Archives For Bob Ballard

Thanks to the team at Nautilus Live, they just published a short behind the scenes video of mapping the U-166 from our recent voyage


Being on the E/V Nautilus is an incredible experience for anyone interested in ocean exploration. We were there to shoot a PBS NOVA episode being produced by Lone Wolf Media and featuring Bob Ballard, as well as wreck diver and U-boat expert Richie Kohler.  Nautilus is home to both a very talented team of people and cutting edge technology for exploring the deep ocean, still one of the least documented parts of our planet. One of the key elements to this equation are the remotely operated vehicles (ROV’s) that are the main tool for transporting cameras and scientific instruments to their targets. When I arrived on board, I was surprised to see the two ROV’s being used in tandem, Hercules and Argus, but all became clear as I saw how these two vehicles work together to pull off incredibly challenging missions that would be almost impossible for one unit to achieve by itself. These missions often include exploring wrecks that can be festooned with cables and debris, each obstacle waiting to snag an ROV at depths where help is impossible to find. One mistake could mean the loss of a vehicle worth millions of dollars.

The back deck of EV Nautilus, home to Argus and Hercules

The back deck of EV Nautilus, home to Argus and Hercules (Photo- David Wright)


This system is capable of exploring depths up to 4,000 meters (!3,000ft). Each of the ROVs has its own suite of cameras and sensors that receive electrical power through a steel wrapped cable ( connected to Argus ) that also carries a fiber-optic cable and transmits data and video back to the ship. Looking like Mission Control from a space mission, ROV pilots and video technicians work in shifts to control the vehicles from a room aboard the ship. Each trip is run with military precision, there is no room for error. With deployments being complicated, and depths so great, some the dives can last more than three days. Targets can include anything from ancient shipwrecks to deep sea hydrothermal vents.

The reason for having two ROV’s in tandem became clear as soon as we reached our first target, the German U-boat 166. The heavier steel cable connects the ship directly to Argus. Essentially it floats beneath the ship and has limited capabilities to maneuver. But the tether also transmits power to Argus, as well as carrying the video signals and data controlling the two units. From there, Hercules (idenditifed by yellow floatation)  is attached to Argus via a more flexible 150m cable. This enables Hercules to travel in any direction with great precision, not encumbered by the heavy tether. This is essential when exploring a complicated wreck site strewn with cables hanging from a masts, or fishing nets caught on the debris. With just the view from Hercules, it would be all too easy for the vehicle to become completely entangled. That is where the camera on Argus comes in. Looking down from above and on to Hercules, the video feed allows the pilots to see where it is in relation to the wreck and any obstacles. At any time, therefore,  the pilots can see directly in front of Hercules to see their target, but also the wider scene from Argus to identify any hazards.

tandem rov



Hercules above the deck gun- SS Robert E Lee

Hercules as seen from Argus as it approaches the wreck of the SS Robert E Lee (Photo- www,













Hercules (Photo- David Wright)



Hercules (Photo- David Wright)


Hercules is equipped with a main high-definition video camera, four HMI lights, two manipulator arms, and a variety of oceanographic sensors and samplers, including a suite of high-resolution mapping tools. It weighs about 5,200 lbs in air and can deliver approx. 150 lbs of samples or tools to and from the seafloor.

For more information you can also go to the Nautilus website page for “Herc”, learn about the unit but also view the live video stream.

Argus was first launched in 2000 as a deep-tow system capable of diving as deep as 6000 meters. As described, it now typically used in tandem with Hercules, where it hovers several meters above in order to provide a bird’s-eye view of Hercules on the seafloor. It can however work as a stand-alone system as a towed-body instrument for large-scale deepwater survey missions. Sidescan sonar looks out on either side of the vehicle up to 400 meters total swath. Argus also has its own page at the Nautilus website.


Argus (Photo- David Wright)


For the engineers, here are the specifications on the two units.

ROV Hercules Specifications

Standard Configuration​

Depth Rating 4,000 meters (13,123 feet)
Air Weight 2400 kg (5200 lbs)
Video 1x 3-chip High Definition cameras w/zoom, pan & tilt
1x Standard Definition pan & tilt camera
5x Standard Definition cameras
1x stereo high-resolution still-camera system
Lighting 4x 400W HMI, 2x 250W incandescent
Navigation Tracklink 5000 USBL acoustic position RDI acoustic Doppler velocimeter (600 & 1200 kHz); Ixsea OCTANS gyro; DVLNAV navigation software
Manipulators Kraft Predator, ISE Magnum 7-function
Sonars Mesotech 1071 series profiling sonar (300 kHz)
Imagenex 881A profiling sonar (600 kHz)
Tritech Super SeaPrince profiling sonar (600 kHz)
Sensors Sea-Bird FastCAT 49 CTD
Aanderaa optode
WHOI high-temperature probe
Sampling Tools Suction sampling system: 2x 8-liter acrylic buckets
“Snuffler” jet-suction excavation system
Suction-cup artifact recovery tool
2x sample bays, configurable with sealed biological boxes
Geologic boxes, various crates and containers


ROV Argus Specifications

Depth Rating 6,000 meters (currently limited to 4,000 meters by cable length)
Air Weight 1800 kg (4000 lbs)
Video 1x High Definition w/ zoom & tilt, 3x SD cameras
Lighting 2x 1200W HMI, 2x incandescent
Sonars Mesotech 1071 series profiling sonar (600 kHz)
Tritech SeaKing subbottom profiler (20/200 kHz)
Edgetech 4200 HF sidescan sonar (300/500 kHz)

A quick photo update for my recent trip to the Gulf of Mexico…   We has spectacular clouds but the dynamic range was challenging for even my Nikon D800, so as with the recent shot of dawn in Camden Harbor, I bracketed (5 shots at one stop intervals), but this time shot handheld as I was on a moving ship and using a tripod would have not created matching shots and would likely have transferred vibration form the engines. Fortunately the Nik HDR program did a wonderful job of removing any ghosting ( details that don’t quite align in the shot ), as well as doing a B&W conversion.


