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Bob Ballard, The Great Explorer

The Great Explorer, Part 1 13:56

This segment was first broadcast on Nov. 29, 2009. It was updated on June 13, 2010./>

The deep sea between Turkey and Greece is a graveyard for ancient shipwrecks. Many still lie undiscovered at the bottom of the ocean, fragments of history that remain beyond reach thousands of years later.

Now, one of the greatest undersea explorers in the world, Robert Ballard, is trying to uncover their secrets. You may know him as the man who discovered the Titanic, but what he couldn't say then is that he was on a clandestine mission for the Navy at the time. It was a secret he kept for more than two decades until the mission was declassified.

You'll hear how that mission helped him find the most famous wreck in modern history and about Ballard's many other discoveries in his 50 years at sea.

Web Extra: Trapped!
Web Extra: PT-109
Web Extra: Finding Titanic
Web Extra: Echoes of the Past
National Geographic: Ocean Now
Nautilus Live

When Ballard took "60 Minutes" and correspondent Lara Logan with him to hunt for ancient shipwrecks off the coast of Turkey, we made an extraordinary find even he didn't expect.

To get to Ballard, we had to make a journey of our own to what used to be one of the great crossroads of civilization.

For thousands of years, ancient mariners passed through beautiful but treacherous waters to the place where the Aegean Sea meets the Mediterranean. Many of them didn't make it, their ships sinking deep below, as far as 2,000 feet down, never to be seen again.

That's where we found Ballard.

His ship, the Nautilus, never sleeps. Ballard and his team had been out there for two weeks hunting for shipwrecks - a 17-man crew of archaeologists, scientists and engineers working in shifts around the clock.

"We're here to find lost chapters of human history, chapters we've never read before," Ballard told Logan.

Asked how many shipwrecks are down there, Ballard said, "In this area, I'm sure there's hundreds if not thousands along this coast."

Shipwrecks that have never been seen.

The Nautilus is specially designed for deep sea exploration, armed with state-of-the-art electronics and navigation systems. Ballard's team uses sophisticated underwater sonar to guide them to possible wreck sites, called "targets."

On a monitor, the targets appear as little dots.

"We're looking for literally a needle in a haystack. We're looking for very small ancient ships," Ballard explained.

Once Ballard has a target worth exploring, he sends down what he calls, his "big guns": two remote controlled vehicles, his eyes under the sea.

They descend thousands of feet to the target, using high definition cameras and powerful search lamps to shed light on a place that has always been in darkness.

The drama of the hunt plays out in Ballard's command center aboard the Nautilus.

His team is particularly interested in what they think is a wreck that they spotted with the sonar. The crew is glued to the screens.

Pilots guide the remote controlled vehicles towards the target, some 1,500 feet below.

Asked what he thought he might find, Ballard told Logan, "I have my fingers crossed that it's an ancient shipwreck."

In the back of the room, archeologists stand ready to tell Ballard what he may have found. This is the moment of discovery that still thrills Ballard after half a century at sea.

"And the anticipation, 'What is it?' Don't know. And you come in, and you come in, and you think, 'Well, it could be this. It could be…' And then all of a sudden, the veil of darkness in the deep sea, like curtains, just open, and there it is. And you see it for the first time for 2,000 years, or whatever. You can get used to that," Ballard said.

By his own estimate, he has done this 100 times or more, discovering vessels on the bottom of the sea.

Ballard has made some of the greatest deep sea discoveries of our time. He found the legendary German battleship, Bismarck, three miles below in the Atlantic.

He showed video of the massive ship to Logan, pointing out the guns. "And we almost hit them because we came in very low on the deck - and all of a sudden, first thing we saw of the Bismarck was a barrel of a gun coming right at us."

He tracked down what is believed to be the remains of PT-109, commanded by John F. Kennedy in World War II.

But the one that made him famous was the Titanic. For 73 years, the massive ocean liner sat two miles down, more than 12,000 feet of pitch black water, eluding the world's top undersea explorers until 1985, when Ballard came along.

