In Digital Age, What's Left For Modern Explorers You can now pinpoint a photo of your house on the Internet in seconds. But there are still vast areas of the Earth no one's ever seen -- much of it in the depths of the ocean. And as human encroachment and climate change alter the world's natural landscapes, the role of modern explorers transforms.

    Environment Story Of The Day NPR hide caption

    toggle caption

In Digital Age, What's Left For Modern Explorers

In Digital Age, What's Left For Modern Explorers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

You can now pinpoint a photo of your house on the Internet in seconds. But there are still vast areas of the Earth no one's ever seen — much of it in the depths of the ocean. And as human encroachment and climate change alter the world's natural landscapes, the role of modern explorers transforms.


Robert Ballard, National Geographic explorer-in-residence
Jill Pruetz, biological anthropologist and National Geographic emerging explorer
Michael Nichols, National Geographic editor-at-large for photography


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, broadcasting today from the Grosvenor Auditorium at the National Geographic Society.

This is a wonderful building, filled with artifacts and pictures brought back by famous explorers from the Amazon, the Poles, the top of the world and the ocean depths. But in the 21st century, what's left to explore?

You can not only pinpoint the position of your house in a few seconds on a smart phone, you can call up a picture. Satellites can track minute changes on coastlines, even estimate the contours of the ocean floor.

What do explorers do in the 21st century? We're going to limit the conversation today to planet Earth, if you will. So we want to hear from scientists and researchers today, geologists, physicists, anthropologists. What's left to explore? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We'll also get questions from here in the audience at the Grosvenor Auditorium.

We begin with a geologist and underwater explorer, maybe best known for the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic but who's also found lost ships that date to ancient Phoenicia and helped discover new forms of life on the floor of the Pacific. Robert Ballard is president of the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Connecticut, and an explorer-in-residence here at National Geographic. And Robert Ballard, thanks very much for being with us today.


ROBERT BALLARD: Nice to be back.


CONAN: What's left to explore in 2011?

BALLARD: Lots. When you think about the fact that we only live on, actually live on, less than 20 percent. Twenty-eight percent is above the ocean, but there's a lot of that we don't live on. So when you really think about it, we're living on the peaks of mountains and don't know what's down in the valleys.

So, you know, I think the age of exploration is just beginning, not ending, on our planet. In fact, the next generation of kids, many which are here today, think about it, will probably explore more of Earth than all previous generations combined.

CONAN: How do you say that? We've been to all the jungles and the ocean and the mountaintops that we can see, anyway.

BALLARD: Yeah, but most of the ocean is underwater, and most of that is in eternal darkness. So we've seen very little of it. We actually have better maps of Mars than our own planet. And, in fact, half of the United States of America lies beneath the sea, and we've yet to do the Lewis and Clark - I should modify that, though - Lois and Clark expeditions of that territory that's our own country unexplored.

CONAN: Yet I've been on ships with you, looking at the ocean floor 17,000 feet below, and there's not a lot there.

BALLARD: Oh, there's a lot. The greatest mountain ranges on Earth. You just weren't looking. You know, you've got to turn on the lights, Neal. But the greatest mountain ranges on the planet lie beneath the sea. There are more active volcanoes - tens of thousands of active volcanoes - that have never been explored, never been seen by human beings.

And as you mentioned, my discoveries, the hydrothermal vents, for example, I would think was my greatest discovery. We knew where Titanic was, but we never knew about these new life forms, and we didn't know they were there. We stumbled over them.

And so how many other things are there down there to stumble over? I vote lots.


CONAN: Robert Ballard is with us, 800-989-8255. Email us, And that's your specialty, underwater exploration.

BALLARD: Well, I'm an Earth scientist. I love all of the Earth. I think of it as a living organism. So I don't separate the oceans from the planets. It's just that most of it's down there.

But I do spend a lot of time above water and spend a lot of time exploring that part of our Earth that lies above the sea. But statistically, most of it's down there, so I'm going to spend most of my time down there.

CONAN: And how does technology change your ability to find it? Obviously, we've only been able to explore anywhere beyond a few feet below the water in the past few decades.

BALLARD: Well, that's changing. The new telepresent technology, you know, I published 29 years ago a cartoon in National Geographic Magazine talking about the day will come when we don't send our bodies, we sent our spirits, through telepresent technology.

That technology is now here. And we are going to see a rapid acceleration of exploration. I think we're going to not be saying the same thing in 20 years. We will have seen a lot, lot more in the next 20 years than we've seen through the history of the human race.

So I'm very optimistic about what we're going to find. I think we're going to find a lot of cool things. I just can't tell you what they are.

CONAN: You've told us a story of going down in the submarine, the famous submersible Alvin, to the ocean depths, a trip that takes hours and hours and hours and carries some measure of risk, and there's a lot of preparation involved. Being there, on the ocean floor, looking at those thermal vents with biologists and realizing they weren't looking out the window.

