Ballard watches drama unfold in his former exploration base of Crimea

Dana Jensen/The Day Bob Ballard talks on camera in the mission control room during the first live Immersion Learning webcast from the new Inner Space Center located on the University of Rhode Island Narragansett Bay campus on Dec. 3, 2009.

After spending 13 summers exploring in the Black Sea, Bob Ballard said he knows the country of Ukraine well and knows how important it is to the Russian psyche.

"It's not some faraway place to Russia. It is part of Russia in so many Russian minds," Ballard said, when asked about the unrest in Ukraine Tuesday.

The explorer, famed for finding the RMS Titanic, is president of the Ocean Exploration Center at Mystic Aquarium. He used Crimea as a base for many years as he searched for shipwrecks in the Black Sea, and he immersed himself in the complex history of Ukraine so he knew where to look. He found half a dozen wrecks from World War II back to the Byzantine period off Ukraine, and about 15 more near Turkey.

At the request of the Ukrainian president at the time, Ballard considered helping to build a museum in Sevastopol to display the wrecks. His 15-person crew on the Exploration Vessel Nautilus is Ukrainian.

Ballard, who lives in Lyme, said he sees two stories unfolding — what will happen in Crimea as Russian forces solidify their hold on the critical naval port, and what will happen in eastern Ukraine if Russian President Vladimir Putin takes Crimea.

"It appears to me he has made the determination he will take whatever hit he's going to take to secure Crimea," Ballard said. "The question is, what's next? He clearly wants to re-establish Russia's lost empire."

The unrest will not affect Ballard's work; he is returning to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean in June before moving on to the Pacific next year. He said he is worried about what is happening in Ukraine on a human level, and watching closely to see how U.S. allies in Western Europe and Turkey respond.

"You can never guess the end of a chess match until checkmate, and we're not even close to that," Ballard said. "I can't tell you how it's going to play out, but I'm watching it and understanding the moves."

On Tuesday, Ballard was at the University of Rhode Island, where he teaches oceanography and serves as the director of the graduate school's Ocean Science and Exploration Center. He is not, as some may have suspected, in the Malacca Straits looking for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

In 2012, Ballard worked for the Turkish government and found the bodies of two Turkish pilots shot down by Syria over the eastern Mediterranean. He has also found famed wrecks such as the Titanic, Bismarck and PT-109.

Ballard said he was asked to help in the Turkish case because he was in the area at the time and the fighter jet was in 5,000 feet of water, too deep for Turkey's own equipment. The Malaysian plane is likely in much shallower water.

"This is pretty straightforward physics. There is no magic I have in my bag that no one else has. I will follow it and it eventually will all make sense," he said.

Ballard's ship is in St. Petersburg, Fla., being readied for his expeditions this summer. He has been working in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean since leaving the Black Sea in 2012. He said it is fortuitous that he decided to move on, after having accomplished everything he set out to do in the Black Sea.

"We have fond memories of our time in Ukraine," he said. "The Ukrainian people are really beautiful people. It's very sad to watch this country be torn apart."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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