Future explorers learn from Titanic discoverer

Deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard turned to his eager audience. Pointing to an image on a big screen at the Tulalip Boys &Girls Club, he asked: “What’s that?”

Kids shouted out the obvious answer: “Earth.”

“Funny,” Ballard told the crowd, “most of it is water.”

He has been a Naval Reserve commander and a University of Rhode Island oceanography professor. He spent 30 years at the nonprofit Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Of all his discoveries, he is best known for finding the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic.

In 1985, using an unmanned camera-equipped submersible called Argo, Ballard searched a debris field more than 12,000 feet down in the north Atlantic, and found the luxury liner. The Titanic sank April 15, 1912. Ballard said he wanted to find the shipwreck “to show how cool robots are.”

Ballard discovered hydrothermal vents and exotic life forms, located the wreck of the German battleship Bismarck, and is about to explore the Juan de Fuca undersea mountain range in the Pacific off the coast of Washington.

He has seen places few will ever go. Now, thanks to renovations and new technology at the Tulalip Boys &Girls Club and curriculum related to Ballard’s explorations, kids here will experience underwater exploration.

Ballard’s visit to the Tulalip club Wednesday evening follows the completion late last year of the club’s new computer lab, music room and a space for Ballard’s Immersion Learning program. The immersion lab will link the Tulalip club with exploration ships, including one based at the University of Washington.

It’s part of the JASON Project, a nonprofit founded by Ballard in 1989. The educational effort is managed by the Sea Research Foundation with involvement from the National Geographic Society. The curriculum was developed partly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The goal is to help children with STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — through engaging curricula at after-school centers. In short, making science fun.

Bill Tsoukalas, executive director of Boys &Girls Clubs of Snohomish County, said that children from all the group’s area clubs were invited to Ballard’s talk. “Kids today are going to be the future explorers,” he said.

One fan of Ballard’s, who waited patiently for an autograph, was 6-year-old Evan Wold, a first-grader at Mukilteo’s Endeavour Elementary School. “He loves the Titanic,” said Evan’s mother Beverly Wold. Erik and Beverly Wold said their son often studies his Titanic books, and hopes to become a ship captain. Ballard’s exploration vessel is called the EV Nautilus.

Tsoukalas said the Tulalip club’s renovations and new technology cost about $500,000. The work was done with support from the Tulalip Tribes, and with proceeds from the club’s fund-raising events.

Robbie Callaway, former head of government relations for Boys &Girls Clubs of America, was also at Wednesday’s event. He said the Tulalip club is the seventh tribal club in the country and the first at a reservation in Washington to have the labs. Ballard’s program was first brought to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the 1990s, he said.

Ballard, 70, is to science what Cal Ripken Jr. is to baseball and Michael Jordan is to basketball, Callaway said. Those sports superstars have long been associated with Boys &Girls Clubs.

“Tonight is a special night,” said the Tulalip Tribes’ Don Hatch Jr. as he introduced Ballard. As an honor, he wrapped a Pendleton blanket around Ballard’s shoulders. Hatch, who recently retired from the Tulalip Tribes Board of Directors, also presented Ballard with a mask made by Tulalip wood carver Kelly Moses.

Ballard wowed his audience with facts and with photos of what lies beneath the ocean’s surface. The average ocean depth is 12,000 feet, and the deepest is seven miles. There are “wicked-awesome” worms down there, he said, and giant clams with bacteria living inside them. He shared a chilling detail about the Titanic site. All that remain of victims on the sea floor are shoes. The bones, he said, dissolved long ago. “I saw the shoes as tombstones,” Ballard said.

To find the Titanic, he said, “I did my homework. You always have to do your homework.”

The scientist told his young audience to never give up.

“You’ll get knocked down, but you must follow your dream,” Ballard said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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