BALLARD: That was funny. That was sort of funny because when we discovered the hydrothermal vents in 1977, there weren't any biologists on the expedition. It took two years to actually organize an expedition. It would take us about a nanosecond now.

I: There they are.

I: What are you doing? He said: I'm looking at the monitor. It's better than what I'm seeing out the window. And I said: Then why are you here?


BALLARD: And that's what led to the development of telepresent technology. You don't have to bring the body. The body is sort of pain. It has to go to the bathroom. It has to be comfortable. But the spirit is indestructible. It can move at the speed of light.

So this new technology is literally out-of-body experience. It's sort of "Avatar" in the modern age, you know.

CONAN: And then there was the long period when you had to be on the surface above the robots you were sending to the ocean floor.

BALLARD: It takes time. But now we have this amazing high-bandwidth satellite link at the graduate school of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, where I'm a professor. We have the Inner Space Center.

And if you go into the Inner Space Center, we literally moved the command- control center to there. But now on Internet2, you can be anywhere. You can have it on your iPhone, your laptop, your - any kind of media. We can take you to the bottom of the ocean.

And we have what's called the Doctors On Call Program. We call in experts when we need them and move their spirits out of their bodies and take them to the bottom of the ocean. And that's very green. I think is - the discussion you had earlier about global population, the key is don't have bodies moving all over the place. Just move spirits.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Keith(ph) in Houston, Texas: I work as an oil exploration geologist. We work with data obtained from wells and geophysical methods to try to understand what's under the ground. The current limits onshore are only about 30,000 feet. We have barely scratched the subsurface.

BALLARD: Correct. I mean, there is amazing amount of oil and gas and other resources out beneath the sea. It's staggering. This last maiden voyage of the Nautilus, which we just finished, five months at sea, I found more gas pouring out of the bottom of the ocean naturally than you can imagine.

I mean, everywhere I went methane was coming out of the bottom of the ocean, and this was natural. And I wonder if that's in anyone's calculations.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to a caller. This is Cliff(ph), Cliff with us from Jacksonville in Arkansas. Is that right?

CLIFF: Yeah, that's correct.

CONAN: Okay.

CLIFF: Thanks for putting me on.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CLIFF: I read in the introduction to the novel "Relic," which the guys who wrote it did a lot of research, they said that the largest unexplored surface - well, not surface but above-ground - well, that's not right, either, non-ocean area was the tunnels and subways and abandoned basements and such under New York City and that, as far as surface area goes, that was just the largest uncharted portion of the Earth.

BALLARD: Well, that's not true but a nice comment.


BALLARD: But anyway, no, actually, I don't want to not talk about spelunkers. There's a tremendous amount of limestone topography, certainly the Yucatan Peninsula is like a giant sponge, Florida is, as well.

There's a lot of unexplored territory that's not under the ocean but is under the ground, and that's - I'm an equal-opportunity explorer. I go there, too.

CONAN: 800-989-8255. Email us, Let's see if we can get a question from the audience here at the Grosvenor Auditorium.

BASIL: Thank you, I'm Basil Nikas(ph) from Washington, D.C. I've had the privilege of traveling around the world, living in places like Egypt for many years, and my background is history.

I recently saw a documentary on lost cities that were - due to the oceans coming over, and interestingly enough, one was in Japan, another one's in Cuba, another one in India, pretty much on the same parallel.

That would be an interesting course of new exploration, to find out where these people came from and what happened to them because they find these cities are all the same monolithic structure, and they're over 10,000 years.

BALLARD: Absolutely. In fact, we were doing a program for National Geographic last year on the Battle of Gallipoli at the entrance to the Dardanelles. And we were looking for a British battleship, the Triumph, the HMF Triumph, that was sunk by a German U-boat in World War I. And as we closed in on the Triumph, off to our right we saw what looked like Neolithic stone circles.

And I'm confident that certainly on the continental shelves of the world, which were above water during the Ice Age, that there are a lot of Neolithic sites all over the planet. So yeah, another great place to go.

CONAN: And one of the places you've been returning to again and again, though, is the Black Sea.

BALLARD: I think there's a lot of home runs in there. Tune in when our ship, The Nautilus, enters the Black Sea in June and July. We'll be - I'm still thinking there's some good discoveries there. But we're not going to talk about it until we have a smoking gun.


CONAN: Well, the reason there may be...

BALLARD: Well, because in some cases, two scholars from Columbia University, Bill Ryan and Walter Pittman, wrote a book called "Noah's Flood," where they postulated that the Black Sea might have been the site of that legendary story because we do know that it was flooded suddenly.

