While out on the Titanic expedition in 2010, we had the cable to the robot wrapped around the wreckage, and we had a hurricane bearing down on us. It’s a mathematics problem for an SAT test: We had a hurricane coming at us at 30 miles per hour, and it was 1,000 miles away. We had a two-day run to get into port because we were going 10 miles an hour at best, it takes two and a half hours to get the robot from the bottom back onto the ship, and we had three hours before the captain said we absolutely had to leave the site. The question was, if we couldn’t get the robot unwrapped, do we stay there and join the Titanic because the hurricane sends us to the bottom? Do we pull on the cable and pull up a big chunk of the wreck itself and forever have to live that down? Or do we cut the cable and leave a $5 million system sitting on the bottom of the ocean? It was a potentially career-ending moment for me when someone said, “Okay, Mr. Expedition Leader, what’s your decision?” I thought, Oh my god, how did this happen to me (laughs).
We were coming down to the last half hour where a decision had to be made, and some guy that hardly said anything during the trip said, “We’re pulling in the wrong direction.” We passed that on to the pilots, they tried something else, and the cable just came free. That was about the ability of the technical teams. But I don’t know what the decision would have been otherwise. It would have been to pull and hope for the best or to cut the line. It probably wouldn’t have been to cut the line. But I can’t imagine ripping off a chunk of the Titanic.
Titanic was about loss of life, but we were removed from that by almost 100 years. Air France was here and now.
I was the project leader, but I didn’t go out to sea . . . We had brand-new robots, the REMUS robots, and we had more than 40 years experience mapping in those mountain ranges. But the mission was tough—we were basically looking for two objects the size of shoeboxes lost in the Rocky Mountains at night. It was daunting. But we did it.
I can’t begin to tell you about the level of dedication that I saw. Just 24 hours a day, no glory, no reward, no incentive other than to do this job, to find that aircraft and give some relief to the loved ones and families and aircraft industry and the flying public.
If we hadn’t found those flight recorders, we would have never known what happened to Air France Flight 447. There were no witnesses, nothing that would have given us a clue. When I look at the sky, I’m still reminded that this team from WHOI had that little impact on the global population.
I don’t care what anyone says to the contrary, but to me, science and exploration is very personal and emotional. We wouldn’t do it if it didn’t do something to you that was very emotional.
I think most people on the Cape don’t know what WHOI is. The idea that it’s private, nonprofit—some people think it’s a secret government CIA laboratory (laughs). But it’s a place for people to dream. When our ships leave these docks, sometimes they’re gone for years at a time and they go all over the world. That spirit of exploration runs through this place.
I’m getting toward the end of my career at Woods Hole. I’ve been here a long time and it’s been an incredibly privileged 20-something years. Going on another expedition to find something new, I could do that until my last day on the planet. But I’m more interested in taking a deep breath and wondering what it’s all about. The thing that interests me most now is the human condition, that on this planet that we call the water planet, there are two billion people just clinging to life because they don’t have fresh water or sanitary water. That’s a big percentage of a population of seven billion people. Why is that? I don’t know—all of these discoveries we make, what good are they if people can’t treat each other with respect?
We can see infinity with our telescopes, the edges of the universe. We can see the infinitesimal with our microscopes, the very building blocks of nature. On a computer, we can stop a lightning bolt in mid-air and walk around it in 3D. We can speed things up and watch continents collide and watch mountains come and go. We have this incredible perspective of understanding, looking into the past and looking into the future to understand this planet. We can really take advantage of this opportunity, but instead we act like cave people. I don’t get that.
Woods Hole has a very esoteric reputation of being home to hippies and artists and writers and fishermen and scientists—this elite few—but it’s really not quite like that. It’s a diverse place. We have the Marine Biological Laboratory, WHOI, Sea Education Association, United States Geological Survey, National Marine Fisheries—those are all world-class places. It’s mind-boggling that in one tiny spot on Cape Cod, you have this center of gravity for all things ocean.
I think we’re all born with curiosity, and I think my ADD protected me through school (laughs). My teachers couldn’t knock the rough edges off of me. When you get driven by your own curiosity, it doesn’t become a job—it just becomes the way you live your life. At Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, we have 1,200 people all driven by their curiosity and focus on the ocean. It’s an awesome energy, and curiosity is a multiplier. Sometimes you can’t go to sleep because you want to dive deeper into something. No play on words intended.