Ballard showed some of his personal videos of the wreck, including footage of the captain's bathtub.

He told us what it was like to come face to face with the world's best-known shipwreck. "We turned the corner and there it was right in front of us!" he remembered. "The bow was 60 feet into the bottom."

"Up at the very edge, because it hit with such power, and it bulldozed so much. We rose along the side of the ship and our lights were hitting the portholes, and they looked like eyes. A hundred eyes, like the people who died, it looked like people looking at us," he explained.

But finding the Titanic really wasn't his mission. "Well, it was my mission, but I had to get it paid for," he said.

The Navy had tasked Ballard with a secret mission to map two nuclear submarines lost in the Atlantic during the Cold War, the USS Scorpion and Thresher. They didn't want the Russians to know what they were doing.

"Because if you told the Russians, 'Hey just follow me,' they'd put a satellite over the top of me and they'd see me go out and they would see me stop. And the moment they saw me stop…I just told them where the submarines are," he explained.

The cover for his Navy mission was that he was actually searching for the wreck no one else could find: the Titanic. Three other expeditions had tried and failed, even though they had months to search; Ballard had just 12 days.

Asked how he got around that, Ballard told Logan, "By cheating. I basically didn't do the search pattern the way they had done it. See the traditional approach to searching for something in darkness, cause you can't see, is use a sonar. And you lower the sonar down, and you tow it back and forth, and you mow the lawn. And that's what all three of them had done. And I went, 'Well, clearly that's not working.'"

So Ballard used what he had just learned investigating the Navy subs: that when a vessel sinks, the wreckage is carried by the current, leaving a trail of debris like a comet. Applying that to the Titanic, he decided not to look for the ship itself.

Instead he searched for the trail of debris that he estimated stretched over a mile, a much bigger target.

Ballard also expanded the original search area. And instead of using the sonar to slowly comb every inch of the sea floor as the others had done, he used cameras on a remote controlled vehicle to hunt visually, spacing his search lines almost a mile apart.

"So I was able to go through the box real quick. And sure enough, I picked up the trail, and as soon as I picked up the trail I knew exactly: go north. And I walked right into the Titanic," he explained.

Asked how the other experts could not worked that out before him, Ballard said, "They were in the box. They were in the, this is the way you do it. …I live outside the box. I'm always outside the box."

Remembering the moment of discovery, Ballard said, "Our initial reaction was joy. And we're jumping up and down. And then someone looked, in our control room we had a clock. And someone looked. And it was 2 in the morning. And someone says, 'You know, she sinks in 20 minutes.' 'Cause she sank at 2:20 in the morning. And all we were embarrassed we were celebrating. And all of a sudden we realized that we should not be dancing on someone's grave."

The Titanic was the largest manmade moving object on Earth at the time of its sinking, but it was the smallest personal objects scattered across the floor of the North Atlantic that impacted Ballard the most.

"All that's left of human signature are their shoes. And all around the Titanic are pairs of shoes. Mother's shoes next to daughter's shoes. Men's shoes. Crew members. These are the tombstones," he said.

The shoes marked the spots where the victims' remains lay on the bottom of the ocean.

"So did it take you a while before you could talk about these things?" Logan asked.

"It did. Actually I didn't want to. I was hit by it. And I wasn't expecting to be hit by it. See I went in there, you know, totally under control, so to speak. And I was blown away. It was a very moving experience that I did not expect to have," Ballard remembered.

The Titanic brought Ballard instant fame and celebrity.

"My mom called me the day I got home and I expected her to be just off the wall like everyone else was, and she says, 'You know, that was nice, but it's too bad you found the Titanic.' And I went 'What?' And she says, 'Well, you know your father and I are very proud that you and your brother went to college and got doctorates and are great scientists but now they'll only remember you for finding the Titanic' And mother's are always right," Ballard said.

Twenty five years later, Ballard is still working on his legacy. Now that he finally has his own research ship, he can go explore anywhere he wants.

When Logan joined him, he'd just finished searching for wrecks from the Battle of Gallipoli for the National Geographic Society, where he's an "explorer in residence."

