Ballard grew up in Pacific Beach, San Diego, California to a mother of German heritage and a father of British heritage. He has attributed his early interest in underwater exploration to reading the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, living by the ocean in San Diego, and his fascination with the groundbreaking expeditions of the bathyscaphe Trieste.
Ballard joined the United States Army in 1965 through the Army's Reserve Officers Training program. Ballard was designated as an intelligence officer and initially received a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve. He was called up to active duty in 1967 but requested to fulfill his obligation in the United States Navy. His request was approved, and Ballard was transferred to the Navy Reserve on the reserve active duty list. After completing his active duty obligation in 1970, Ballard was transferred back to reserve status, where he would remain for a good portion of his military career, being called up only for mandatory training and special assignments. He retired from the Navy as acommander in 1995 after reaching the statutory service limit.
While Ballard had been interested in the sea since an early age, his work at Woods Hole and his scuba diving experiences off Massachusetts spurred his interest in shipwrecks and their exploration. His work in the Navy had involved assisting the development of small, unmanned submersibles which could be tethered to and controlled from a surface ship, and were outfitted with lighting, cameras, and manipulator arms. As early as 1973, Ballard saw this as way of searching for the wreck of Titanic. In 1977, he led his first expedition, which was unsuccessful.
In the summer of 1985, Ballard was aboard the French research ship Le Suroît, which was using the side scan sonar SAR to search forTitanic's wreck. When the French ship was recalled, Ballard transferred onto a ship from Woods Hole, the R/V Knorr. Unbeknownst to some, this trip was being financed by the U.S. Navy specifically for secret reconnaissance of the wreckage of two Navy nuclear poweredattack submarines, the USS Scorpion and the USS Thresher, that sank in the 1960s and not for Titanic. Back in 1982, Ballard approached the Navy about his new deep sea underwater robot craft, the Argo, and his search for Titanic. The Navy was not interested in spending that kind of money in searching for the large ocean liner. However, they were interested in finding out what happened to their missing submarines and ultimately concluded that Argo was their best chance to do so. The Navy agreed it would finance Ballard's Titanic search only if he first searched for and investigated the two sunken submarines, find out the state of their nuclear reactors after being submerged for such a long period of time, and if their radioactivity was impacting the environment. Ballard would be placed on temporary active duty in the Navy, in charge of finding and investigating the wrecks. After the two missions were completed, time and funding permitting, Ballard would be free to use the resources to hunt for Titanic. After their missions for the Navy, Knorr arrived on site on August 22, 1985, and deployed Argo. When they searched for the two submarines, Ballard and his team discovered that they had imploded from the immense pressure depth. That implosion littered thousands of pieces of debris all over the ocean floor. Following each of the submarines' large trail of debris led Ballard and his team directly to both of them and made it significantly easier for them to locate the submarines than if they were to search for the hulls directly.Ballard already knew that Titanic imploded from pressure depth as well, much the same way the two submarines did, and concluded that it too must have also left a scattered debris trail. Using that lesson, Ballard and his team had Argo sweep back and forth across the ocean floor looking for Titanic's debris trail. Ballard's team took shifts monitoring the video feed from Argo as it searched the monotonous ocean floor two miles below. In the early morning hours of September 1, 1985, observers noted anomalies on the otherwise smooth ocean floor. At first, it was pockmarks, like small craters from impacts. Eventually debris was sighted as the rest of the team was awakened. Finally, a boiler was sighted, and soon after that, the hull itself was found. Ballard's team made a general search of the vessel's exterior, noting its condition. Most significantly they confirmed that Titanic had in fact split in two, and that the stern was in far worse shape than the rest of the ship. Ballard's team did not have much time to explore, as others were waiting to take Knorr on other scientific pursuits, but his fame was now assured. Ballard originally planned to keep the exact location a secret to prevent anyone from claiming prizes from the wreck. Ballard considered the site a cemetery, and refused to desecrate it by removing artifacts from the wreck. On July 12, 1986, Ballard and his team returned on board Atlantis II  to make the first detailed study of the wreck. This time, Ballard brought Alvin, a deep diving submersible which could hold a small crew Alvin was accompanied by Jason Junior, a small remotely operated vehicle which could fit through small openings to see into the ship's interior. While the first dive (taking over two hours to dive down) saw technical problems, subsequent dives were far more successful, and produced a detailed photographic record of the wreck's condition.
