Ballard & the Black Sea

The man who found the Titanic searches for signs of Noah’s flood


About this story: Early in my career in the late summer and fall of 2000, I spent a month on the Black Sea as a field producer for, chronicling via live Web dispatches and photographs an expedition led by oceanographer Robert Ballard and a team of archaeologists as they combed the Black Sea for signs of ancient settlements and shipwrecks. Excerpts follow.

Dispatch 1: Expedition Prologue

It is an old story

But one that still can be told


ISTANBUL—At daybreak Muslim calls to prayer rouse me from sleep. I open my hotel window and gaze out at the waters that swirl at the feet of this ancient city. From my vantage point, the Bosporus Strait appears as a thin ribbon of water. It is a faint but transfixing sight.

Recent evidence suggests that some 7,000 years ago a natural earthen dam spanning the Bosporus was breached, eroded by rising sea levels of the Mediterranean that followed the last ice age. Some experts suggest water thundered into the Black Sea basin with an estimated force 20 times greater than Niagara Falls, flooding land and a freshwater lake.

Was that violent geologic event the source of the Biblical flood story and even older epic histories? I decide it is too heady a thought to contemplate at such an early hour.

Months of planning and anticipation have finally winnowed to days. Tomorrow the expedition, led by oceanographer and underwater explorer Dr. Robert Ballard, will begin.

His mission? To search for evidence of Paleolithic settlements along once-dry lands in the Black Sea basin that preceded its inundation. A second goal is to comb early Black Sea trade routes for ancient shipwrecks. If found, they may be among the best-preserved wooden ships ever discovered.

Ballard is confident there are ships to find. But the quest for “Noah’s house” is more uncertain. One challenge is the scale and nature of what early Paleolithic peoples may have left behind. “What is it that you can find submerged after 7,000 years?” Ballard asks.

But the greater hurdle may lie less with the ravages of the past 7,000 years than with the past 70. Modern-day fishing trawlers, dragging the sea floor with bottom-scraping nets, may have erased what scant evidence remained. “How efficient have they been at removing any evidence?” Ballard wonders.

The expedition team will soon have their answer.

Dispatch 3: The Search Begins

Like shells one finds among shore rocks,
Only the slightest evidence

Of life survive.

“We’re picking up lineations again,” Bob Ballard calls out, watching a grayscale sonar image of the sea floor scroll down a monitor screen.

Sitting at Ballard’s side is Gary Austin, a gentle bear of a fellow who grips a joystick with a big paw to adjust the DSL-120’s running depth.

Ten minutes later Ballard calls out again. “Oooh. Upper right. Upper right. There’s a bell-ringer.” Candace Major, the watch data-logger, notes the target’s vital stats.

A watch team of six fills the control room, manning navigation, sonar displays, winch controls, and data-logging stations. The air is stuffy—overly warm from the banks of video monitors, electronic equipment, and human bodies crammed into the small space. But the mood is relaxed, punctuated by steady banter and the rolling deck of the Northern Horizon as it rides the easy swells of the Black Sea.

It’s 2 p.m., two hours since the team began their first sonar run in the prime search area.

Earlier this morning, the crew lowered and adjusted the DSL-120, the bottom-scanning sonar “fish.” It now skims 50 to 60 meters above the sea floor, dragged by the Northern Horizon via an armored cable wired with fiber optics and electrical power. The Horizon is following the first of five 30-mile track lines that run in parallel, east to west across a search area 10 to 15 miles off the coast. Creeping along at a steady 2.5 knots, the team’s sonar fish is scanning about one square mile per hour. It will take 13 hours more to complete the initial track. The Horizon will pace back and forth along these track lines, “mowing the lawn,” until the bottom scan is completed—or something piques the team’s interest.

Ballard calls out again, this time to Craig Elder, a sonar specialist who’s manning the bottom scan sonar computer display. “See that little grape pile above the last one? That’s interesting. Can you blow that up?”

Later, I ask Candace Major, the watch data-logger and a geologist from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the significance of the “linear” target spotted earlier. “Lines generally don’t occur in nature,” she tells me. Barring obvious trawl marks or sand dune crests from the pre-flood landscape, “linear features suggest walls,” she says.

Back in the control room, Ballard offers a synopsis of the two-hour-old effort: “We’ve seen a number of interesting targets. Two appear to be amphorae-carrying ships. They looked like grape clusters. So we’re just settling in.”

With mischievous glee, he adds, “More to come.”

Dispatch 5: Pulling the Ears, Dropping the Eyes

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life…
were all the fountains of the great deep broken up

—Genesis 7:4

Enough targets have been identified. It’s time to take a look. Last evening, Ballard gave the order to pull bottom-scanning sonar “fish” and drop Argus—the eyes of the expedition.

By 10:00 p.m. the DSL-120 is on deck. At 1:50 a.m. Argus—the camera-equipped remotely operated imaging vehicle (ROV)—is launched.

Despite the hour there’s a palpable buzz in the air: finally a chance to peer into the depths of the Black Sea. It seems as if the entire expedition team is crammed into the mission control room. Three large video monitors display a live feed from Argus’s video cameras.

Zooplankton, illuminated by the ROV’s lights, drifts like snow across the green-hued monitor display of the sea as Argus sinks slowly toward the sea-floor. What will be revealed?

“O.K. We’re heading right toward the target. Altitude 40 meters,” says ROV engineer Craig Elder.

The team zeroes in on its first target, a nebulous feature barely discernible on the sea-floor. Institute for Exploration oceanographer Dwight Coleman would later describe the target this way: “It was interesting, but we weren’t quite sure what to make of it.”

The team documents the site with a mosaic of digital images, then moves on to eyeball the next target. The process repeats itself again at a third target.

