Underwater explorer Dr. Robert Ballard became a celebrity for finding the Titanic in mid 1980’s. But that ship is just one of his many underwater discoveries. He and his team of researchers travel from one far flung location to another, exploring and searching for lost shipwrecks, ancient coastlines, and unknown deep sea trenches. However, recently his team was at work in Lake Huron. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports:
Underwater explorer Dr. Robert Ballard became a celebrity for
finding the Titanic in mid 1980’s. But that ship is just one of his
many underwater discoveries. He and his team of
researchers travel from one far flung location to another,
exploring and searching for lost shipwrecks, ancient
coastlines, and unknown deep sea trenches. However,
recently his team was at work in Lake Huron. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports:
On this fall day, the water’s calm, the sky blue, and the air warm. But Lake Huron isn’t always
this way. The Great Lakes’ legendary storms have left the bottom of Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay
littered with shipwrecks.
(Ship’s horn blast)
(engine noise, water drips and waves throughout piece)
Dr. Bob Ballard and his team from the Institute for Exploration have a research vessel hovering
above one of the shipwrecks in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary near Alpena,
“I’ve become convinced and what brings me here to Thunder Bay is that the deep sea is probably
the largest museum in the world. There is more history in the deep sea than in all the museums of
the world combined.”
Ballard says the Great Lakes are home to thousands of shipwrecks that trace the evolution of
maritime trade in America, from Native American canoes to modern barges.
“What is really nice about the Great Lakes is because it is fresh water we don’t have wood borers
like we have in salt water. The ships I’ve found, the Titanic, for example, its deck was eaten and
the grand staircase was eaten but here in Great Lakes, because it’s fresh water, you have the best
preserved ships on the planet.”
This is the second year that Ballard and his team have come to the Thunder Bay National Marine
Sanctuary. The sanctuary was created two years ago to preserve the bay’s shipwrecks. According
to historical records, an estimated 116 ships sank here, but only about 40 have been found. And
that’s why Dr. Ballard and his team are here, searching for undiscovered shipwrecks and taking an
up-close look at the ones we already know about.
(ambient sound of man yelling, “Watch the A-Frame.”)
They’re exploring the sanctuary, using underwater robots that are equipped with high definition
video cameras and sonar systems. Dwight Coleman is the Chief Scientist on the expedition.
Earlier in the day they sent two of these robots, Argus and Little Hercules, down into the water
below the research boat.
“So all the data that’s coming up from the vehicles while it’s working on the shipwreck, all the
video data and other information, such as the altitude and the heading and the depth, is all coming
in through these cables and into this control room, and from here we can sit and operate the
At the moment, Little Hercules’ cameras are focused on a wreck called the E.B. Allen. It’s a
schooner that hauled grain. It sank to the bottom of Thunder Bay after a collision with a ship
called “Newsboy” in 1871. Patrick Labadie is a Maritime Historian who is on board taking a look
at the images of the E.B. Allen.
“It’s a really good glimpse of the accident that took the ship down. The masts are down, the
rigging is all confused and laying on the deck. There is a neat circular hole in the side of the ship
where the other vessel struck it. You can see the evidence of a whole sequence of events:
a collision, the ship’s rigging coming down, sinking, striking the bottom and damaging its bow as
it struck. It’s really fascinating.”
In addition to gathering information, pictures, and video from known wrecks like the E.B. Allen,
Ballard’s team is making some new discoveries here. And Dwight Coleman says they’ve found
two new wrecks in Thunder Bay, including a three-masted schooner from the 1800’s.
“I think the best thing for me is really the exploration, is finding the unknown, and to look into
places that have never been looked at before. And we did that yesterday with this new schooner
It’s this excitement of discovery that inspired Dr. Bob Ballard to become an underwater explorer.
Now he’s hoping to give the general public a little taste of what he does and let them explore
underwater sanctuaries without getting cold or wet.
“Well, Thunder Bay is one of 13 marine sanctuaries and if you look around right now, we are the
only people out here. Isn’t that odd? If you go to Yellowstone you’d see thousands of people. So
what we want to do is bring thousands of people here but most people won’t be sophisticated
divers, and go down 100, 200, 300 feet. So a very, very small club of people can actually reach the
shipwrecks, the cultural resources here. And what we’re trying to do is to change that, and we’ve
been in here for two years, surveying the sanctuary, finding all of the ships that are here and then
trying to pick one or two of them and wire them up.”
The idea is to allow people in the sanctuary’s visitor center to go on their own remote controlled
underwater exploration using a system of underwater cameras and robots like Little Hercules. But
even before such a system is in place, the videos and pictures they’re taking will open up the
sanctuary for the general public. For the first time, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
visitor’s center will have high quality pictures and videos to show people what the wrecks in
Thunder Bay actually look like.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tamar Charney.