The lesson was to consider using HDR even if you can’t use a tripod or monopod… the results can be great!



HDR Sunrise over the Gulf

HDR Sunrise over the Gulf

Here are some of the highlights from the dive on the U-166 and SS Robert E Lee from on board the EV Nautilus with Bob Ballard & Richie Kohler. These are all screen captures from the video cameras aboard the remote operated vehicles (ROV’s) Hercules and Argus. To give some perspective I am also including a couple of archive shots of the two vessels. For more images go to the Nautilus site.

The images will help solve the mystery surrounding the sinking of these two vessels and will feature in an upcoming Nat Geo / NOVA episode.


robert_e_lee BW

SS Robert E Lee

U166ConningTower BW

U-Boat 166










Special thanks go to the crew of the Nautilus, Producer Kirk Wolfinger of Lone Wolf Media for inviting me to join the expedition, sound man Rob Sylvain for help during the shoot and of course wreck diver Richie Kohler

For the last three days I have had the pleasure of being on board the E/V Nautilus, the research ship run by famous deep sea explorer Bob Ballard. Best known for his discovery of the wrecks of the Titanic and Bismarck, to name just two of his amazing accomplishments, we are on a mission to explore the wreck of the WWII German U-boat 166. It was sunk by a US Navy patrol boat, with the loss of all hands. It had blown its cover when it torpedoed and sunk the US steamer Robert E Lee, close to the US coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Our journey began in Gulfport, Mississippi, to an undisclosed location over 12 hours steam away. Despite being in deep water, the position is kept secret to stop salvage companies from disturbing the wreck, which is also the grave of the 52 crew that perished when the submarine sank. Our mission is to investigate the circumstances of her sinking.


E/V Nautilus

At 211ft (64m), Nautilus can host a scientific team of 31 and is operated by a crew of 17. Multibeam sonar is used to do the first pass of targets followed by the deployment of the ROV’s Hercules and Argus. This creates detailed 3D images, followed by a HD video feed. Unlike many research organizations, the folks at Nautilus believe in immediately connecting with the public. This outreach program enables them to help educate people about the wonders of the ocean, both in terms of biological stories, but as in this case, also focusing on the rich historical artifacts hidden beneath the waves. Reporting from the field is banned on many shoots I go on, due to a fear from the television networks that another will try to create a better show and beat them to air….  It is therefore very refreshing to work with the team from Nautilus, as the video feed from the ROV’s, and from on board, stream live to the web.

Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 10.16.28 AM

The amazing footage captured by the ROV’s will be incorporated into a documentary I am helping to shoot for production company Lone Wolf Media. The show will air as a National Geographic / PBS NOVA co-production that will air later this year (date TBD)


The ROV’s waiting to be deployed

Herc UW     Hercules photographed by Argus on the wreck of the U166

Hercules photographed by Argus on the wreck of the U166

Not only I am working with the great team from Nautilus but also the NG/NOVA crew led by producer Kirk Wolfinger of the Lone Wolf Media, sound man Rob Sylvain and last but certainly not least, undersea explorer and shipwreck expert Richie Kohler. Kirk and Richie collaborated on the television series “Deep Sea Detectives” (History Channel), so they are veterans of this kind of adventure and it has been a real pleasure to be invited to be part of the team on this expedition.

Kirk Wolfinger, David Wright, Richie Kohler and Rob Sylvain

Kirk Wolfinger, David Wright, Richie Kohler and Rob Sylvain

The main focus of our shooting has been the story of the exploration of the wreck of the U-166 to investigate the circumstances of her sinking. A great story that will be revealed in the NOVA episode. Most of our time has been spent shooting in the control room for the ROV’s, which looks like the inside of a space ship. A talented team of ROV pilots and video technicians work under the direction of Bob Ballard. Richie joined Bob to share is incredible knowledge of wrecks, and in particular, U-Boats. His knowledge grew out of a fascination for solving the mystery of another U-Boat wreck off the coast of New Jersey, U-869. This is an epic story of determination to solve another mystery and it would take a whole other post to do it justice. For more information go to


Bob Ballard & Richie Kohler

Bob Ballard & Richie Kohler

The ROV control room

The ROV control room


The adventure will continue for another three days as we explore the wrecks of other US shipping that fell victim to WWII German submarines that along with U-166, were also part of operation Drumbeat. The mission brought the war to US shores and was surprisingly unknown to most people, even during the war.  In just the first six months of this mission, they sank 397 ships, totaling over 2 million tons, costing roughly 5000 lives…. greater than the loss of life on 9/11. To watch the highlights of yesterdays dive go to U-166 to go the dedicated feed on . For more details on this epic tale, watch out for an update on when the show will go to air..