Then he came to the Aegean to hunt for ancient shipwrecks.

"Along this coastline, sponge divers, and recreational divers, and archeologists have found a lot of shipwrecks. But no one has actually been at the very spot; we're much deeper. Right now, even though you can almost reach out and touch the land, beneath us the water is 700 feet deep," Ballard told Logan. "And then it goes further out. And out in the middle here, it's over 2,000 feet deep. And that's never been seen. And so, we're the first human beings to ever lay eyes on this part of the planet."

He used to go down in submarines, but not anymore. He sends his remote control vehicles instead: Hercules and Argus. He pioneered the use of these vehicles for undersea exploration.

Hercules, with its array of cameras and Argus, which hovers above it in the water, its 2,400 watts of light penetrating the gloom.

We watched them on the hunt as they moved in on the targeted site that had caught Ballard's eye.

"I think we just hit a home run here folks," Ballard said, as an ancient shipwreck and its cargo came into view. "Got it, it's an ancient shipwreck. I love it! I love it. There she blows! Alright, now we go back here and they start telling us what we found. So guys, what'd we get?"

One of the archeologists believed the wreck was a Byzantine ship, judging by the anchor.

Until this moment, no one had laid eyes on this ship for about 1,400 years. Hercules glided over the wreck site, the ancient cargo piled six feet high.

The ship's hull was most likely buried beneath the sand.

The cargo consisted of well-preserved ceramic containers, called amphorae, which were typically used to transport wine and oil. The last time they were on dry land, Constantinople was the center of the western world.

For Ballard, their value is measured in history and science - he's not a treasure hunter. His team of archeologists documents every detail, measuring the cargo with lasers.

"When I see that, I want to know how it went down...who was on it. I just want to know everything," Logan remarked,

"Well the beauty of it is it's no longer lost. And we'll come back," Ballard said.

For someone who has devoted his life to exploring the ocean, Ballard was born in an unlikely place: Kansas. As a young boy, he was inspired by the explorer, Captain Nemo, in Jules Vernes' "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

Since then he has been on more than 120 undersea expeditions all over the world. What still excites Ballard most is making new discoveries and he's done it time and time again.

It may surprise you that the man who found the Titanic would really prefer to be known for this: six foot tall tube worms Ballard found by accident on an expedition he led near the Galapagos Islands.

"So when you went down that day, you went down thinking that the origin of all life on Earth was sunlight?" Logan asked.

"The sun, exactly. When we began this expedition, we weren't even thinking about that," he replied.

"We were stunned," he added.

These tube worms were 8,000 feet below the surface, living in total darkness, thriving off the energy of the Earth, not sunlight. It was something no one in the scientific world believed possible.

"Because we had been told that all life on the planet owed its existence to the sun, that it was sun that was the driving energy of life. And so when you go into the deep sea, you don't have great concentrations of life, because the sun can't get there. So that's in our heads when we go down and we turn the corner and it's Disneyland. I mean, look at that concentration of life. And it didn't make sense to us initially," Ballard said. "It was a discovery of massive dimensions."

"This is far more important than finding the Titanic. The Titanic we knew about. We did not know about this system. And it's completely rewritten biology books, chemistry books. For many people this is where life began on Earth," Ballard said.

Asked if no one even knew these worms existed, Ballard said, "Didn't even predict it."

Another one of Ballard's most important finds was in the Black Sea. No one knew that ancient wooden shipwrecks could be perfectly preserved there, until Ballard and his team proved it when he found this one in 2000, the best preserved ancient shipwreck ever discovered in the deep sea.

"This shouldn't exist. In any other ocean, you wouldn't be looking at the mast of a wooden ship that sank 1,500 years ago," Ballard explained, showing video of the wooden mast rising up. "That should not be there. And wood borers are all over the world's oceans. They ate the deck of the Titanic. They ate wood on the Lusitania. Any shipwreck that we have found anywhere, the wood's gone. But not in this crazy ocean called the Black Sea."

Asked why, Ballard explained, "It doesn't have any oxygen at depth."

