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This explorer must go down to the sea again

‘I’m not done yet,’ says famed oceanographer Robert Ballard

Oceanographer Robert Ballard in his office.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

NEW LONDON, Conn. – He’s become one of the great adventurers of his generation, the man who found the underwater resting places of John F. Kennedy’s PT-109, the aircraft carrier Yorktown, and — most spectacularly — the watery grave of the doomed luxury liner Titanic.

But famed oceanographer Robert Ballard has harbored a stunning secret across his half-century career as a renowned, far-flung marine explorer.

Until now, it had been an undisclosed impediment that makes his achievements in unlocking the mysteries of the world’s oceans all the more remarkable.

Bob Ballard, who has led more than 150 ocean expeditions around the globe, has dyslexia, a complex learning disability that — even among highly intelligent people — makes reading difficult.


“What I did was I learned how to memorize. I would actually visualize the word in my mind,’' he told me as we sat in his high-tech, whiz-bang office the other day.

“I discovered that I have a conscious and an unconscious. We all have that. I discovered that the subconscious is the smarter of the two and it never sleeps. And so, what I would do is when I was going to bed at night, I would sit here and I would read this over and over and over. I’d go into a test, close my eyes, and find the answer.

“I’d literally read the notes in my mind.’'

What a remarkable discovery.

It’s one he’s sharing with the world now with the publication of a memoir, “Into the Deep,’’ that charts his career as a derring-do scientist who, with his research team, will spend the next five years exploring the underwater world in the central and western Pacific Ocean.

Robert Ballard, 79, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, may be slowing down. But he’s not done yet.


And if you think his curiosity or his intellectual drive have diminished or dulled over the decades, step in his studio, a place he calls “The Looking Glass,’' a darkened room with black drapes on the wall and a bank of flat-screen televisions that flash scenes of his watery world and serves as his command center.

“You come in here and you feel like you’re in a place that’s in New London, and you go through that door, and it’s a very different world,’' he said, gesturing to the electronic images in front of him.

A very different world. It’s the place that Ballard has made his home all of his adult life. He had quite the spellbinding journey to get there.

“I was born in Kansas,’' he told me. Then he paused for effect before adding: “Where all oceanographers come from.’'

He excelled in school. But it was not easy. The way his mind worked forced him to master the skill of memorizing his work.

“I have a photographic memory,’' he said. “Absolutely. It doesn’t go away.’'

Oceanographer Robert Ballard. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

And for a dyslexic, it was his educational life raft, a coping skill that paved the way for his entry into the University of California.

“I got a scholarship when I was 17 years old to go to sea for my first oceanographic expedition in 1959,’' he said. “So that was a long time ago. I fell in love with oceanography. The seminal moment for me was seeing ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.’ ”


That 1954 film based on the Jules Verne’s classic science fiction adventure novel, he said, changed the trajectory of his life.

“They were walking on the bottom of the ocean,’' Ballard told me. “And I had seen the ocean in San Diego. It was flat, featureless, and — all of a sudden — they’re walking under the ocean. And that did it. The ocean has a bottom. And it has mountains and terrain.

“So, my parents said, ‘Son, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ And I told them, ‘I want to be Captain Nemo.’ ’'

So, remarkably, that’s what he did.

He became the man who President Reagan gave his personal approval to use Navy equipment to search for the Titanic. The man who, even today, is still itching to get back to the sea.

With the help of federal funding, Ballard and his team plan to spend the next five years exploring the vast ocean floors in the central and western Pacific Ocean.

“I’m not done yet,’' Ballard said of his latest adventure that begins in a few days.

And if you sit with him at his office, it’s clear that he means it.

“We won a $200 million grant from the federal government in 2019,’' he said. “The blue [ocean] economy. The new economy of our country will be the blue economy. Those are my orders. I take my orders seriously.’'

So he’s going back to the sea. His excitement is unmistakable. And palpable.


And he can’t help but think of those images conjured by Jules Verne, images that captured his imagination when he was just a boy.

“That movie came out in 1954,’' he said. “I was born in ’42. I’m 79 now. It was 57 years ago. I told my parents, I said, ‘I want to be Captain Nemo.’ They didn’t laugh. They may have gone into the other room and said, ‘Houston, we have a problem.’

“But they didn’t laugh. They said, ‘Well, tell me more about Captain Nemo’s submarine.’ I’m living in San Diego. They said, ‘Let’s head down to the submarine base; we can go aboard a submarine.’ I said, ‘They let people go aboard?’

“I went aboard a diesel submarine from World War II, and I went on to become a naval officer and spent the rest of my life in submarines.’'

At one point, as he scanned his laptop filled with images from the deep, he broke into an old Beatles song.

I’d like to be under the sea in an octopus’ garden in the shade.

We would shout and swim about the coral that lies beneath the waves.

And then Bob Ballard glanced up at the watery images that danced on the walls of his darkened studio, paused, and broke into a wide grin.

It was the satisfied smile of a man who got to live — and is still living — his dream.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.