Diving Deep

Inside the amazing world of the renowned oceanographer David Gallo '79, MS'83
By Jim Sciancalepore, MA '93

14,000 feet below the ocean surface – or approximately 10 Empire State Buildings down – lies a world of darkness and mystery.

Bioluminescent creatures skitter and glide like fantastic aliens, computer generated by Hollywood special effects artists. Adorable, colorful dumbo octopuses bounce playfully along the ocean floor, while vampire squids with clawed tentacles glide menacingly by.

Temperatures here hover around the freezing mark, and the pressure is literally crushing — more than 1,000 times the pressure felt at the water’s surface. This is an inhospitable place for almost anything with lungs. For perspective, scuba divers generally become incapacitated at only 250 feet down.

In volcanically active areas of the ocean floor, great chimneys rise more than 100 feet tall. These hydrothermal vents, emerging from cracks in the Earth’s crust, spew black and white smoke into the deep ocean water. Eight-foot-long tubeworms, three-foot-long silvery eelpouts and bottom-dwelling mollusks make their homes around the massive vents — sustained by the combination of heat and abundant minerals.  

These and other wonders abound. The vast, dark ocean depths conceal a teeming, biodiverse ecosystem that rivals the Brazilian rainforest, mountain ranges that dwarf Mount Everest and deep-water basins that make Lake Superior seem like a shallow pond.

On rare occasions, one can also find evidence of another fascinating creature here: artifacts of humankind. Shipwrecks, fishing gear, plastic litter…the flotsam and jetsam of invaders from above.

Dangerous. Beautiful. Unexplored. This is the world of David Gallo.

Gallo at sea smiling.
Riding The Wave
Gallo turned his passion for science into a lifetime of research, education and advocacy.
"Fundamentally, I'm an explorer."
Sticky Fingers
Deep-sea-dwelling brisingid sea stars use velcro-like claws to capture tiny prey. Photo: ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

UAlbany alum Gallo is a man of many titles.

He is perhaps best known as an oceanographer, with decades of experience in deep sea exploration. For nearly 30 years, Gallo was director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), the preeminent research laboratory on the coast of Cape Cod.  

Gallo flexing muscles on a beach.
Sand Man
Gallo at the ocean’s edge circa 1979. Photo: William S. Kidd

One could call Gallo an underwater archaeologist or even “oceanic detective,” an expert at finding and studying lost wrecks. Gallo was senior adviser for strategic initiatives at RMS Titanic Inc., where he helmed a multi-year effort to produce the most detailed analysis of the cruise liner’s wreck site.

An acclaimed public speaker and educator, as well as an outspoken advocate for the protection of the Earth’s oceans, Gallo has been described by TED Conferences as “an enthusiastic ambassador between the sea and those of us on dry land.”  

In addition to his Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of Rhode Island, Gallo is also a geologist, – having earned his B.S. and M.S. in the former Department of Geological Sciences subject at UAlbany.

Scientist. Ambassador. Educator. Detective. When asked what title he most prefers, Gallo answered without hesitation. “Fundamentally, I’m an explorer,” he said. “I’m driven by curiosity. Always have been.”

From shoe salesman to science star

As a working-class kid growing up in upstate New York in the 1960s and 1970s, Gallo loved science, but he didn’t like school. He was a self-described “horrible student,” who preferred working hands-on in his school’s rocketry club or studying the night sky with his telescope. Years later, he would learn there was a reason for his academic struggles: he had attention deficit disorder (ADD). At the time, however, he was simply labelled an underachieving student.

“I truly wanted to be a scientist, but they told me I didn’t have the aptitude for it,” said Gallo. “And, unfortunately, I respected, trusted and believed them.”

Upon graduating high school, the future world-renowned oceanographer spent the next six years working in a shoe store on Wolf Road in Albany, N.Y. Though he was “pretty good at selling shoes,” there was clearly something missing in his life. A fateful sign arrived one day in the form of a magazine. National Geographic, August, 1976.

A red-orange octopus grabs on to an underwater mechanical arm.
Arm In Arms
A deep ocean octopus (Benthoctopus) was surprisingly curious about the Alvin submarine’s robotic arm. ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

“I opened the magazine to a story about exploring the Atlantic in a deep-ocean submersible named Alvin,” recalled Gallo. “That image did something to me…it threw a switch!”