Sometime around 5:00 a.m. the sonar fails on Argus. It’s a significant set-back. Without Argus’s 100-meter distance vision, the team is reduced to visually searching for targets through the ROV’s video cameras. ROV engineer Dave Wright later likens it to groping around in the dark with an outstretched arm. But for now, that’s all the expedition team can do.

Eventually the order to yank Argus is given. By 8:30 a.m. the ROV sits on the fantail of the Northern Horizon. Despite the equipment failure, the consensus among the crew is that Argus—fresh off the shelf and relatively untested—has performed admirably to date.

Down in the lower-deck mess hall Ballard strides in for breakfast after the long night’s work, booming good-naturedly, “No sonar? No sonar? That sucks.”

I ask Jim Newman, the developer and builder of Argus, what happened to the ROV’s sonar unit. “It leaked,” he said. “Pretty fundamental problem.”

At present, the team works to restore its vision.

Dispatch 7: New Targets

Yesterday’s problem has led to today’s promise. Two days ago, the sonar unit on Argus, the expedition team’s remotely operated imaging vehicle flooded. The team has since gamely tried to visually inspect targets. But they’ve been harder to find with the near-sighted ROV.

So Ballard changes tact. Yesterday, he ordered the team to re-deploy the DSL-120, the side-scan sonar “fish.”

Why? While reviewing sonar sea-floor map data gathered during the team’s initial survey, Ballard glimpsed another ancient river channel.

It lies at the far eastern edge of the expedition’s permitted survey area. Ballard hopes to map this ancient feature. Perhaps signs of ancient settlement will be found there.

At 3:55 a.m. this morning the sonar display in the control room begins to light up with targets. Data-logger Sam McMurtry later tells me that over the next hour and a half a constellation of 30-odd targets over a 22-kilometer survey area are identified. Could this be a large-scale settlement?

What intrigues Ballard most is the targets’ location relative to the ancient landscape’s topography. The targets sit on the rim of a bowl overlooking an ancient river valley.

Land-based archaeological work by the expedition’s chief archaeologist, Fredrick Hiebert from the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, has shown such a topographic feature to be prime real estate for late Neolithic peoples.

It’s now 10:20 a.m.—normally a decent hour of the day, but given the non-stop pace of the expedition, it could just as easily be three o’clock in the morning. Ballard is in a belowdecks computer room. His restless energy momentarily tamed, he sits with his large frame folded in a plastic chair, a can of Coke propped on a knee.

“Well it could be trash—but goddarn, it’s very systematic trash,” Ballard says. “Trash is random. This isn’t. This has a complete topographic logic. That’s how we found them. We followed the logic.”

“I’m going in with Argus if it’s got glaucoma. I don’t care,” Ballard says.

Ballard speculates that if those targets represent what he hopes they might be—in a best-case scenario, an array of uncommonly well-preserved structures and artifacts left by peoples from pre-flood settlement—their significance would be “staggering.”

I ask Ballard how such a discovery would compare to others in his career. He names just one other find, his 1977 discovery of unique ecosystems along deep-water hydrothermic vents of the Pacific Ocean floor.

“Titanic shrinks by comparison,” he says softly. ”Maybe I’ll shed it finally. I’ll be more than glad to shed it.” He stands up to leave.

“Then again it could all be wild imagination running,” Ballard says, heading toward the door. “It could lead to the biggest down of the expedition.”

That’s a pretty big risk, isn’t it? I ask. “I’ll take it,” Ballard replies.

Dispatch 11: Ancient Shipwrecks

September 12, 2000

On Sunday, the long-awaited replacement sonar for Argus arrived. Total installation time? “Oh, about ten minutes. Maybe five,” ROV engineer Craig Elder tells me.

The team wastes little time putting it to work. Following a scheduled personnel transfer at Sinop, the Northern Horizon transits back to the expedition search site, specifically to an area about eight to ten miles off the coast. The team dives on its selected target, deploying the remotely operated vehicles Argus and Little Hercules. The vehicles now operate in tandem for the second time and are performing splendidly, 100 meters below the surface.

As Little Hercules skims above the sea floor, video cameras mounted on Argus, traveling above, display a birds-eye view of the ROV. Trailing its fiber-optic tether like a leash, Little Herc looks like a headlight-equipped computer mouse navigating a foggy green sea floor.

At 12:57 a.m. the team spots the tell-tale signs of an amphorae-carrying shipwreck. Some 350 clay amphorae—the tin cans and glass bottles of antiquity—lie scattered on the sea floor like an upturned box of Legos. The storage vessels’ distinct tapering shape, like carrots with round mouths and handles, inform the archaeologists that the ship originated in the nearby ancient trading center of Sinop. “We’ve got the kilns [on land]” observes Dr. Fredrik Hiebert.

Nautical archaeologist Cheryl Ward, who has joined the expedition team for four days, makes a preliminary estimate: The wreck is a 4th-century, late Roman ship roughly dating to 350 A.D.

The watch is ecstatic. In the control room, Ballard congratulates his crew. “Alright. Not bad,” he says. “A little too recent. 400 [sic] A.D.”

The team logs and videotapes the site, then moves on to investigate other targets. The wreck will be more closely investigated at a later time.

Two-and-a-half hours later, the team finds yet another wreck. This ship appears smaller than the first, but—surprisingly—a number of wooden timbers from the hull remain. Ward, the nautical archaeologist, makes a preliminary estimate that the wreck is a Byzantine amphorae-carrying ship dating sometime around 550 A.D.

The shipwreck finds are significant. “They have the potential to educate us a great deal,” Ward tells me later.

The archaeologists are thrilled. Ballard doesn’t quite share their enthusiasm. “Rats,” he says. “It was supposed to be a house.”

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