine sanctuary, they couldn't. There's a huge illiteracy for this kind of thing, so with these broadcasts, we're trying to educate the public."
Control via mouse
With just a few clicks of a mouse, Ballard can talk to the crew aboard the Carolyn Chouest (the Groton-based ship deployed to the Gulf to help on the mission), move cameras 400 feet beneath the water showing the ocean floor, and bring up topography maps of the sanctuary. He, along with Mashantucket Pequot Museum Executive Director Kevin McBride, also hosts the live broadcasts at select times during the day.
"Our technology is remarkable. We have radar that can look down through layers of soil and 'see' river channels and more," McBride said in an interview last week. "We don't expect to find the Holy Grail, so to speak, but we will look for old coastlines, river terraces and high ground by marshes."
It is the first time Ballard (or McBride) has led an expedition without being on location at the site. "Secrets of the Gulf," is somewhat of a practice mission to prove Ballard and his crew can handle being separated in anticipation of a larger exploration of an unnamed location next year.
The men alternate 12-hour shifts manning the controls at the aquarium.
"(Ballard) is very, very well-regarded because he has solid scientific credentials," said Dr. Charles Booth, a biology professor at Eastern Connecticut State University. "I think he has a good impact, because he educates the general public. When I watch shows on the Discovery Channel or something, I'm constantly looking for mistakes. But Ballard is presenting information that's scientifically sound, so that doesn't happen with him."
Booth, whose specialties include aquatic biology, said the Flower Garden Banks make an interesting expedition location because the area is home to a number of endangered marine species. Much about the area, including details on the coral reef systems along the banks, is unknown, he said.
"I think it's a worthwhile project. Because of who he is, Bob Ballard has the ability to ask the questions that other people aren't able to," Booth said.
Though no artifacts have been recovered from the site, Ballard said ARGUS, a remotely operated vehicle being used for the project, and the crew aboard the Groton-based nuclear submarine NR-1 had discovered mud volcanoes and caves.
If the team makes a significant find, Ballard said they will return at a later date. When the mission ends Saturday, scientists will begin analyzing data and anything captured on video during the trip.
"The best discoveries are the ones you don't expect," Ballard said.
Nelly Bozorgzad, 6, visited the aquarium Thursday to see the live broadcast of "Secrets of the Gulf." She said she likes looking at the submarines move along the bottom of the ocean.
"Its fun to watch the pretty fish come up and swim around, but not the bad fish, like sharks," she said.