One of the scientists mentioned in that article was Paul “Jeff” Fox, a geology professor from UAlbany, just a few miles away from the shoe store where Gallo worked. With his love of science rekindled, Gallo sought out Fox and applied to the university.

“I was impressed with his (Gallo’s) relaxed intelligence and willingness to look at situations from perspectives that were not necessarily obvious,” recalled Fox, now a professor at Montana State University, of their initial meeting. “He expressed an interest in studying with me, and off we went.”

Performing research in UAlbany’s geology department with Fox as his mentor — including hands-on field work in marine geology — Gallo had found his calling. Fox noted Gallo’s “innate sense of how the Earth worked” and his ability to distill complex concepts into scannable charts and visuals.

As part of Fox’s team, the young man who allegedly “didn’t have the aptitude for college” would make his first dive in the Alvin submarine, present a paper at an international meeting and earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in geology. Gallo then followed Fox to the University of Rhode Island, where he ultimately earned a doctorate in oceanography.

In 1987, Gallo was offered an exciting marine research position in Hawaii that was “paved with interesting programs and funding.” Fate, however, once again intervened. He received an unexpected call from Robert Ballard, a researcher at WHOI and the very scientist who co-authored the1976 National Geographic article that changed Gallo’s life. Ballard offered him a job.

“I don’t know…what you’ll do here, but I promise you’ll be the first person to ever do it.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, Ballard and the WHOI team’s research was game changing in the realm of deep-sea exploration and maritime archaeology. They were the first to identify and study hydrothermal vents, and he and his team are credited with finding some of the world’s most famous shipwrecks — from RMS Titanic to JFK’s PT-109.

A white and pink dumbo octopus hovers outside a window.
Hello, Dumbo
A curious dumbo octopus (Grimpoteuthis) floats by the Alvin submarine’s window. ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Ballard’s job offer to Gallo was enticingly open-ended. “He said, ‘I don’t know what I can pay you or exactly what you’ll do here, but I promise you’ll be the first person to ever do it,’” noted Gallo with a laugh. “Of course, I took the job.”  

He soon found himself leading expeditions inside the same Alvin submersible that captivated and inspired him years before. The experience did not disappoint.

“You go into another world,” said Gallo, describing a deep-water dive. Flowing currents, mud and sand, no light. Your heart is racing. It’s breathtaking.”

Over the next three decades, Gallo would take many such dives, as he and the team at WHOI would lead undersea research in exciting new directions while reaching previously unreachable depths. This included developing sophisticated tactics for “mapping” the seafloor in intricate detail through a combination of manned submarines, robotic autonomous vehicles, high-definition imaging and sonar.  

These techniques and technologies have revolutionized deep sea exploration, making it less dangerous and more efficient. They also have made it possible to solve some of the ocean’s greatest mysteries.

Gallo, Pierre and several other sailors on the deck of the Alvin.
Early Alvin
Gallo (right) and tectonic plate expert Pierre Choukroune examine the Alvin submarine circa 1979. Photo: William S. Kidd

The Download on Alvin: The Ultimate Ocean Floor Explorer

What is Alvin?

Alvin is the WHOI’s iconic ocean research submersible...first commissioned in 1964. Smaller and more nimble compared to other submarines of the day, Alvin could initially reach a maximum depth of 6,000 feet.

Where did Alvin’s name come from?

Alvin is named after one of the scientists who inspired its creation: the engineer and geophysicist Allyn Vine.

How has Alvin evolved since 1964?

Alvin’s steel body was replaced by stronger, lighter titanium. The single propeller was replaced by four thrusters, improving maneuverability. New robotic arms, LED lighting and high-definition cameras improved Alvin’s ability to gather samples and collect data. Today’s version of Alvin can reach depths beyond 14,000 feet (almost three miles down).

How many researchers can fit inside Alvin?

A maximum of three, working in tight confines.

How long does it take Alvin to reach the ocean floor, and how long do dives last?

