The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 2, 2012

Nobel speaker in deep

Oceanographer describes exploration of wrecks

By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer

ST PETER — David Gallo, who grew up in central New York, said his attention-deficit disorder gave him trouble in school.

So when a teacher told Gallo he didn’t have the aptitude for science, it stuck with him. Gallo did end up in science, though he took a non-traditional path.

In 1976, he was in his mid-20s working in a shoe store when he read a National Geographic article by ocean explorer Bob Ballard. The story of discovery reignited a sense of wonder he had first experienced as a child.

By 1987, he had his Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of Rhode Island. Not that it was easy. He said it took “focus, persistence, and you have to work your tail off.”

The transition from selling shoes to ocean-diving, at least, gave him a decent pun: After the first 1,000 feet, both get a lot easier, he said.

He is now the director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.

Gallo was the first speaker Tuesday at Gustavus Adolphus College’s 48th annual Nobel Conference in St. Peter, attended by between 4,000 and 5,000 people.


Gallo may be most well known for co-leading an exploration of the Titanic. Mapping the two chunks of the ship was an exercise in patience, given the total lack of light.

“It’s akin to going to the Rocky Mountains to find two boxes of shoes with a flashlight.”

His last thought before descending for a 2 1/2-hour stint in the submarine?

“Should I have gone to the bathroom again?”


Curiosity remains a “driving force” in his science, he said, sometimes to the detriment of his current research.

“I get excited and interested in a lot of things. This morning it was tomatoes,” he said.

At other times, it’s history.

The ocean, he said, contains “big lumps of human history,” from the Titanic to Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009.

On the Titanic, he said, there was no communications equipment, so a captain’s order that women and children get the first lifeboat seats was misunderstood as only women and children get lifeboat seats. The richest man on the ship died, he said, after he wasn’t allowed to accompany his wife onto a lifeboat with empty seats.

The ocean also has been a fertile ground for curiosity, given that perhaps 5 percent or 10 percent has been explored, depending on how you define the term.

Gallo was on the team that recovered the flight recorders from the Flight 447 wreckage, which was located using two torpedo-shaped robots.

Piloting the autonomous vehicles doesn’t require much expertise.

“Any kid who can play a video game can drive one of these robots,” Gallo said.

Finding the plane was an emotional moment, given the urge to celebrate the accomplishment.

“At the same time, it’s not a thing to celebrate,” he said. The crash killed each of the 228 passengers.

Emotions are a natural part of science, he said. “We try to make believe science is this non-emotional thing.”

New perspectives

Gallo ended his talk with a quote from the French writer Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

That can be taken almost literally, given the new equipment being designed by the engineers at Woods Hole, whom Gallo calls the “true heroes” of ocean exploration.

It may also mean thinking differently about what is already visible.

He said people used to think the ocean was too vast to be changeable by people.

“We are changing the chemistry of the ocean.”

And, though he didn’t mention it by name, he suggested it’s time to start seeing climate change differently, given we now know people can change the ocean.

“I don’t know how much more we need to know (before taking action)  ...” he said.