And we've actually gone down - I think you were with me, Neal, when we found the ancient shoreline about 400 feet beneath the ocean of the Black Sea, and we brought up some of the pebbles from the shore. We brought up some of the mollusks that were living there. We dated them, and we were able to show when that flood took place, which was about 7,500 B.P.

So yeah, I think there's a lot of stuff down there that used to be above water.

CONAN: And preserved because there's no oxygen there.

BALLARD: Exactly. There's no oxygen. We thought initially no oxygen below 300 feet. We're finding it's even shallower than that. We're finding highly preserved shipwrecks, wood and everything, and someday we'll pull out the cargo, as well as the crew, less than 100 meters under the ocean.

CONAN: And how old are these ships?

BALLARD: Well, the ones that we found so far, mostly - the oldest was Classical, about 600 B.C.

CONAN: We're talking with Robert Ballard, the deep sea explorer who discovered the wreck of the Titanic on a list of other claims to fame. We're at National Geographic today. When we come back, we'll hear from an emerging explorer about what she does and what's still left to explore, and your calls.

Geologists, physicists, anthropologists, what is left to explore? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.



CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from the Washington headquarters of the National Geographic.

And we're talking about explorers. We learn about the famous ones in grade school - Magellan, Columbus, Lewis and Clark. The world has changed a great deal since then. So have explorers. What is left for them to explore?

Robert Ballard is our guest, a well-known deep sea explorer, National Geographic explorer-in-residence, also founder and chief scientist of the Jason Foundation for Education.

We want to hear from scientists and researchers today. Geologists, physicists, anthropologists, what's left to explore? 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us on stage is Jill Pruetz. She's a professor of anthropology at Iowa State University but spends much of her time in Africa studying chimpanzees on the savannahs of Senegal, also a National Geographic emerging explorer. And Jill is just off a plane from Tanzania. Nice to have you with us today.

JILL PRUETZ: Thanks so much for having me.


CONAN: You're a biological anthropologist, a researcher. What does it mean to be an explorer in your field?

PRUETZ: Well, you know, I'm a little biased towards chimpanzees, but I think that chimpanzees are one of the best examples we have of an animal that is very well-studied but yet, we're still finding new things about this mammal.

And so in my field, we're - I'd say we're very directed, and so we have specific hypotheses. But yet, you know, as Bob said, we never know what we're going to find. So I had some really interesting questions to me when I started out, but I'd say that most people find my discoveries to be a little more interesting than my scientific hypotheses.

CONAN: Really? Your discoveries include, as I understand it, the finding that chimpanzees will take down a branch from a tree, sharpen a point with their teeth and use it to hunt.

PRUETZ: Yes, and this year, we racked up about 45 hunts just this past year, when I was there, and so that brings us to a total of about 120 bouts.

And now we're at the point where we can look at individual differences. And so females tend to sharpen the tips of the tools with their teeth. The females do the hunting more than males.

And when I started out, I was interested in feeding ecology, and definitely this is a part of feeding ecology, but it's nothing I could have ever predicted.

CONAN: And nobody noticed this before?

PRUETZ: Well, there were a couple of instances reported, but the fact is that we hadn't really - we really knew very little about savannah chimpanzees.

So the chimps I study live in a savannah habitat, and it wasn't until my own project was successful habituating chimps that we were able to study their behavior. So now they're used to us, we can follow them like they do with studies of forested chimpanzees.

But yearly, we come with new discoveries, I'd say, of behavior, and they really differ.

CONAN: And how important is it that you come up with something new first?

PRUETZ: Well, that's not necessarily the goal when I start out, but it definitely is a bonus. And it is - again, it's something that I wouldn't predict, but yet it keeps happening.

And so to me, it's really interesting and, I'd say, encouraging for a young scientist, budding scientist because, like I said, chimps are better-studied than any other mammal species. We've studied chimps for 50 years at a number of sites.

But yet my studies, in effect, somewhat like Jane Goodall's studies at Gombi in the 1960s, it's a natural history study because we do know so very little. And I think that the same can be said for many animal species throughout the world.

CONAN: So the best-studied mammal on Earth, ourselves aside, well, maybe including ourselves, yet there's still so much to know.

PRUETZ: Definitely, definitely.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some more questions in from callers and from here in the audience at National Geographic.

BRIDGET: Hi, my name's Bridget(ph). I'm from Cleveland, Ohio. I'm wondering if there's a bit of a cost to our ability to explore the Earth. I'm thinking about Google Maps and satellites and how that might affect - should we be concerned about our privacy?

CONAN: About our privacy? Our personal privacy or the privacy of peoples?

BRIDGET: I guess both, the personal privacy, you know, that someone can be looking at your car, your house, yourself on the satellite.

PRUETZ: I guess I don't necessarily worry about those things, although even - and I would probably claim that I'm not so technologically sophisticated as some of my colleagues.

