A rare deep-sea cusk eel comes to feed inches from the camera, as a scientist marvels: "I've never seen that guy."
Looking on is Dr. Robert Ballard, the renowned oceanographer and marine archaeologist who is best known for discovering the wrecks of the Titanic, John F. Kennedy's PT-109 motorboat and other famous lost vessels. That's one scene in our exclusive clip of Alien Deep with Bob Ballard, a National Geographic Channel special that explores the secrets of the deep, from submerged volcanoes to mysterious species.
Dr. Ballard's adventures at sea began at age 17, aboard a Navy ship that was hit by a rogue wave. In the intervening five decades, he's collected some great stories. HuffPost Science sat down with him to probe the depths of his mind.
What does he consider his most important discovery? We'll give you a hint: it's not the Titanic.
Ballard says he's most proud of the giant tube worms (Riftia pachyptila) that were first described on a Galapagos expedition he took part in in 1977. The tube worms live around hydrothermal vents on the sea floor called "black smokers," and make their food without any sunlight to help with photosynthesis.
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Ballard has found or helped find several important shipwrecks, but he's not interested in going after all of the estimated 1 million wrecks in the ocean today. This is partly because the job requires a lot less ingenuity than it used to. Now, with various ancient maritime trade routes mapped out, his teams know where to look, and when something interesting is found he can get a live feed from the boat sent to his phone.
But for all the advances in ocean sciences he's been part of, Ballard still thinks there's much more work to be done. He notes that NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Curiosity Rover could fund explorations of U.S. waters for 100 years, and wonders why "we have better maps of Mars" than of U.S. offshore seabeds.
What does he see in his own future? “I want to discover as fast as possible,” Dr. Ballard says. “Because in my lifetime, I will not get the job done. It’ll take generations. So I’m trying to accelerate the rate of discovery. I’m selfish. I want to
see it before I die.”
But he's got some advice for the next generation of explorers: "Discovery," he says, "is easy. If you look somewhere nobody's ever looked, you're bound to find something."
Alien Deep with Bob Ballard airs Sunday, September 16, from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET/PT and Monday, September 17, from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. ET/PT, on the National Geographic Channel.