It takes Alvin about two hours to reach maximum depth, and another two to get back. With a maximum dive time of 10 hours, that gives researchers inside approximately 5-6 hours to perform deep sea research.

10 hours? Does Alvin have a bathroom?

Unfortunately, no. But there is a sign displayed on Alvin’s equally iconic support ship, The Atlantis, which reads “PB4UGO.”

Photo: ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Gallo and researchers review document on the Titanic.

Seeing Titanic like never before

In March of 2022, the world’s imagination was captured by the discovery of the Endurance, the legendary shipwreck from Ernest Shackleton’s 1915 expedition to the Antarctic. Much to his chagrin, Gallo was not involved in that expedition.

“We missed that one,” said Gallo with a wry smile. “But I’m happy for their team.”

Of course, Gallo played a pivotal role in the study of another, perhaps even more famous shipwreck: the RMS Titanic, which sank off the coast of Newfoundland in 1912. Though discovered by Ballard and team in1985, the giant ocean liner was 2.5 miles down in murky Atlantic water, and the wreck site spanned more than two miles. In the late 1980s, the technology simply didn’t exist to complete a detailed analysis. The great ship would lie in wait for another two decades.

In 2010, Gallo led a team of archaeologists, oceanographers and scientists on an expedition to map every inch of the wreckage — creating the first virtual reconstruction of the ship. He recalled what it was like when he and his fellow scientists first viewed the 3-D images from their fleet of underwater vehicles.

“We’re all huddled around the computer monitor and, suddenly, these stunning images appear…it’s like we’re standing on the deck of the Titanic!” said Gallo. “When you hear scientists cheer, you know it’s a big win.”

A black and white composite image of the Titanic.
Titanic Achievement
This composite image of the Titanic wreckage was made from sonar and more than 100,000 photos taken by robotic submersibles - utilizing techniques developed by Gallo and other researchers. © 2012 RMS Titanic, Inc.
A part of the Titanic rusted and hauntingly green underwater
Gallo stands behind gigantic red TED letters.
Dave Gallo

Top TED Talker

Gallo views his many public speaking engagements as a way of “giving back” — helping to share his love and respect for the ocean with everyone from global CEOs to grade school kids. Gallo’s TED presentation “Underwater Astonishments” has tallied more than 16 million views and is one of the all-time top TED Talks.

Finding the unfindable: Air France 447

A man holds a control box while standing on a boat deck and looking out toward the sea.
©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

In June 2009, Air France Flight 447 set out from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, bound for Paris. The flight never reached its destination, instead disappearing a few hours after takeoff somewhere over the Atlantic. The Brazilian Navy recovered evidence of the crash within five days, but the majority of the plane and its two flight recorders remained lost.

An inconclusive search area, deep and difficult ocean conditions and international and logistical complexities hampered efforts to locate the aircraft. Months passed, with no success. Gallo and his team offered to help.

By applying some of the same research techniques they had developed to study the Titanic and other shipwrecks, the team located the ill-fated aircraft in 2011. While it was a somber discovery, Gallo was extremely proud of the outcome.

“We solved a riddle, we hopefully provided some closure for the families and we recovered the black boxes, which will help improve airline safety in the future,” noted Gallo. “This was a great accomplishment.”

Next stop: Atlantis?

When asked what’s next for this intrepid explorer, Gallo did not say “retirement” – he wants to find the lost city of Atlantis. No, he’s not kidding. To be clear, Gallo isn’t searching for Aquaman or mermaids; he wants to uncover the archeological remains of the great city that inspired the myth.

Gallo is among a group of scientists who believe there is a grain of truth to the stories of a highly advanced aquatic civilization, as mentioned in the writings of Plato dating back to 400 B.C. There is growing evidence that the real Atlantis was located along the coast of Santorini, a Greek island. As the theory goes, a natural disaster — such as a volcanic eruption or earthquake — befell the island. The great city was destroyed, and over time the achievements of a factual place became the stuff of legend.

“In my world, you never say never,” said Gallo, with his trademark curiosity still brimming. He was also quick to point out that, in spite of the many advances in oceanic research, more than 90% of the world’s oceans remain largely unexplored.  

“There is still so much left to learn.”