ST. PETERSBURG — There's a touch of the daring 18th century explorer about Bob Ballard.
The man who discovered the wrecks of the RMS Titanic and the battleship Bismarck, Ballard six years ago tired of the red-tape needed to get grants to fund oceanographic research. He wanted to go back to pure exploration, expeditions to places never seen by man just to see what he can find.
“It was go there because we haven't been there,” Ballard said.
He founded the Ocean Exploration Trust to raise money for his venture and got a major boost when Florida Panthers hockey team owner Vincent Viola donated the 211-foot Nautilus, a $3 million German-built research ship.
St. Petersburg will be home to the state-of-the art vessel for the next three months while the ship goes through a $1.5 million overhaul of its complex data and communications systems. If all goes to plan, the ship and its 47-man crew will depart the city for the Pacific Ocean in April or May to begin sea-floor mapping of submerged United States territories.
“We have better maps of Mars than we have of half of the United States,” Ballard said.
In an age of GPS, satellites and Google Earth, unexplored Earth largely lies beneath the waves at depths where the crushing weight of water can buckle the thickest hull or submersible.
Equipping the Nautilus to explore those depths has cost an estimated $8 million, Ballard said.
The ship is fitted with a baffling array of equipment and sensors including echo-sounders, side-scan sonar and a $3 million sea-floor mapping system that can produce a contour map of a four-mile swath of seabed even when the Nautilus is at its maximum 12-knot speed.
A 20-megabyte data communications satellite link, which costs a jaw-dropping $120,000 a month, enables the crew to provide high-resolution images of discoveries to a brain trust of biologists, geologists, archeologists and other scientists who agreed to be on call for any discovery.
Pride of place on the rear deck goes to two remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, named Hercules and Argus that are lowered by winch into the sea. Fitted with lights, high-resolution cameras, mechanical arms and equipment to take soil and water samples, Argus can descend to depths of 19,600 feet, enough to reach the seabed in 98 percent of the Earth's oceans.
The ROVs are operated from a control room that resembles a TV studio, becoming Ballard's link to the ocean's murky depths.
“It carries not only my spirit, but the spirit of everyone who can plumb into it,” Ballard said.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Jacqueline Dixon, dean of University of South Florida's College of Marine Science, were among those who toured the Nautilus on Friday.
Dixon said Ballard has been successful at inspiring students. A regular contributor to National Geographic, Ballard's expeditions offer internships. He and scientists on the ship hook up with classrooms around the world via Skype and the Internet.
“All of us are trying to bring our work on the oceans into the classroom,” Dixon said. “Ballard has been at the forefront of using technology to share that knowledge.”
Ballard's next goal is to chart and explore American territorial waters. He estimates that, including U.S. islands in the Pacific, an area equal to half of the continental United States lies under water.
Now 71, the man who grew up wanting to be Captain Nemo is aware it may be his last quest.
“We're going to explore our own country and find out what we own,” Ballard said. “It will take longer than I have, but I'm going to start.”