All it took was a fourth-grade homeschool field trip to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts for Avon native Michael Brennan to become interested in ocean exploration and the work of Dr. Robert Ballard.
Ballard is known by many for discovering the wreckage of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1985 when he was the oceanographic institution’s Deep Submergence Laboratory leader aboard research vessel Knorr. But it wasn’t that famous discovery that first piqued Brennan’s interest in the field.
“It was there [Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution] that I saw a small exhibit about Dr. Ballard's recent (at the time) discovery of the WWII German battleship Bismarck,” Brennan wrote in an e-mail. “That started my interest in underwater archaeology.”
Brennan, 30, is now chief scientist and expedition leader aboard Ballard’s research vessel, the Nautilus, a title he has held since 2010 as he works toward completing his doctorate in oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. He is slated to finish next year.
“I have been working on his expeditions every year since 2006, in the Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean Seas,” Brennan said.
Brennan and his team sailed out of Istanbul, Turkey on their latest expedition, which lasted from July 18 to Aug. 30. In early August, he was in the southern portion of the Black Sea, near the coast of Sinop, Turkey. Ballard joined the expedition when it returned to Istanbul on Aug. 16.
“Our research in the Black Sea this year is multifaceted and multidisciplinary. We are working under a scientific research permit to map and explore the submarine landscape along the shelf off Turkey at the interface where the oxygenated seawater transitions to anoxic, and tp evaluate the preservation potential for archaeological sites," Brennan said. “We use side-scan sonar to map the seafloor and are also interested in the areas that have been heavily affected by bottom trawl fishing, which also damages shipwreck sites.”
The research team also took sediment core samples at various depths of the sea in order to gather information about variances in the chemical and biological makeup of the layers of water.
“These sediment samples will be processed for microbiology, benthic meiofauna, trace chemistry, and grain size of the sediments,” Brennan said.
Ballard praised the findings of the latest expedition.
“Clearly, the discoveries Mike's team made in the Black Sea are truly significant, showing that ancient shipwrecks as old as Late Classical period can be found that are in a high state of preservation,” Ballard wrote in an email.
This is not the first time Brennan is working with Ballard. As a JASON Project student Argonaut his freshman year in high school, he did a research project with Ballard in Yellowstone. The program, a subsidiary of the National Geographic Society, provided hands-on experience in science.
“Every minute working with Dr. Ballard is exciting,” Brennan said. “He has so much energy and passion for ocean exploration, he can't help but excite those around him. This passion has been broadcast through telepresence for years through the JASON Project and other live productions, and is now through our website, nautiluslive.org.”
Ballard said he hopes the program lasts long after he retires, “so that some day, just as Mike has done, they can assume a leadership role." There are many things to learn in the field, but Ballard said that the most important is to “value and respect people from many walks of life,” particularly because of the “need to have a team that are experts in so many finds of science, engineering, and educational outreach working together” necessary to be successful in expeditions and research.
Since Brennan’s participation in the JASON Project, Ballard has witnessed his development in the field of ocean exploration.
“It is extremely gratifying to have Mike aboard and in charge of the expedition since I met him … 12 years ago and have encouraged him along the way to pursue a career in science,” Ballard said.
Later on in his studies, Brennan majored in archaeology and geology at Bowdoin College in 2004, two disciplines Ballard was looking for in applicants for a new program at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. Through the program Brennan got his master’s degree in archaeology in 2008
“So a lot of things lined up nicely, and I had stayed in touch with Ballard between 1997 and 2004, so he asked me to apply to the program,” Brennan said.
Brennan said he hopes to continue as a researcher on Nautilus expeditions beyond graduation next year.
His most memorable experience in ocean exploration was when the research team came upon a shipwreck site in the “anoxic waters of the of the Black Sea that was still preserved with the 12-meter tall mast still standing upright.”
“It was both an eerie and stunning sight to have this ancient ship from 1,500 years ago still there, even with the adze marks visible from when the wood was cut,” Brennan said.
During the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week in early August, Brennan, a fan of the series, recalled the sharks he’s seen on his expeditions.
“Last year, we did see a few sharks. One was a small leopard shark eating an octopus,” Brennan said. “Then toward the end of the expedition, we saw a 12-foot long six-gill shark when it came over to figure out what our ROV Hercules was.”
Surprises like that make underwater archaeology and oceanography interesting for Brennan.
“The most rewarding thing about research at sea is the promise of discovery just around the corner. The best discoveries are the ones you can't predict,” Brennan said. “You don't have to know what you're looking for, you just have to look.”
Ballard has a similar fondness for ocean exploration.
“The moment of discovery will never grow old,” Ballard said. “It is always an amazing rush to come across something you have never seen before.”