He believes he will find perfectly preserved humans in these Black Sea shipwrecks.

"How are you going to find them?" Logan asked.

"Just run into them. As we excavate one of these days, we're going to be brushing away and a face is going to appear," he predicted.

It's not just the discoveries Ballard has made himself, it's the ones he has inspired.

An undersea world at nearly 3,000 feet deep in the middle of the Atlantic was found by his old team at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, working with the University of Washington. They nicknamed it "the lost city."

Its towering limestone formations can stretch up to 180 feet high, some of the tallest undersea spires known to man. They form overhangs that trap hot alkaline water rising from vents in the sea floor, creating what look like upside down pools of water.
"See the shimmering water? How many other such discoveries are waiting to be tripped over? I vote a lot," Ballard said.

"The skeptics might say, 'So what?'" Logan remarked. "So we didn't know this exists. What did that give us?"

"This is showing us that life can exist at far greater extremes than we ever expected, which again increases the probability of finding it elsewhere not only in the universe but elsewhere within our own solar system," Ballard explained.

The oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth, but most of that has never been explored.

Ballard is leading a revolution in undersea exploration to change that. It started with an idea he had 28 years ago.

Today that idea is just coming to life at the University of Rhode Island. Ballard, working with NOAA, the federal ocean agency, created what he calls the "Inner Space Center" - the first ever command center for ocean exploration that will stay constantly connected to three research ships at sea.

"Our budget to explore our planet is only one-thousandth the budget of NASA. We're 18.7 million. They're 18.7 billion," Ballard said.

We had a chance to speak directly to one of the research ships, the Okeanos Explorer.

The ship was in a remote part of the pacific, mapping American territory there, for the very first time. Via video and audio uplink, a crew member explained that they were 1,000 miles northwest of the Hawaiian island Oahu, "in the middle of nowhere."

Ballard believes the deep sea is rich with things we can't even imagine and full of human history he hopes can be found and protected before it is plundered.

"The deep sea has more history in it than all of the museums of the world combined, and we're only now entering this great museum of the deep," he told Logan.

At 67, Ballard is showing no sign of slowing down. But he does retreat to his home in Connecticut to spend time with his family. It's also a refuge from a scientific world that has not always been kind to the man who found the Titanic, accusing him of being more interested in fame than science.

"No one likes to be criticized, No one likes to have people take shots at you, even if they miss," Ballard said.

He admits he is a showman and a self-promoter, but he says he has to be.

"Because I have to raise money, I have to promote myself. I don't want to say, 'Well I'm not very good at this, give me a bunch of money.' No, obviously I'm a salesman," he explained.

"More of a salesperson than a scientist?" Logan asked.

"No, no. I love science," he said.

"That's the criticism," Logan pointed out.

"Oh yeah," Ballard acknowledged.

He also acknowledged it doesn't hurt to be known as the guy who found the Titanic, but he said that comes with baggage. "Science is a 'we,' not an 'I.' It truly is. I didn't do anything. We did a lot of things. But in our system, in America, we have this star-based system. And stars are 'I.' And the academic world is really, honestly a 'we.'"

"But you're the star quarterback," Logan said.

"I'm the star. But it can get you in trouble in that world that doesn't believe in that star-based system," Ballard said.

One of the things we noticed about Ballard as we tried to keep up with him darting around his ship is that he still has the enthusiasm of a man fulfilling his boyhood dream.

It turns out the shipwreck he discovered during our visit was a rare find: only one wreck from the 7th century has ever been excavated in its entirety, and that was 50 years ago.

This wreck appears to be better preserved, and archaeologists are excited by the possibility that it could shed new light on one of the most important periods in maritime history.

"In all these years, is it the same passion now that inspires you" Logan asked.

"Oh yes, of course. Discovery is an unbelievable, unbelievable feeling," Ballard said.

"And it never loses its magic?" Logan asked.

"No, because it always could beat the last one," Ballard said. "People say, 'What is your greatest discovery?' And I say, 'It's the one I'm about to make.'"

Produced by Max McClellan

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