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Planet ocean: Earth’s last frontier

Image credit: Nick Smith

With most of the ocean seabed unmapped, Earth’s last frontier of terrestrial discovery has become a focus of activity for explorers, scientists, cartographers and environmentalists.

Ask any explorer what there is left to explore and, apart from the vast cosmos about which we know virtually nothing, the most frequent answer will be “the ocean depths”. This is because, while the planet’s dry surface has been mapped down to the last metre, we know very little about the topography of the bottom of our oceans. Water covers 70 per cent of the globe and yet, by some estimates, only 10 per cent of the ocean floor has been explored to a significant degree. The race is now on to map the entire seabed by the end of the next decade.

“Knowledge of the oceans is more than a matter of curiosity. Our very survival might hinge on it,” said US President John F Kennedy more than half a century ago. And yet today ocean exploration is, in funding terms at least, something of an overlooked enterprise when compared with space.

Robert Ballard, the underwater archaeologist who discovered the Titanic, says that one year of Nasa’s budget would fund the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) activities for 1,600 years. Given that nominally the NOAA is the governmental equivalent to Nasa, the funding is underwhelming to say the least, despite our acknowledgement of the significance of the oceans for generations.

One of the early public advocates for ocean science, Jacques Cousteau, said that “the ocean is regarded as a sort of bargain basement. People don’t realise that water in the liquid state is very rare in the universe. Away from Earth it is usually a gas. This moisture is a blessed treasure, and it is our basic duty, if we don’t want to commit suicide, to preserve it.”

Marine biologist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Sylvia Earle says: “Most of the ocean has never been seen by anybody, let alone explored. Even in the same place, every day is different, every minute of every day. It’s a constantly dynamic system. I think of the ocean as the blue heart of the planet.” For Earle, the message is clear: “No water, no life. No blue, no green.”

The extent to which our oceans are untapped is summed up by Ballard: “Most of the southern hemisphere is unexplored. We had more exploration ships down there during Captain Cook’s time. It’s amazing.”

Ballard, who despite his reputation as one of the most accomplished wreck-hunters alive prefers to be called an underwater explorer, is in no doubt of the importance of understanding the ocean depths, despite the fact that “we have better maps of Mars”. For him, the great age of exploration on planet Earth lies not in the past with the likes of Scott and Shackleton, but with scientific expeditions of the present and future: “The age of exploration is just beginning on our planet.”

This ‘last frontier’, as it is described in Unesco’s ‘Science, Technology and Innovation Policy’, is also largely open to all. In theory, at least, there’s nothing to stop anyone from conducting their own explorations of the deep for either scientific research purposes or commercial gain, as extra-territorial deep-sea bioprospecting > < attracts few legal restrictions. The reality is that without substantial financial backing and mountains of technology, you won’t get very far.

It’s no exaggeration to say that for most of us, the best path to making a small fortune in ‘blue gold’ is to start off with a vast one. And while the treasures (literally in the case of wreck hunters) of the deep blue are free to be exploited by anyone with access to deep-sea sonar surveillance techniques, there is a growing international consensus that this needs to be carried out with a sustainable approach and environmental sensitivity.

While it is true that on dry land we now know where everything is, the same cannot be said for the submarine world. While the forging of surface trade routes goes back to at least Greek antiquity, serious exploration of the ocean depths runs on a timeline similar to that of space exploration.

Less than a decade after we set foot on the highest point on Earth, and less than a decade before the first humans walked on the Moon, the bathyscaphe Trieste descended 10,911m to the deepest known part of the Earth’s oceans, the Mariana Trench in the Pacific. Piloted by Jacques Picard and Don Walsh, the expedition failed to capture the public imagination in the way that Everest or the lunar landings did. But in terms of advancing our knowledge of the planet we live on, this historic dive paved the way for current research.

One of the most ambitious and important of today’s oceanographic projects is Seabed 2030, which, as its name suggests, has the overall aim of bringing together “all available bathygraphic data to produce the definitive map of the world ocean floor by 2030”. A data co-ordination effort between the Nippon Foundation of Japan and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), the project was launched at the UN Oceans Conference in June 2017 and is aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 14, “to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources”. Vice Admiral Shin Tani, chair of the GEBCO guiding committee, says: “Many countries are helping to map the ocean, and no one country can do that. So, our goal is to co-operate to get an image of the sea floor.”

This co-operation can come from unexpected sources. Texas-based Ocean Infinity collects high-resolution geophysical data from the seabed and was the surveying company involved in the search for the lost Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 that went missing in on 8 March 2014 and is still under investigation. The company has donated 120,000 square kilometres of data gathered by  its fleet of eight autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to Seabed 2030. Ocean Infinity CEO Oliver Plunkett says that his company’s “deep-water search for MH370 demonstrated the most rapid collection of high-resolution sonar data in history.”

While mapping constitutes a critical area of subsea scientific research, there are also more mission-specific projects under way. The Nekton Oxford Deep Ocean Research Institute has the dual aim of developing innovation in the form of data and technology, as well as putting multi­disciplinary scientific research expeditions into the field.

