The Exploration of The Deep


I haven’t blogged for a while and main reason for that has been Claire Nouvian’s book: “The Deep”. The book contained one specific article by Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover that led me to studying a lot more about deep-sea exploration. That article was called “The Exploration of The Deep”.

Earth’s Largest Living Realm

I knew basically nothing about deep-sea exploration before I started reading Claire Nouvian’s book. Now when I’ve spent time reading it, I realize that oceanographers are our modern-day explorers.

The difference between today’s adventures and those undertaken by Columbus or Livingstone lies in the equipment: submersibles and remote-controlled robots have replaced caravels and slide rules. (Claire Nouvian)

Especially the ones focusing on the depths of our oceans, are often the first ones to visit those places. Interesting fact is that there has been more people on Moon than on the deepest known place of our oceans. According to Wikipedia, there have been 12 men on the Moon. On the other hand there have been 3 people (Jacques Piccard, Don Walsh, James Cameron) on the Challenger Deep, in Mariana Trench.

At 150 m depth, 99% of sunlight has been absorbed by water. Below 1000 m, it’s total, inky blackness for all.

The deep sea was long considered as a lifeless world. British naturalist Edward Forbes declared in 1858, that life could not exist below 300 fathoms (~550 m). This statement was later discredited by Sir Charles Wyville Thomson, who was, according to Wikipedia, chief scientist on Challenger expedition. Challenger expedition laid the foundation to oceanography. Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover described Thomson’s expeditions on the book.

Over four years, Thomson and his colleagues scraped the seafloor with trawls and dredges at depths of up to nearly five miles and recovered more than 4000 new species of marine life. The dredged-up animals were often mangled almost beyond recognition, but they were nevertheless precious specimens that revealed hitherto untold tales about the rich diversity of deep-sea fauna.

There were limits to what could be inferred from these samples; they often provided little insight into the way life on the seafloor looked, or into how the animals might interact with one another. To paraphrase explorer and humanist Théodore Monod, attempting to understand life in the deep sea using dredges is like aliens trying to understand life on Earth by blindly dangling a hook from space and retrieving a cockroach, a t-shirt, and an iPod.

Trawls and dredges allow us to measure the biological diversity found in the deep sea — they are still used today for species counts and other statistics — but they are almost useless for understanding animal behavior in natural settings. To achieve this goal, one needs to observe organisms in their environment. (Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover)

Current estimates about the number of species yet to be discovered from deep sea vary between 10 and 30 million. On the other hand, number of known species populating the planet today, whether terrestrial, aerial, or marine, is estimated at about 1.4 million. This explains why deep sea truly is Earth’s largest living realm.

Crossota sp., a deep red medusa found just off the bottom of the deep sea. Image courtesy of Kevin Raskoff, California State University, Monterey Bay.

Crossota sp., a deep red medusa found just off the bottom of the deep sea. Image courtesy of Kevin Raskoff, California State University, Monterey Bay. Via Flickr, Creative Commons License.

If someone is thinking now what deep sea actually means, according to Wikipedia it is the layer that is on the depth of 1800 m or more.

I mentioned earlier that below 1000 m there is total, inky blackness. This is true and also far from reality. Reason for it being far from reality is bioluminescence. Dr. Edith Widder wrote on the book about bioluminescence.

There are only a few creatures on land that can make light. Fireflies and glowworms are some of the best-known examples, but there are a handful of others such as some earthworms, click beetles, snails, centipedes, and fungi. These, however, are relatively rare and they do not play a significant role in the balance of nature.

By contrast, in the oceans there are so many animals that make light that there are vast regions where as many as 80 to 90% of the animals collected in the nets are bioluminescent. In the ocean bioluminescence is the rule rather than the exception.

Bioluminescence occurs in all the world’s oceans from surface to bottom and from coast to coast. Appreciating how animals use their lights is important to understanding this ecosystem that represents more than 99% of our biosphere. Various light-producing chemicals extracted from different animals have also proved enormously valuable in medical and genetic research. Living lights in the ocean are beautiful, mysterious, useful to humans, and absolutely essential to the animals that possess them. (Dr. Edith Widder)

Photo by NOAA's National Ocean Service via Flickr, Creative Commons License.

Photo by NOAA’s National Ocean Service via Flickr, Creative Commons License.

Majority of deep-sea animals create their own light and that makes bioluminescence the most widely used mode of communication on the planet. Théodore Monod described this (bioluminescent) masterfully on the book.

Two things used to leave Kant awestruck: the star-studded sky above him and the morality within man’s heart. Had our philosopher taken a dive in a bathyscaphe, he no doubt would have added a third ‘wonder to the world’ to his short list: the fairy-like ballet of bioluminescent sparks that dot the abyssal night. (Théodore Monod)

Tools for Exploration

Because of the challenging conditions of deep sea, it took long before first explorers descended into the unvisited depths. In year 1934, deep sea pioneers William Beebe and Otis Barton, reached the depth of 923 m (according to Wikipedia). 26 years later, as mentioned earlier, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh became the first to explore Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench. 0855409They went there with Trieste, bathyscaphe designed by the Swiss professor Auguste Piccard (Jacques’s father). Trieste was a sort of deep-sea elevator that could go up and down, but not horizontally. This limited a lot its ability to explore in the depths. Nevertheless, it was first piece of technology that enabled us to reach the deepest known place on our planet.

