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Explorer shares his passion for the deep

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(CNN) -- Explorer Robert Ballard has spent most of his adult life exploring the ocean floor and combing the deep-sea for lost shipwrecks.

He's best known for finding the doomed ocean liner Titanic in 1985 and discovering the hydrothermal vents along the mid-Atlantic ridge in 1977.

He's currently president of the Institute for Exploration at Connecticut's Mystic Aquarium where he is working to turn the ocean floor into a archaeological museum of human history.

CNN.com Technology Producer Peggy Mihelich talked with Ballard about how technology is revolutionizing the way he explorers the deep and what new discoveries it may help uncover.

MIHELICH: How has deep-sea exploration changed over the course of your career?

BALLARD: It's changed dramatically. In 1959 I was 17 years old and I went on my first oceanographic expedition.

We had a bucket strapped on the side of the ship and you stood in the bucket and the waves crashed over your head and they lowered a wire and you put instruments on it. You then lowered everything to the bottom -- minus the person.

It was so archaic, but that was the way it was done. Everything was done from the surface of the ship with wires.

Then in the '60s I worked on ALVIN, the first manned submersible for the oceanographic community. ALVIN was just a primitive diving vehicle with very little technology. It would take us two and a half hours to get down to the bottom and another two and a half hours to come back up. We had a five hour commute to work. We'd cover one mile of a 40,000 mile mountain range. It was crazy.

So we developed towed vehicles -- our first one being a vehicle called ANGUS, which stands for Acoustically Navigated Geological Underwater Survey.

ANGUS had a camera system on it that you would turn timers on and after so many minutes it would start taking pictures underwater. We would tow it around banging it all over the bottom. We had a logo that said "takes a lickin' but keeps on clicken'."

Despite its crudeness it was ANGUS not ALVIN that found the first underwater hydrothermal vents (in 1977) and the black smokers two years later in 1979 because it could cover a lot of territory. It could stay down for hours and hours and take thousands of pictures.

MIHELICH: How has technology aided your efforts?

BALLARD: I went to Stanford University on a sabbatical in 1979. And I was over in an engineering lab and I saw something very interesting -- fiber optics. At the time we were using copper cables to run a video signal down to the bottom of the ocean and it wasn't very good; a slow scanning black and white image every few seconds -- far inferior. It had a bandwidth of 5 Megahertz.

The engineers said the future is not moving electrons through copper but moving photons through the most common element on the Earth -- beach sand. With fiber optics, bandwidth went from 5 Megahertz to 600 Megahertz.

This led me to another idea, "tele-presence." The idea was to replace physically going down (in a manned submersible) with robots. I set about creating a remotely operated vehicle system which I called Argo-Jason.

Argo-Jason would have everything that my submarine has but without my physical body; creating tele-presence at the bottom of the ocean, transporting myself down there like in "Star Trek." I created a vehicle that doesn't have to resurface. It could stay down 24 hours a day, work around the clock, work for weeks on end, never come up -- allowing me to explore more.

I used Argo-Jason to find and explore Titanic, the Bismarck -- for a lot of expeditions in the '80s and '90s. But I didn't broadcast to the beach, only to the ship on the surface. In 1989 I did my first live broadcast from the bottom of ocean to the beach.

Argo-Jason has now been replaced with Hercules, a second generation of underwater remotely operated vehicles.

MIHELICH: What project are you currently working on?

BALLARD: I'm serving for three years on the president's commission for ocean policy. I went to Congress and convinced them to give us a ship from the Navy, the USNS Capable. It's now been renamed, in a contest by a bunch of kids, the Okeanos Explorer, which is Greek for Ocean Explorer.

That ship at this very moment is in dry dock in Seattle being outfitted with $20 million with the most advanced exploratory technology that our country has. Next year it will come online and its mission is to go where no one has gone before on planet Earth.

MIHELICH: What will it do exactly?

BALLARD: Imagine this ship is now out in the Southern Hemisphere, in the parts where we haven't explored. Imagine the ship out at sea with the robots down at the bottom and a new discovery occurs. That ship is connected in real time to a building at the University of Rhode Island called the Interspace Center.

Inside is a huge telecommunication center similar to NASA's mission control in Houston. What they are seeing in the ship -- all the TV monitors, cameras, there's an exact clone of it is in the Interspace Center in Rhode Island -- with crews in both locations.

When a discovery is made, someone on the ship and the Interspace Center will be able to see it at the same time and can call up a directory of experts from anywhere in the world and have them get to a command center ASAP to check out the discovery. We'll have multiple command centers at different locations around the world.

What a gigantic change in my lifetime from lowering things on cables to having a command center next door to my office. I don't even have to go to sea! That is where we are at.

MIHELICH: What drew you to deep-sea exploration?

BALLARD: Captain Nemo in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." I fell in love with the mountain ranges and canyons in the movie. When I look at the ocean I don't see water I see mountain ranges and canyons.

MIHELICH: Have you seen the effects of climate change in your work?

BALLARD: I don't see it at all. I'm down deep. It's very insulated. We are so stable down there. It's totally dark, pitch black, high pressure, cold temperature. That part of the planet, which is most of it, won't know anything about global warming. It has seen it come and go. The deep sea is unaffected.

MIHELICH: What remaining deep-sea mysteries do you want to solve?

BALLARD: I have no idea. When you make a true discovery, like the hydrothermal vents, we didn't know they were there, we tripped over them. What ocean exploration does and will do is trip over stuff. I can tell you that statistically there has to be stuff there because we've only looked at a small percentage of the ocean floor, and look what we've discovered. There's got to be countless more discoveries to be made.

MIHELICH: You found Titanic, the Bismarck, the Scorpion, JFK's PT109 to name just a few. What has been your favorite discovery?

BALLARD: They all touch different parts of you. I've done 120 expeditions and lots of them were just as cool as can be. Clearly Titanic was cool and clearly hydrothermal vents was cool but so were a lot of other ones.

MIHELICH: Was finding Titanic a mixed blessing?

BALLARD: It had it's minuses, but mostly pluses. There is nothing that is perfectly wonderful. There were tough times associated with the Titanic. But I'm alright about it.

I remember when I found the Titanic my mother called and said "too bad" and I said "what?" She said "you know you're a great scientist, you've done great things, but now they'll only remember you for finding the Titanic."

Titanic was not the most important thing I ever did, but that is what it will say on my epitaph.

MIHELICH: But at least you've left a mark.

BALLARD: Yes, and I'm OK with it. But I think my best stuff is still ahead of me. And that's the way I look at it.

MIHELICH: Are there any ships out there that you still want to find?

BALLARD: Shackleton's Endurance would be cool. And Amelia Earhart's plane. There's a lot actually, but I'm more interested in the ships that I don't know are out there that are important -- like the ancient shipwrecks that will rewrite history.

MIHELICH: Any advice for young explorers wishing to follow in your footsteps?

BALLARD: Follow your passion. Chase your passion whatever it is. If you don't do what you love you'll never get where you want to be.


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Robert Ballard wanted to explore the ocean bottom after watching "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

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