Legendary Scripps Geologist Receives Drake Medal

Robert L. Fisher, research geologist emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, has been awarded the inaugural Drake Medal by the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) organization. Fisher received the medal at a reception hosted by the Ocean Studies Board of the National Academies on July 7 in Woods Hole, Mass.

The Drake Medal was created specifically to honor Fisher and is a replica of the medal given to Sir Francis Drake by England’s Queen Elizabeth I in 1589 to reward his monumental circumnavigation of the globe during the previous decade, which greatly increased knowledge of world geography.

Fisher’s name has been synonymous with seafloor exploration for half a century. He received the Drake Medal particularly in recognition of his extensive and meticulous work in ocean-bottom cartography over the past six decades. During the course of his career at Scripps, he has made monumental contributions to the scientific knowledge of seafloor trenches and the composition, crustal structure and actual topography underlying the Pacific and Indian oceans. He has organized and led 16 major multiprogram, deep-sea expeditions since receiving his doctorate from Scripps in 1957.

Among Fisher’s many notable accomplishments are his use in the late 1950s of innovative sounding technologies to firmly establish that Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench is the deepest point in the world’s oceans, at 35,810 feet. In 1952 he identified Horizon Deep in the Tonga Trench as the second-deepest point in the oceans and the deepest spot in the Southern Hemisphere. His participation in Scripps expeditions to the Gulf of California in 1959 resulted in a topographic chart that clearly demonstrated the plate tectonics character of that region’s structural development. In 2000, he completed a 40-year bathymetric compilation and topographic interpretation of the greater Indian Ocean, from the northernmost shores to Antarctica.

“Bob Fisher mapped the trenches of the oceans, establishing which ones are the deepest, their structure and how they were created,” said John Sclater, professor of geophysics at Scripps and Fisher’s colleague. “What Bob did at Scripps is similar to the achievement of the famous British surveyor, Sir Andrew Waugh, who had the height of all the major Himalayan peaks established by 1856 and who named the highest one Mount Everest. He’s in that league.”

A fellow of the Explorer’s Club since 1988, in 2003 Fisher was elected an honorary member, joining the likes of John Glenn and Chuck Yeager. Fisher is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America, and an honorary life member of the United Kingdom’s Challenger Society. In honor of his contributions to marine geology, international colleagues named a huge submarine mountain range south of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean the Bob Fisher Ridge.

GEBCO was established by Prince Albert I of Monaco in 1903—the year that also saw the founding of Scripps Institution of Oceanography—to provide an authoritative, public source of bathymetry (the study of ocean floor depth and contours) data sets of the world’s oceans. GEBCO is operated by the International Hydrographic Organisation and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations.

The Ocean Studies Board was established by the National Research Council to advise the federal government on issues of ocean science, engineering and policy.

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