Selected by the UK government’s Great Campaign as an icon of UK leadership in marine science, conservation, innovation and exploration, Nekton is led by Britain’s top ocean explorer and TV presenter Oliver Steeds, whose vision is to “create a baseline of research that scientists around the world can share, so that we can all work together”.

Nekton is currently in the process of putting into the field the First Descent: Indian Ocean 2019-2022 expedition programme, which is intended to provide critical information about the waters surrounding the Seychelles. First Descent is described as “a unique collaboration of more than 40 organisations combining marine research, subsea technology, media and civil society. It is one of the most ambitious non-governmental marine expeditions ever mounted.”

While such collaborative efforts happen occasionally (“such as the International Space Station”), Steeds sees the world as, fundamentally, “America, China, Russia, going at it on our little planet”. But the “high seas – anything more than 200 miles offshore – which make up 48 per cent of the surface of our planet, belongs to you and me. It’s the last collective common. But already 1.2 million square kilometres of that seabed has been licensed to mining operations. Did you say they could do that? Did I say they could do that?”

Steeds thinks that one of the reasons for public disengagement with ocean exploration and its associated scientific research is that it’s hard to put a face on it. “One thing that struck me about the power of space exploration is witnessing actual men in space, seeing their footprints on the Moon. What’s missing with the oceans is the human connection. How many people are inspired by a robot? But you’re inspired by an astronaut.”

To rectify this in part, Steeds has chosen to use a type of submersible on his expeditions with conspicuous windows. “What’s great about our Triton submersibles is their large, transparent bubbles in front of us. It allows humans to connect with the beauty of the deep. We need to get people to see that.”

But for all the increased interest in the oceans in the early 21st century, there is a lot of work to be done. While finance, governance, collaboration and all the backroom paperwork is vital, for Steeds the future of the oceans lies equally in the charm offensive. “We need to accelerate ocean literacy from the older down to the younger. If we go to all of this trouble and don’t have any impact on the back-end, we have failed. We need to maximise the impact of everything we are doing. We try to make the most exciting stories to engage the public.” Steeds also says that if we can “shift that dial a bit”, we can’t start to impress upon politicians and policy makers “the need to explore the deep oceans”. 

Corporate social responsibility

Keeping a watch on the oceans

Subsea scientific research is becoming an attractive area for technology companies looking to develop their corporate social responsibility portfolios. With marine science ticking the boxes of sustainable development, environmental awareness and conservation, there’s a potent synergy for organisations wishing to promote their own green credentials, while doing their bit for the planet. But it’s nothing new, as Swiss luxury watch maker Blancpain has “invested in fostering the exploration, preservation and improved knowledge of the world of the oceans” for the past 65 years.

Blancpain’s involvement started with the launch of its Fifty Fathoms diving watch in 1953 – the world’s first modern diver’s watch – and has evolved into a CSR programme that has funded 18 major scientific expeditions and oceanographic exploration projects, including National Geographic’s Pristine Seas (2011-16) and underwater photographer Laurent Ballestra’s Gombessa Project (since 2013). The company has “contributed to doubling the surface of marine protected areas around the world with the addition of more than four million square kilometres of newly protected ocean”.

Operating since 2014 under the banner Blancpain Ocean Commitment, the project also aims to raise awareness. In addition, the company supports the World Ocean Summit, with stated values of long-term vision, optimism and innovation. However, Blancpain president and CEO Mark A Hayek sees the collaboration as going “far beyond” simply developing markets for his watches: “While our legendary Fifty Fathoms timepieces have, of course, played a central role, while working closely with leading scientists, environmentalists, explorers and underwater photographers we have come to understand the critical importance of supporting the cause of preserving and protecting the oceans.”


Subsea discovery timeline

1912: Sinking of Titanic leads to development of acoustic subsea technology.

1914: First acoustic exploration of sea. Reginald Fessenden uses oscillator technology to bounce signals off icebergs and seabed.

1925: German ‘Meteor’ expedition surveys South Atlantic with echo sounders.

1934: William Beebe is lowered in a tethered bathysphere to 923m, pioneering manned exploration of ocean depths.

1943: Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan modify demand breathing regulator to engineer the ‘Aqua-Lung’.

1954: Untethered submersible dive record. Georges Huout and Pierre Willm descend to 4,041m off the coast of West Africa in French research vessel.

1955: US Coast and Geodetic Survey ship Pioneer tows first marine magnetometer and discovers magnetic striping.

1960: Trieste explores the Mariana Trench recording depth of 10,912m.

1965: Underwater scientific laboratory Sealab II lowered off coast of California.

1970: Sylvia Earle leads first team of women aquanauts during Tektile project.

1977: Robert Ballard discovers hydrothermal vents.

1985: Robert Ballard discovers wreck of Titanic at depth of 3,810m.

1992: Topex/Poseidon satellite begins mapping surface of sea.

1995: Worldwide mapping of seafloor starts with GEOSAT radar altimetry data from US Navy Earth observation satellite.

2012: Filmmaker James Cameron makes first successful solo dive to Earth’s deepest known point in the Mariana Trench.

2017: Seabed 2030 - International scientific team announces plan to map entire floor of Earth’s oceans by 2030.

2019: American Victor Vescovo solo dives to 10,928m in the Mariana Trench.


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