But I definitely think it's a changing world. I think there's a lot of benefits to it. I can do things at my site that we couldn't do, of course, 10 years ago, definitely that early explorers couldn't do, that people even like Jane Goodall 50 years ago couldn't do.

And there is a cost to it. I think that, you know, we have to sort of adapt and be careful. But I can do pretty amazing things. I can - with a modem, I can link. I can - and Bob has done this quite a bit. I can basically allow students access to my work in the field. I can transmit live.

I haven't had a lot of success doing this. So maybe I'll ask Bob about this. It's a little difficult. But there are amazing things we can do. But definitely we have to be aware of the cost.

CONAN: Well, you're also studying animals who are on the edge. They're interacting with people a lot, not just you, the scientists studying them, you habituated them to your presence, but they're interacting with people a lot. So can you study the animals without studying the people, as well?

PRUETZ: That's a great question because I love to have cultural anthropologists help me out in that regard. So I am definitely interested in studying chimpanzees. But one of the things that drew me to this site is they do overlap.

They are sympatric, we say, with humans. And you don't always find that in Africa. So chimps aren't hunted because of cultural taboos against eating them, and it makes for an amazing scenario, very complex set of interactions between chimps and people.

And I do encourage students. I usually have one or two students a year come out and study aspects of the human groups that live in the area. So I kind of constrain myself to the chimps area and have students come out to study humans.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller - question from here in the audience.

Unidentified Person: (Unintelligible).

PRUETZ: That's a great question. That's something I have to deal with always and something I was well aware of when I started. So like I said, the chimpanzees live alongside people. And I'm an anthropologist. As an anthropologist, I try to...

CONAN: And just let me interrupt here. We had some technological glitch. I'm not sure if people on the radio heard the question.

PRUETZ: Sure, okay.

CONAN: Would you mind repeating it, Stephanie(ph)?

STEPHANIE: Sure. I was just wondering if I could (technical difficulties) local ecosystems issues and the people that live there.

CONAN: Okay, go ahead.

PRUETZ: Okay, so as I said, the chimpanzees at my site do live alongside humans. I'm an anthropologist, and while I'm a biological anthropologist interested in chimpanzees, as an anthropologist, I also try to be very cognizant of the fact that I am affecting not only the animals I study but the people in the area.

So we were very formal in the steps we took to establish the research there. I couldn't do my research without not only the permission of the local people and authorities at various levels but without the help.

So I had Senegalese field assistants, Senegalese project managers that are integral to my study. But we definitely acknowledge that we changed things there.

I'm even more worried about the chimpanzees that I study because they are on the edge, so to speak, of the geographical range. Even though people don't eat chimps at my site, which is great, of course, they're threatened by population expansion, et cetera.

And so I have a very conservative protocol. I have very few people with me in the field. So the chimps are habituated to us, but they're not habituated to strangers. They're okay if we bring someone with us. That person is okay.

But I definitely keep that in mind. I, for example, only study, only follow male chimpanzees as targets because females periodically are targeted for their infants for the pet trade.

And so I have a number of different really conservative steps to my protocol. And I always, always keep that in mind. It's something that I also, you know, pass on to my students. And we always have to keep in mind how we affect not only the animals but the people, as you mentioned, where I work.

CONAN: Thanks, Stephanie, appreciate the help out, too. Let's go next to Tyler(ph), Tyler with us from Ashland in Virginia.

TYLER: Yeah, hi. I used to command a Navy mine countermeasure ship that had a remotely piloted submarine. Is Dr. Ballard still there?

CONAN: Oh, yes, he's still here.

TYLER: Okay. Well, what I was going to ask is that when we would operate our remotely piloted submarine, I discovered that by putting amber filters over the otherwise white lights that were used for the camera that a lot of the fish species couldn't see that amber light. So they wouldn't get in the way of our cameras when we were doing our work. Have you tried anything like that?

BALLARD: Yeah, actually, the problem is it doesn't penetrate as far. But yeah, we, in fact, have multiple lights at different wavelengths. The best is green. But National Geographic really doesn't like that color.



CONAN: For their television programs.

BALLARD: If we really want to see, we turn on our green lights, and we can see much further. But we tend to turn off our cameras at that point.

CONAN: Tyler, when...

TYLER: I wanted to ask you also about the Scientists At Sea program. The Navy has a really good program where they embark scientists from all different backgrounds to come to sea on the ships. And I would like to see that expanded to the point where a lot more independent research is being done from those Navy platforms because they're all over the world, and we might as well get some use out of them.

CONAN: I think you're talking to a retired commander...

BALLARD: Yeah. Well, I spent 30 years in the Navy and I'm well aware it. The biggest problem we have is the security issues coming off military platforms because then we're telling people where the platform is, which is not encouraged. Whereas our ship, the Nautilus, we actually have educators embedded in our team who are working 24/7. You go to our website,, and we're 24/7 when we're at sea, which will begin, again, this coming summer. So I'm very much in using platforms to broadcast. It's just whether the platform will let you.