Ballard undertook an even more daunting task when he and his team went searching for the German Battleship Bismarck in 1989. The water in which she sank is 4,000 feet deeper than where Titanic sank. Ballard attempted to make clear whether the German battleship had been sunk by the British or was scuttled by her own crew. Three weeks after the expedition however, personal tragedy struck the famed explorer when his 21 year old son Todd, who had aided his father in the search, was killed in a car accident.
In 1993 Ballard investigated the wreck of RMS Lusitania off the Irish coast. The ship was struck by one torpedo, whose explosion was followed by a second, much larger one. The wreck had been depth charged by the Royal Navy several years after the sinking, so it was difficult for Ballard to a do a forensic analysis. He determined the boilers were intact, and speculated the second explosion may have been caused by coal dust. Others have questioned this hypothesis. Ballard has not ruled out the possibility of cold seawater contacting superheated water in the ship's steam generation plant.
Battle of Guadalcanal
Ballard and his team have also visited the sites of many wrecks of World War II in the Pacific. His book Lost Ships of Guadalcanal locates and photographs many of the vessels sunk in the infamous Ironbottom Sound, the strait between Guadalcanal Island and the Floridas in the Solomon Islands.
In 2002, the National Geographic Society and Ballard fielded a ship with remote vehicles to the Solomon Islands. They succeeded in finding a torpedo tube from the tiny shipwreck of John F. Kennedy's PT-109 which was rammed in 1943 by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri off Ghizo Island. The visit also brought to light the identity of islanders Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana who had received little recognition for finding the shipwrecked crew after searching for days in their dugout canoe. A TV special and a book were produced, and Ballard spoke at the John F. Kennedy Library in 2005.
Institute for Exploration
In the 1990s Ballard founded the Institute for Exploration, which specializes in deep-sea archaeology and deep-sea geology. It joined forces in 1999 with the Mystic Aquarium located in Mystic, Connecticut. They are a part of the non-profit Sea Research Foundation, Inc.
Center for Ocean Exploration and Archaeological Oceanography
In 2003, Ballard started the Center for Ocean Exploration and Archaeological Oceanography, a research program at University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography.
In 1976, Willard Bascom suggested that the deep, anoxic waters of the Black Sea might have preserved ships from antiquity because typical wood-devouring organisms could not survive there. At a depth of 150 m, the Black Sea contains insufficient oxygen to support most familiar biological life forms.
Originally a land-locked fresh water lake, the Black Sea was flooded with salt water from the Mediterranean Sea during the Holocene. The influx of salt water essentially smothered the fresh water below it because a lack of internal motion and mixing meant that no fresh oxygen reached the deep waters, creating a meromictic body of water. The anoxic environment, which is hostile to many biological organisms that destroy wood in the oxygenated waters, provides an excellent testing site for deep water archaeological survey.
In a series of expeditions, a team of marine archaeologists led by Ballard identified what appeared to be ancient shorelines, freshwater snail shells, and drowned river valleys in roughly 300 feet (100 m) of water off the Black Sea coast of modern Turkey. Radiocarbon dating of freshwater mollusk remains indicated an age of about 7,000 years.
The team discovered three ancient wrecks to the west of the town of Sinop at depths of 100 m. Wreck A and Wreck C probably date to the late Roman period (2nd–4th century A.D.), while Wreck B probably dates to the Byzantine period (5th to 7th century A.D.).
To the east of Sinop, the team discovered a remarkably well-preserved wreck at a 320 m depth, in Black Sea's deep anoxic waters. The vessel's entire hull and cargo are intact, buried in sediments. Its deck structures are also intact, including a mast rising some 11 m into the water column. Radiocarbon dating of wood from the wreck provides a date of 410–520 A.D. This ship has been named "Sinop D" by the Ballard team.
In 2000, Ballard and his team conducted an expedition that focused on the exploration of the sea bed about 15–30 km west of Sinop, and an additional deep-water survey east and north of the peninsula. Their project had several goals. They sought to discover whether human habitation sites could be identified on the ancient submerged landscape, they examined the sea-bed for shipwrecks (where they found Sinop A-D), to test the hypothesis that the anoxic waters below 200 m would protect shipwrecks from the expected biological attacks on organic components, and to seek data about an ancient trade route between Sinop and the Crimea indicated by terrestrial archaeological remains.
