Robert Duane Ballard

Class of 2024

  • Founder and President Ocean Exploration Trust
  • Professor of Oceanography Graduate School of Oceanography/University of Rhode Island
  • Research Scholar The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

See failure as the greatest teacher you will ever meet.

Bob Ballard, the middle of three children, was born in 1942 in Wichita, Kansas. “It was six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” Ballard says. “My father was working as an aviation engineer. He had been valedictorian of his high school class and started at the University of Washington, but he ran out of money and was forced to leave before completing his degree. Growing up, my father always seemed to be working, and I didn’t see a lot of him. It was my mother who was the backbone of our family. She was very loving and always had my back.”

A new job for Ballard’s father took the family to the Mojave Desert in California, where he tested new aircrafts with Chuck Yeager. This worked out well for a boy who fell in love with desert exploration. “I was an active child,” Ballard says. “We didn’t understand then that I was actually dyslexic and hyperactive. My older brother is the smartest person I have ever known. He blazed through life like there were no obstacles, but it wasn’t like that for me. I ran into every wall you could imagine. But exploring the desert that surrounded our home was a treasure trove to me. Those were my first hours of being an explorer.”

Ballard’s sister, Nancy, was born with a chromosomal abnormality. This affected her in many ways, including an underdeveloped lower jaw. “She was unable to talk,” says Ballard, “but I figured out ways to communicate with her. She had an amazing spirit and never stopped smiling. She inspired me my whole life. The challenges I had with dyslexia seemed small in comparison to what she dealt with on a daily basis. Nancy put things into perspective for me. My mother took care of her until she was 98 years old.”

In 1948, the Ballard’s moved once again, this time to San Diego, where they lived in a duplex within walking distance of a fishing pier and beach. “For me, that’s where my life began,” says Ballard. “I would go down at low tide and spend hours exploring the tidal pools. In those days, my challenge was learning how to control my energy. I was often disruptive in school because it was hard for me to sit still. But those tidal pools focused my energy and fed my natural curiosity.”

By the time Ballard was 10, his father put him on a budget. The elder Ballard asked his son to make a list of his needs and his wants, telling him he would pay for the needs but Bob had to raise money for his wants. “I always had a job after school,” Ballard says. “I worked in a laundromat, had a paper route, mowed lawns—all the regular childhood jobs.”

A defining moment for Ballard came when, at age 12, he went to the movie theater to see 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. “I watched the actors walking on the bottom of the ocean, and it was the first time I really thought about what is under the horizon. It excited me and when I learned there was a career in oceanography, I knew that’s what I wanted to pursue.”

Ballard attended the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he majored in geology and chemistry. He played basketball and volleyball, was his junior class president, joined a fraternity, and was in Army ROTC. “I spread myself too thin,” he says, “but college was like a smorgasbord for me and I just wanted to eat every experience I could.”

In 1967, Ballard was working toward a Ph.D. in marine geology at the University of Southern California when he was called to active duty. Upon his request, he was transferred from the Army into the U.S. Navy as an oceanographer. He served for three years as a liaison between the Office of Naval Research and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. In 1974, he completed his Ph.D. in marine geology and geophysics at the University of Rhode Island.

Ballard’s first dive in a submersible was in 1969 off the coast of Florida for a Woods Hole-sponsored expedition. In 1970, he began a field mapping project of the Gulf of Maine for his doctoral dissertation. In 1974, he was a geologist diver in the submersible Alvin during Project FAMOUS, which explored the median rift valley of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

In 1977, during the Galapagos Hydrothermal Expedition, funded by the National Science Foundation, Ballard’s team explored the seafloor using the deep-towed camera system ANGUS. Their photos captured the sudden appearance of a dense accumulation of live white clams. Within hours, the clams led scientists to find hydrothermal vents for the first time. This discovery of hydrothermal vents was a groundbreaking moment in the history of oceanography and has since led to many more discoveries about the unique ecosystems that thrive in extreme environments.

In 1985, Ballard began his search for shipwrecks. He and a group of scientists, engineers, and technicians aboard the research vessel Knorr discovered the final resting place of RMS Titanic. The team used Argo, a then- new towed system of television cameras and sonars named by Ballard, the expedition’s leader. In 1986, he led a team back to the site with the human- occupied submersible Alvin.

The Titanic discovery was followed by the team locating the final resting place of the German battleship Bismarck. Other discoveries include John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 and the USS Yorktown, both of which were lost during World War II.

In 2010, Ballard created the Center for Ocean Exploration at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, which in 2019 was selected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to become its Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute (CECI). The Institute will spend the next 10 years exploring the 52 percent of America that lies beneath the sea, making it—in essence—the second Lewis and Clark Expedition in American history.

Ballard has published 26 books, has won two Emmys, and was nominated for four others based on his 35 television specials.

Growing up, Ballard always felt he didn’t measure up to his brilliant older brother. However, in 2015, at the age of 72, he finally came to understand himself fully for the first time in his life. In his memoir, Into the Deep, he writes, “I was listening to the radio about a book called The Dyslexic Advantage. The symptoms sounded familiar to me. That night I started reading the book and I couldn’t put it down. Tears were streaming down my face because here was a book that was describing me to me. It wasn’t that I had a defective brain, it was that I was wired differently and that I should think of dyslexia as a gift.”

Since then, Ballard has learned his different way of thinking is largely what has given him his successful career. He explains, “I have the ability to see patterns and use those insights to reconstruct the past or predict the future. That is my strong card.”

When Ballard was considering graduate school, his dream was to go to the Scripps Institute. Unfortunately, he was not accepted. “One thing my dyslexia has taught me,” he says, “is that you have to figure out ways to go around your failures. I discovered that my failures have been my greatest teaching moments. With dyslexia, I was rarely able to go through the front door to achieve my dreams, so I always found a side door.”

When talking with young audiences, Ballard advises them to follow their passion. “If you’re not running to get to work, then get another job,” he says. “My other advice is to see failure—and you will have failures—as the greatest teacher you’ll ever meet. Learn from your failures and move on.”

One of the most difficult times in Ballard’s life came in 1989, when his 21-year-old son was killed in a car accident. “Todd had just accompanied me on the search for and discovery of the Bismarck,” Ballard says. “I had a hard time accepting his loss, and I harbored a lot of anger. I needed help, and that’s when I discovered Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero’s Journey. Campbell’s concept is that life is a journey, an act of becoming, and that you never really arrive at your destination. His philosophy changed the way I see the world, and it has been very helpful.”

In the epilogue of his memoir, Ballard writes, “What have I learned through both my explorations at sea and my efforts to understand my own special gifts? My daughter, Emily, came home from college not long ago, and she brought with her a sign with a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien: ‘Not all those who wander are lost.’ Those words of wisdom capture the essence of what explorers do and the spirit that continues to drive my life today. It’s a message of hope, confidence, and optimism—a message I want to share with people, young or old, with or without dyslexia, as they continue on their own journeys of discovery.”