CONAN: And Tyler, I wonder given that, can you tell us the most interesting thing you saw from your mine countermeasure ship?

TYLER: Oh, we saw a lot of interesting benthic, life but a lot of that stuff was deemed by the mission to be something in the way, rather than something we were actually looking for. But we did volunteer to collect water samples for the fisheries department while we were operating in the Gulf. And we ended up collecting a lot of samples to confirm the transport of what's called G. breve, or the red tide, and that helped confirm some of the satellite information.

CONAN: And since you were at mine countermeasures, when you say the Gulf, I assume you mean Persian rather than Mexican.

TYLER: Both.

CONAN: Oh, really?

BALLARD: Practice in one.

TYLER: Yeah. The mine countermeasure ships for our Navy, a lot of them were stationed down in the Gulf of Mexico.

CONAN: Uh-huh. All right. Well...

TYLER: But - the one final thing - I didn't know whether you'd mention to other listeners how people could join the crew with Dr. Ballard. I think that's a fascinating project he's got.

BALLARD: Well, we love volunteers that have talent, to begin with. We're always looking for free, talented people. But also, we have a website, as I said, where you can literally come aboard the ship through our telepresence technology which is So bookmark it and we'll see you in the Black Sea around July.

TYLER: Awesome. Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Tyler, thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it.

TYLER: Bye-bye.

CONAN: You just heard Robert Ballard, explorer-in-residence here at the National Geographic. Also with us is Jill Pruetz, a biological anthropologist who studies chimpanzees on the African savanna and a National Geographic emerging explorer. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION which is coming to your from NPR News.

And let's get another question from here in the audience at the Grosvenor Auditorium.

ZACH: Hi. I'm name is Zach from Washington, D.C., and I'd love to ask this of both of the panelists. If you had unlimited funding, what top five things would you be exploring?

CONAN: We'll cut that to two. Jill.


PRUETZ: Oh, gosh. Unlimited funding, that's mind boggling, a little bit. I guess one thing I might start out is just a simple assessment of how many chimpanzees are left in Senegal. It's something we're doing, but it's something very basic, but in many ways that's something we really need to know these days. So as explorers, we're, kind of, we have, sort of, a different type of conservation problem to deal with. And so in some way, we're kind of in a desperate situation. We didn't need to know exactly how many animals are left. That would be my top choice. I'll leave it at that.

CONAN: Okay. Bob?

BALLARD: Well, I would just take the two America ships of exploration, the Okeanos Explorer and the Nautilus that are funded by NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration, and I would fund them to go to sea more than they're going to sea. We have greater capacity to go to sea than we're allowed to. So if I had more money, I get my - I get more explorers on the bottom of the ocean.

CONAN: All right. Let's go to another caller. This is Doug, and Doug with us from Jamestown in Nevada. Excuse me, Jamestown, New York.

DOUG: Well, I'm an old - yeah. Yes. I'm an old biologist, and one of my questions for these experts, which - I wish could follow them - is that, vicariously, I think we need to explore every day. And when we have made inroads in the various places that I have been, I've been saddened by what's happened afterwards, specifically an exploration out of control for various economic reasons. And I think all of the panelists need to safeguard those environments. I'd like to know how they're doing it and if there are some places where we shouldn't go, because I think there are, and I think we need to maintain them.

CONAN: Hmm. It's interesting, Jill, in - I understand, one of the national parks in - that is supposed to be set aside for preservation of things like the chimp, yet there's mining undergoing on there.

PRUETZ: Well, there's mining right outside the national park, but that's definitely something, a sort of exploration a little different bit of - type of exploration that's something that's threatening the chimpanzee population. Personally, I am dedicated to continuing my research as long as I'm able to, but I've also made plans, for example, if something happen to me in the field.

I have students that I work with and I continue to work with, and I try to encourage them to develop their own research sites, et cetera.

And we're really committed to a long-term project, not something that we would abandon and move on and just leave. But there are definitely changes today. And so it's crucial that we explore these areas in Senegal, where mining is going to affect chimpanzees, for example. But it definitely - we have, I think, where a strong sense of responsibility in terms of what the effect is of our exploration and what needs to be done and what commitment we have to make.

CONAN: Bob Ballard, are there places we shouldn't go?

BALLARD: No. I think we just have to be careful. I think, for example, when we worked off Turkey. We're under what are called imaging permits. We're not allowed to even touch the bottom. And so the beauty of our technology is we do not touch the bottom. We're able, with our robots, unlike our submersibles that are big clunkers, we literally can hover and not do any damage. I think that was a question of damage done by explorers. And you definitely can do damage.