Although Sinop served as a primary trade center in the Black Sea, the wrecks were located west of the trade route predicted by the prevalence of Sinopian ceramics on the Crimean peninsula. On wrecks A-C, mounds of distinctive carrot-shaped shipping jars, called amphorae, were found. They were of a style associated with Sinop and retained much of their original stacking pattern on the sea floor. The jars may have carried a variety of archetypal Black Sea products such as olive oil, honey, wine or fish sauce but the contents are presently unknown because no artifacts were recovered from any of these wreck sites in 2000.
The wreck found provided the team with vast information about both the technological changes and trade that occurred in the Black Sea during a period of political, social and economic transition through their study of the ship’s construction techniques. Studies show that in Sinop during the Byzantine era, they had developed long-distance trading as early as 4500 BC. Sea-trading on the Black Sea was most intense during the period of late antiquity, between the 2nd and 7th centuries AD. The examination of the four shipwrecks found by Ballard and his team provide the direct evidence for Black Sea maritime trade so well attested by the distribution of ceramics on land.
The video images of Shipwreck A that were taken show a wall of shipping jars standing about 2 m above the sea-bed. The amphorae highest on the mound had fallen over without displacing those still standing in the rows beneath them, and it is likely that the ship settled upright on the sea-bed, gradually being both buried in and filled with sediment as exposed wood was devoured by the larva or the shipworm.
Shipwreck B also consisted of a large pile of amphorae but several types are visible, as are multiple timbers protruding from within the mound and on it. In addition to the Sinop-styles jars, several amphorae similar to examples excavated on the Yassiada Byzantine shipwreck and dating from the 5th to late 6th century AD are present.
Two discrete and mostly buried piles of carrot-shaped shipping jars compromise shipwreck C. The team’s visit to the site was short and was intended primarily to test survey methodology for deep-water procedures.
Shipwreck D provided Ballard and his team with an unprecedented opportunity to document hull construction during a time of transition. When observing the sonar signature of Shipwreck D, a long, slender upright feature on the sea-bed, transformed itself into a wooden mast. Elements rarely present on shallower shipwreck sites are beautifully preserved 200 m below the surface. Disappointingly for ship scholars and historians of technology, there are few indications of how the planks of Sinop D are held together. There are nomortise and tenon fastenings, and no sewing. Shipwreck D may be one of the earliest lateen-rigged ships to be studied by archaeologists. The angle of the mast and the lack of fittings on it suggest that a lateen sail is the most likely configuration for such a small vessel.
The Institute for Exploration Black Sea expeditions relied on remote sensing with side-scan sonar in shallow and deep water to identify potential archaeological sites examined byROVs. The hypothesis that the anoxic waters of the Black Sea would allow extraordinary organic preservation is borne out by the discovery of Sinop D, the 1,500 year old shipwreck with excellent preservation of features above the sediment layer.
According to a report in New Scientist magazine (May 4, 2002, p. 13), the researchers found an underwater delta south of the Bosporus. There was evidence for a strong flow of fresh water out of the Black Sea in the 8th millennium BC. Ballard's research has contributed to the debate over the Black Sea deluge theory.
Awards and honors
- In 1988, he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Science) by the University of Bath.
- In 1990, he received the Academy of Achievement's Golden Plate Award.
- Kilby International Awards recipient in 1994
- The Caird Medal of the National Maritime Museum in 2002.
In 2004, Ballard was appointed professor of oceanography, and currently serves as Director of the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography, at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography.
Ballard served as the technical consultant on the science fiction series seaQuest DSV during its first season from September 1993 until May 1994. During the end credits, he would speak about the scientific elements that were present in any given episode and place them in a contemporary context. Although he exited the series in the second season, he was referenced in the third season, with the "Ballard Institute" being named after him.
In 1989, Ballard founded the JASON Project, a distance education program designed to excite and engage middle school students in science and technology. Ballard began the JASON Project in response to the thousands of letters he received from students following his discovery of the wreck of the Titanic.
- "If you want to know the truth, it's too late. All the ice is going to melt. There is a lag, it's already in the system. And, in fact, people don't want to say that, because they still want people to change their ways. But when it comes to glaciers and polar regions, it's going to melt".
- "I'm not so worried about warming, because that is going to happen, and it is happening. I'm worried about disease, I'm more worried about pandemics. I worry more about that than sea level rising.
- "We came around the corner and it was in my view port. There was this wall of steel. Like the slab in 2001, like the walls of Troy at night. It was just big, the end of the universe. It just was there as a statement. We came in and I just looked out of my window -- I had to look up -- because the Titanic shot up a hundred and some feet above me. I'm down at the very keel, and I just went 'My God.' "