I am like the armchair athlete who never played a game in his life: I can't swim a stroke and have an inordinate fear of confined spaces, yet I am absolutely fascinated with deep-sea exploration. I can't say for sure where this comes from, but I think it may be a result of growing up in the '60s, a time when exploring outer and inner space had more cachÅ½ than it does in the superficial times we live in today. Still a few, a precious few, carry that particular torch even now thank God.
Dr. Robert Ballard is one of those few; he's been getting wet for over 30 years, and in the process has uncovered some of the sea's oldest mysteries as well as revealing a few new ones. In his new book, The Eternal Darkness, he goes on a new exploration: the history of his chosen profession. When you consider the extreme dangers of the realm, it's a wonder anyone dares go, even today, with our 21st century technology. But as this book shows us, curiosity will be satisfied, no matter what technology is available. All that is required is a surfeit of courage.
Ballard briefly touches on the story of Alexander the Great, who (in 4th century B.
C.) was lowered into a glass barrel in the Mediterranean. He mentions this at the beginning of his book to draw parallels with the first real explorers of the deep ocean, who rode a tethered steel globe called a bathysphere nearly a half-mile down in the 1930s. But like so many other aspects of life in those days, events in Europe put further explorations on hold until the late 1940s. After the awful conflagration of WWII, the story reads like an underwater space race, which is what it was, but with the USA's primary rival being the French rather than the Russians.
The final two-thirds of The Eternal Darkness deals with Ballard and his contemporaries, and he delves into the discoveries of the last 30 years, a period of break-neck exploration. He covers the innovations of the French, the geological probing of the mid-Atlantic ridge, and the deep-dives of the Americans and Japanese in the south Pacific; Ballard also reflects on his own journeys from the Titanic to shipwrecked submarines and lost Phoenician galleys, from strange new species living at the bottom of the ocean to black smokers replenishing the world's oceans with vast quantities of minerals.
The Eternal Darkness suffers somewhat from an excess of scientific pride in what America has accomplished; a few more details about the explorations of the French, Japanese, and Russians would have been nice. Still, Bob Ballard is up front about this being a history from his personal vantage point, which is, of course, American. Overall, this is a fascinating portrait of where deep sea exploration has been and where it's going.
The deepest James Neal Webb has ever been was through the Chesapeake Bay Tunnel while travelling in Maryland some years ago, and that was deep enough, thank you.
Recent titles by Robert D. Ballard:Return to Midway: The Quest to Find the Yorktown and the Other Lost Ships from the Pivotal Battle of the Pacific War (published 1999)with Rick ArchboldNational Geographic Society, $40ISBN 0792275004 Discovery of the Titanic: Exploring the Greatest of All Lost Ships(published 1998)with Rick Archbold Warner Books, $35ISBN 0446513857Explorations: A Life of Underwater Adventure(published 1998) with Malcolm McConnellHyperion, $14.95ISBN 0786883898