But I think you don't not do damage by not exploring, you just do non-intrusive exploration. And the technology we have today is elegant. I mean, we could - my vehicles, I can literally be hovering over something a few inches away and get up and go to the bathroom and ask my vehicle not to move, and come back and it's still waiting for me. And so, the technology we have is quite mind- boggling. So there's no reason why you need to be intrusive.

CONAN: Doug, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. More with Robert Ballard and Jill Pruetz in a moment, about the role of explorers in 2011 and the future, what's left to explore on this planet and your calls. Geologists, physicists, anthropologists, call and tell us what's left to explore. 800-9898- 255, email us, And you can also join the conversation on our website. That's an, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're also going to be joined by Michael Nick Nichols, a wildlife photographer whose got great experience particularly on Michael Fay's 2,000-mile MegaTransect expedition, from The Congo to Gabon, back at the turn of the century. This is NPR News.


CONAN: Right now, in partnership with National Geographic, we're broadcasting from their Washington headquarters and we're exploring the world of explorers - what they do in the 21st century, what's left to explore. We want to hear from scientists and researchers today. 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are deep sea explorer, Robert Ballard, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, director of the Institute of Archaeological Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, and a National Geographic emerging explorer, Jill Pruetz, a biological anthropologist who studies chimpanzees on the African savanna. She also works as an associate professor of anthropology at Iowa State University.

And let's see if we can join - get another voice in on the conversation. Also on stage with us here at National Geographic, Michael Nick Nichols, a wildlife photographer who's traveled to some of the world's most remote places. He's National Geographic editor-at-large for photography. He documented the conservationist Michael Fay's 2,000-mile MegaTransect expedition from Congo to Gabon. And, Nick, nice to have you with us today...

MICHAEL NICHOLS: Thank you. Thanks.



CONAN: What is it that you do that you consider exploration? How is your work different than, for example, a primatologist?

NICHOLS: Well, we didn't define what exploration was. You know, for me it's always been just going into the unknown, and I've been doing it since I was a kid with caves. So when Mike started that long walk, he didn't know where it was going. So anything you do that you don't know where you're going, I think, is exploration.

CONAN: So this would qualify me for much of my life. Yeah.


NICHOLS: No. And, you know - so once Mt. Everest has been climbed once, you know, after that maybe it's adventure. There's a difference.

And so what do I do that's exploration? It's - my next project is lions. And we know lions as an animal that hunts in the savanna and does these things, but we never actually have been on their terms. They actually hunt by the dark night, not by full moon, not by daylight. In the dark night, we can't see a thing. So technology has advanced enough, just today, with night vision and thermal and digital photography that maybe, if I'm lucky, in the next two years, I can show you lions as they really are.

CONAN: In the next two years, if you're lucky.

NICHOLS: If I'm lucky.

CONAN: This is...

NICHOLS: Damn lucky.


NICHOLS: Perseverance.

CONAN: Perseverance. So you need, in addition to luck and skill and being in the right place at the right time, you need somebody back here in Washington who's extremely patient.

NICHOLS: And we - you know, we didn't talk about we need money, too.


NICHOLS: You have to - and the money for media is different than it used to be. So philanthropy starts to play. You - but if you look at exploration over the ages, that was always the issue. How do you get funded? So you have to be a P.T. Barnum sometimes. You have to get on the soapbox and sing and get your money. But - so I'm - if two years runs out, I'm not coming back.


NICHOLS: I'll just stay until I get some more money. Because I'm afraid. I want to show you this. I desperately want to - because the things that I've photographed for 30 years, they're all disappearing. Everything that I've photographed is going. So, you know, I'm very frightful. And I think if we show people these chimpanzees, for instance, then maybe they can survive. If we show them these places that Bob finds, maybe they don't disappear. I just can't deal with that, things disappearing in my little blip on the planet.

CONAN: Are things that you saw on that long walk...

NICHOLS: Absolutely.

CONAN: ...gone now?

NICHOLS: You know, the MegaTransect, the reason it happened is there was a war in Congo.

CONAN: Still is.

NICHOLS: And they - Brazzaville, Congo.

CONAN: Yeah, the other one.

NICHOLS: Not the - yeah. So they - the researchers couldn't get home. So they started flying from the northern Congo over to Libreville over four and a half hours of forest because they couldn't go out in the traditional way. And Mike is a botanist, not an, you know, he's not an animal scientist. He could see - now there's nothing down there. But all those trees did show him where there have been human plantations in the long past.

And he said, jeez, there's a section of forest 2,000-mile-long that hasn't been exploited, and the animals in there may have never been hunted. They might not have been influenced. But wait, if we go there and look, we can tell the world what to protect before it's too late.

