Ocean exploration: the deep space age

The race is on to discover what lies at the bottom of the world’s final undiscovered frontier: its seas. Far from being a pursuit of wealthy celebrities or curious scientists, oceanography has become a key geopolitical consideration, with marine conservation and the securing of resources new priorities for global powers

On 26 March of last year, a large green submersible touched down gently on the sea floor. Plumes of silt billowed across the surface – which had likely been undisturbed for centuries – while spindly crabs and slithering eels peered out warily at their unusual visitor. On the water’s surface, 11,000 metres above the isolated sea craft, the visit to the ocean bottom was creating substantially more attention. After all, the pilot was Hollywood mogul James Cameron, and he had just become the first man to glide solo to the world’s deepest point.

Cameron may be the most high-profile deep-ocean explorer of recent years, but he’s certainly not alone among billionaires in pursuit of glory, adventure and scientific discovery on the sea floor. Virgin Oceanic – funded by Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson – is developing a submersible to visit the deepest point in each of the planet’s five oceans. Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, used advanced deep-sea sonar instruments to locate the discarded engines of Nasa’s Apollo 11 spacecraft, and is planning an expedition to retrieve them from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Google, who is estimated to be worth US$7bn, is bankrolling the Schmidt Ocean Institute. The ocean’s depths – the final unexplored frontier on Earth – are suddenly getting rather crowded.

Exploration resurgence

In China, the Jiaolong submersible (capable of 7,000-metre dives) has access to a larger proportion of sea floor than all other manned research vehicles. Last June, three Chinese oceanauts at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean placed a call to their countrymen in space, who were piloting their Shenzhou 9 spacecraft through complex docking manoeuvres. The message was clear: China is investing significant financial and political capital in deep-sea exploration, which fuels the duel fires of national pride and technological advancement in much the same way as its fledgling space programme.

So why is deep-sea exploration seeing a resurgence? What is so fascinating about the darkness beneath the waves that has billionaires and governments racing to develop new capabilities?
Among private oceanographic benefactors, the combination of enhanced submersible technologies and the urge to distinguish themselves from their caviar-slurping, mansion-building, peers have fuelled the race to the bottom.

Sylvia Earle, the grande dame of oceanography, has rubbed neoprene-covered elbows with many of the big players through her work as an ocean researcher, ambassador and advocate. “There are some wealthy individuals who are just indulging their fantasies,” she says. “But for the most part, they get a thrill out of making a difference, by finding something really important to contribute to, and that makes it much more worthwhile.”

Victor Zykov is the Director of Science Operations at the Schmidt Ocean Institute, which he believes was founded with the same world-changing intent that characterised Schmidt’s tenure as Google’s CEO. “One of the reasons Eric and his wife, Wendy, wanted to do this is that changes in the oceans are occurring, and the consequences of those changes are difficult to understand,” he explains.

Government-backed endeavours have different motivations – from strategic defence interests to resource acquisition to national prestige. China’s deep-sea programme embodies all three, and while it’s a relatively recent participant on the world stage, oceanographic advancement has been a deliberate, concerted effort for nearly two decades. Dean Cheng, a Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, points to the 863 plan as the birth of China’s scientific ambitions. Initiated in 1986 by four prominent engineers, the programme focuses on investments in science and technology. In its initial configuration, 863 prioritised seven sectors (including biotechnology, space and automation), and marine technology was added to the roster in 1996.

Remarkable discoveries

To Cheng, the addition of oceanography to the plan made perfect sense. “China had become more of a maritime power,” he says, “and the ocean had become more strategically important as the country’s centre of gravity moved from inland areas to the coast.” The government recently broke ground on the National Deep Sea Center in Qingdao, which will manage an ambitious 50 dives per year, as well as a nuclear-powered deep-sea station that would create a more permanent presence on the sea floor.

“This is an opportunity to kill multiple birds with one stone,” explains Cheng, “to build prestige, expand economic development, explore underwater canyons that might be useful for transporting a submarine fleet, and provide an impetus for keeping people interested in studying various sciences. It makes perfect sense for China to invest in oceanographic research, and it has become a major programme.”

Regardless of specific driving factors or sources of money, deep-sea researchers are making remarkable new discoveries, and reconfiguring our understanding of the planet in the process.

Malcolm Clark is a Principal Scientist at New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research and the leader of a recent expedition to the Kaikoura submarine canyon in the South Pacific. Clark and his team were greeted by several new species, including an eelpout, a rattail and giant amphipods 10 times larger than other known variants. The expedition demonstrated just how little we really understand about the oceans.

But despite this, Earle remains optimistic. “Never before have we known what we know now. The best hope is that now that we know the effect we’re having on the oceans, we’ll have the foresight and strength to do something about it.”