Tonight on Caribbean’s Deadly Underworld, renowned ocean explorer Bob Ballard and a team of scientists embark on a daring deep-sea expedition to explore the hidden geologic dangers of the Caribbean, and the bizarre life that inhabits these extreme ocean depths. Ballard, currently director of the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, has conducted more than 120 deep-sea expeditions over the past half-century and is best known for his discovery of hydrothermal vents and visits to shipwrecks such as the R.M.S. Titanic and the Bismarck, and also for pioneering the use of deep-diving submarines. In a phone interview, which has been edited for clarity, he discussed some of the startling observations made by his team in the Caribbean, how technological advances are transforming ocean exploration, and why exploring and colonizing the oceans may be more critical to the human race than reaching Mars.
Q: You’ve been to some pretty amazing places in the ocean over the years. What in particular did you find fascinating about the Caribbean?
BALLARD: There’s so much going on down there, and the Caribbean is not that gigantic of a place, so you can travel around it pretty quickly and see all sorts of crazy places. There’s the Cayman Trough, which is a fault like the San Andreas where the tectonic plates open up. It’s a deep, deep crack that is 20,000 feet down, and when you get to the bottom, it has the deepest volcanoes in the world. Because it’s in such an isolated place, it’s separated from other places that could supply it with animals, so you’ve got very unusual life forms that have developed there. White shrimp, for example, have this strange appendage on the side of their heads. You look at them and figure, they can’t be eyes, because it’s black down there and there’s no sunlight. But then you realize that the temperature of the “black smokers,” the big underwater volcanoes, is so hot—650 degrees Fahrenheit—that they emit radiation that we couldn’t see. But the shrimp can, because they’ve developed eyes that can see it.
Q: On the expedition, you explored Kick’em Jenny, a volcano that is 6,000 feet below the surface off the coast of Grenada, south of St. Lucia, which you’ve called “the most hazardous part of our planet,” because of its potential for erupting and triggering a catastrophic tsunami that might reach the coast of the U.S. Could you tell us more about the surprises you found there?
We have a new sonar device on the bottom of the ship, which enabled us to make a very large, detailed map of Kick’em Jenny. We saw that the volcano had collapsed inside of itself, and then had generated an avalanche. When we sent robotic craft down to the foot of the avalanche, you’d expect nothing to be down there, just rubble. But instead, we found this oasis of life, all these creatures living in this crammed area. The dominant creature is a 14-inch-long giant mussel, with human-like blood in its tissue.
Q: What are the advantages of the new technology that you’re using?
When you compare the technology we have today to when I found the Titanic, it was like we were using two cans and a string back then. In the old days, you used to physically have to get into a submarine. I did that for a quarter of a century. Basically, you spent 2 1/2 hours every day going up and down. That keeps you from getting a lot done. When you got there, you couldn’t get out of the submarine anyway—you just looked out a window. Today, with advances in fiber optics and microprocessors from Silicon Valley over the last 30 years, you don’t have to be there anymore, because you can send a robot with a camera. In fact, I don’t even have to be on the ship. I can watch it all on my iPhone. But it’s my spirit that is down there. Sometimes, when I’ll be looking at the bottom of the ocean, I’ll have to take a break to go the bathroom, and I’ll suddenly realize that I’m in Connecticut, not 9,000 feet down in the Caribbean.
Q: You’d like to see more resources devoted to ocean exploration. Could you explain?
NASA’s budget is much more than what we spend exploring the oceans. But why would you explore space when we don’t know what’s right off the coast of Florida? When you count the coastal waters that are U.S. territory, about 50 percent of our country is under water, and we have better maps of Mars than we do of the ocean bottom. But that area is rich in resources such as rare earth minerals.
Eventually, I see us moving out into the ocean and living there in aquatic communities. If you look at the progress of civilization on land, humans started out as hunter gatherers, and then went on to farming and building cities. If you look at the oceans today, we’re still hunter-gatherers, eating the big wild predators at the top of the food chain. We’ve got move away from that, and look at responsibly farming and herding in the oceans. They’re already domesticating the yellowtail Hamachi, feeding it soybeans and growing it in cages out at sea. That’s the farm of the future. Forget about terraforming Mars. We should look at colonizing the oceans of our own planet. It’s a lot easier than colonizing space.
Life is anything but tranquil underneath the crystal waters of the Caribbean. For more on the three-month deep-sea expedition, don’t miss Caribbean’s Deadly Underworld Sunday May 18 at 10 p.m. on Nat Geo WILD.