Generally, we make national parks after it's too late. We don't make them in time. So in this case, we made 13 national parks before the logging had happened. But now, okay, that was 10 years ago. Every single one of those parks is completely surrounded by logging. And the pygmies who were so important to that project that I photographed doing things culturally that were really interesting, all that's gone. Gone.

CONAN: Interesting question we have from email from David(ph) in Berkeley. Several years ago, a story came out about a tribe in Brazil that had never contacted modern civilization. It turned to be something of a hoax. But my question is: How many societies are there around the world that have no contact with modern civilization? What will happen to them in this century?

NICHOLS: Well, you know, I'm not sure that that's true. I - it's kind of hard for me to believe that there could be any terrestrial people that haven't been contacted. But every now and then in Brazil, one pops up.

Brazil is it. It's the, you know, the Lost City of Z, that kind of fantasy. But the pygmies had long had contact.

CONAN: Contact. Yes.

NICHOLS: So this fantasy - there is a bit of a fantasy that if it hasn't been discovered you should leave it alone to protect it, and that's - if you leave it alone, it's gone.

But I don't think - I really don't - but I hope that someday someone will say, oh, there's another tribe in Brazil. But as soon as you find them, they're going to get our diseases and die. It's just a no-win.

CONAN: Go to a question here from the microphone in the Grosvenor Auditorium.

I: I was wondering if any of you see a role for citizen science in future exploration of the Earth.

CONAN: Citizen science. What do you mean by that?

Unidentified Man: Having regular non-trained citizens, you know, people who aren't scientists going out and documenting things.

This summer, I took place in - or I took part in a study done in the Rocky River in Cleveland, Ohio, to document existence of and diversity of macro invertebrates in the water system to give an idea of water quality.

And a lot of that was done by other TAs, including myself, from the Cleveland State Geology Department, but also families and people who were just interested in going out and exploring where they live.

CONAN: MM-hmm.

Man: And we got hundreds of thousands of pieces of data from it because people were willing to go out and spend their own time and document what they found. And it was great for the Cleveland Metroparks system, but something not normally followed.

CONAN: I wonder, Bob Ballard?

BALLARD: Well, we're actually - launched a new paradigm where, normally, scientists go on the field. They gather their data and it's theirs. And they sit on it, and sometimes they die before they even do anything about it.

All of our data is streamed in real time. So when we're out on with the Nautilus every sensor, every image, everything that we're doing is streamed live.

Now it's taking a while for the scientific community to believe it, because they say why would you do that? Why would you raise all this money, mount an expedition and then dump the data? Well, that's the whole point: as many minds as you can get into the game.

And so, I think in the information era, when you look at how much information is being collected, it's silly to sit on data. There's so much of it. We collected 30 terabytes of data.

And so, we welcome people to look at our data, and so please do. And it's available. It's not proprietary. It's in real time, and hope you see something I didn't see.

CONAN: Nick Nichols, is there a role?

NICHOLS: I totally believe in citizen science. What I was talking about earlier is that, yes, we can all explore, and if you have your little creek bed where you live and you find out new stuff, it helps us conserve it.

And a lot of that collection has to be done by all of us. In my little valley in - outside of Charlottesville, we want to explore that stream and no what all the frogs and the salamanders are doing. And the only way to do it is with citizen science.

CONAN: Jill, isn't this a little trickier if you're dealing with animals?

PRUETZ: It can be tricky. You know, as Nick pointed out, we can transmit diseases to people who haven't had contact with others and definitely the same for great apes.

That's one of the reasons I have a small group. But I've had people come out and help me out with various parts of my project, maybe not as exciting as they'd like. They can help with - cataloging plants, for example. But I think that is a great way for us to benefit as well as people who are interested in science and maybe haven't had the same opportunities that I've had, or we've had, or maybe decide later in life they want to embark in some sort of experience like this. I think it's a great opportunity and I think that it does occur in various disciplines.

BALLARD: Yeah, you know, when you look at our ship, for example, there's 42 people on the ship. And you are out on a ship like our exploration ship, there's only four, quote, "scientists" aboard that ship. So the vast majority of the people on the ship are not scientists. In fact, the people that have, quite honestly, have the most bottom time are our pilots not our scientists.

And commonly, a pilot will say I've never seen that before. And you quickly turn your head when a pilot says I haven't seen that before because they have more bottom time than we do. And so...

CONAN: Pilots are who are driving the...

BALLARD: Driving the vehicles. And quite honestly, now that we're streaming it, if you want to watch, it's 24/7. And send in your comments. Push that little button and it says, send your comment if you see something we don't see, or you've had the tenacity to stay up longer than I have.


BALLARD: People ask me what we did on our last expedition. We were at sea for four and a half months, 24 hours a day. I don't yet know what I did. I'm - just read a publication coming down that we're publishing, where all of us got together and said what we learned. And I'm finally finding out what we did. So all the room in the world for a citizen scientists to get in the game.

CONAN: I was on one expedition with Bob Ballard when he managed to conquer every level of "Doom," as I recall.


CONAN: So and lots of - lots of extra time on some of those...


CONAN: ...some of those voyages. We're talking with Bob Ballard, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. Jill Pruetz, who is a biological anthropologist and a National Geographic emerging explorer, and Nick Nichols, who is a National Geographic editor-at-large for photography. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Michelle(ph) on the line. Michelle is calling us from Fairbanks.

MICHELLE: Oh, hello. Thank you so much for taking my call. Hello, Dr. Ballard. I'm thrilled that you're raising these issues regarding the fact that there remains so much to the explored.

I: the exposed deep portions of the Arctic, as well as other areas. I've been looking at deep sea food webs and canyons, areas where the "Deadliest Catch" fisheries occur. There are some deep sea canyons that seem to be supporting those fisheries, so we're trying to understand those food webs as well as spaces like the Aleutian Trench.

But we're certainly challenged in the North by lack of dedicated resources for doing this kind of work. And my question is: How can we try to obtain more dedicated deep-sea technologies for the Alaskan region, the Arctic, as we continue to build our research programs up here?

CONAN: Dr. Ballard?

BALLARD: Well, you know, the assets are there. Our ships, for example, we don't determine where they go. It's determined by the entire community, and so it's really a participatory program. And certainly, I would think with the warming of the planet, the Northwest Passage is going to finally be open. So I expect, quite honestly, more exploration to take place in the higher latitudes than ever before.

CONAN: It's interesting, Michelle, can you tell us what you're finding in some of those places where ice covered the ocean for so long and now you do have access?

MICHELLE: We do have access. The area we've been working mostly are two of the largest undersea canyons in the world, the largest, Zhemchug Canyon, which is ice - partially ice covered seasonally. That's been fully exposed in the summers for quite sometime. And in that region, there are still tremendous coral colonies and tremendous rockfish assemblages.

In some areas, it's been a heavily fish region both by the Russians and us, for quite a while, very productive. But the benthic communities that we've been able to access, using - inspired by Sylvia Earle's early work, we've been using DeepWorkers, hope to deep rover up here, as well as ROVs. And we're finding tremendously viable benthic communities in patches.

CONAN: Benthic green at deep sea.

MICHELLE: We haven't yet gotten to the Arctic, though. And that's where we hoping to go next is Barrow Canyon in the Arctic.

CONAN: Benthic, correction means...

BALLARD: Means the bottom.

CONAN: ... the bottom, yes. Well, going to the Arctic, Bob Ballard, that would mean getting under the ice. That's not easy.

BALLARD: Well, actually, more and more, it's easier with the new autonomous vehicles now. I'd love to go after...

CONAN: Autonomous vehicles?

BALLARD: Autonomous vehicles. We - presently use what are called remotely- operated vehicles, which are on tethers. But there's now a whole big expansion of vehicle technology where they're basically pre-programmed robots that go out and do their own thing as sort of hunt dogs and come back and tell you what they found. So AUVs are sort of like underwater cruise missiles, that kind of technology, very pervasive now.

And it gives you an opportunity when you're out at sea, for example, and you got your vehicles down there. No matter how big your ship is two cables in the water is a knot. And so - and not a knot of speed but a knot of two cables wrapped around one another. So you can't put a lot of cabled vehicles in the water from one platform, but you can put out an endless number of AUVs. So we see them as sort of hunt dogs...


Dr.: ...that we can send out all around the ship and is - my military term, force multipliers. And they can, all of a sudden, cover a lot more real estate and go under the ice where you can't go yourself.

CONAN: Nick, when do you head out back to the savanna?

NICHOLS: I'm going to photograph another tree. I did a pretty famous picture a couple of years ago of a redwood tree. It's very tall and we built it by compositing pictures together. And I'm going to photograph maybe the largest tree on Earth in a snowstorm. But it's not the tree that's known as the largest tree on Earth. So if we get lucky, we'll have a surprise. But the idea is just to make a really beautiful photograph of a giant sequoia in a snowstorm. We're doing that in February.

CONAN: Well, good luck with that. Jill Pruetz, you're back here for a while and...

PRUETZ: I am back here. They like me to teach every once in a while. So I'm back here for the spring semester and then out to Senegal in May again.

CONAN: Well, thank you all very much for your time today and for telling us a little bit about what explorers do now in the 21st century. Before we leave today, we need to thank - thank you to everybody here at National Geographic and to our technical crew at the Grosvenor Auditorium. And back in Studio 3A for the hospitality and help with our show today.

TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at the anti-vaccine movement with Paul Offit, plus, how to make the most of your television. We'll see you again on Monday. Have a great weekend, everybody.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.