The ALVIN submersible begins its descent to the bottom. 2006 May 21.
Photographer: Gavin Eppard, WHOI.
Credit: Expedition to the Deep Slope/NOAA/OER.

Trieste inspired others to invent more sophisticated submersibles. Examples of these are AlvinArchimède and Nautile. Submersibles like Alvin, could move freely on the ocean instead of bathyscaphes, which extended our ability to explore the deep sea. Alvin can dive to 4500 m currently, but there are plans to increase the maximum operating depth to approximately 6500 m.

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Alvin can remain submerged for 10 hours under normal conditions, although its life support system will allow the sub and its occupants to remain underwater for 72 hours.

10 or 72 hours may sound like a lot, but when you consider the 2 hours that it takes from Alvin to dive to its maximum depth, and another two hours back. You realize that large portion of its time is spent on going up and down. Also, according to NOAA, Alvin and Atlantis (the ship) costs $30.000 per day, which makes it an expensive option. Because of these and few other reasons, many scientists use ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles) and lately AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles).

ROVs can remain submerged several days because of the cable powering them from the surface. They provide visibility for explorers by transmitting video in real time. You can also take samples with mechanical arms. One of the most famous ROVs is probably Kaikō, built by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) for exploration of the deep sea. Kaiko was the second vessel that dived into Challenger Deep, since Piccard and Walsh went there on 1960. Unfortunately, Kaiko was lost at sea on 2003.

U.S. Navy photo by Mr. John F. Williams (RELEASED). Via Flickr Creative Commons Search.

U.S. Navy photo by Mr. John F. Williams (RELEASED). Via Flickr Creative Commons Search.

Despite the usefulness of ROVs, there are though disadvantages and perhaps the biggest one is the cable that is required for operating the vehicle. Partly because of this AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) have been, and are being, developed. These could give us the freedom that ROVs lack of. There’s still though long way to go until AUVs replace ROVs on exploring the ocean.

Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover wrote about the usage of technology on the book. This quotation was one of the primary reasons why I became interested of deep-sea exploration.

Since the discovery of hydrothermal vents in 1977, the pace of exploration in the deep sea has steadily increased, fueled by the finding of novel adaptations to extreme environments and by the gain of fundamental insights into how our planet works.

Our increasing ability to access the seafloor with new tools and sensors promotes and enhances exploratory activities. Tethered and untethered robots are now the tools of choice for many of the challenges faced by deep-sea explorers.

Nevertheless, the construction of two new human-occupied submersibles, one Chinese and the other American, underscores the anticipated need for a human presence on the seafloor for the next half century. (Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover)

Current technology promotes and enhances our exploratory activities. This is the reason why technological advances are crucial for deep-sea exploration. It’s good to though remember that even though our exploratory activities are performed with the help of technology, we as a humans are still the ones that decide what to explore and how to interpret the data gained from our explorations.

I actually sent an email to Cindy Lee Van Dover, where I asked about the “anticipated need for a human presence on the seafloor”. I wanted to know more about the benefits of us being down there on the submersible instead of ROVs and AUVs.  She hasn’t replied yet.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – Ocean Explorer

When I started searching more information about deep-sea exploration, I quickly found National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Ocean Explorer website. The website is dedicated for providing information on NOAA’s ocean exploration activities, especially those being undertaken via funding from the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

It’s amazing how much information you can find from specific explorations. There’s mission plan, science objectives, mission log, photos, videos and introductions of people who are participating the explorations. All these create an interesting story about the explorations for people like me. What thrilled me the most though, was Ask an Explorer section. This gave you the chance of sending an email to Melissa Ryan, who would forward it to explorers. I just had to try this and was highly satisfied with it. I received thoughtful answer in few days.

Question fromAleksis, Finland
You seem to gather a lot of information with technical equipment (data, images, video). How about traditional note taking? Is there a need for taking notes with either pen and paper, or perhaps a laptop? If yes, what kind of notes?

Answer from:Brendan Roark, Assistant Professor, Texas A&M University
Yes, we take other types of notes. For example I take notes on my laptop of our position, what the bottom looks like, what organisms are present, technical problems and other important events like the first sighting of a coral during the dive or cruise. We use these notes to write our dive summaries. I also take pen and paper notes on a printed version of our dive map to help me keep track of where we have been.

There is also the IM chat room that logs all of the notes all the scientists make. We use all these notes and data, both the data, images, video and transitional notes to do our daily dive reports and web summaries. We also have pre and post dive meetings via conference phone to discuss and plan past and future dives, so that is also a more traditional form of communication.

I recommend that you explore NOAA Ocean Explorer’s website, if you’re interested any of the things I’ve written so far. For that matter, you might also want to check out their Youtube channel which contains many fascinating videos.

Space: the final frontier… Or is it?

When I was perhaps 12 or 13 years old, I used to investigate the craters of Moon with my telescope. Whole space was that large, mainly unexplored, territory that fascinated my mind. I watched movies of astronauts and read books about our Solar System. Needless to say, Star Trek was natural continuum for all those already mentioned.

Now, 18 or 19 years later, I’m genuinely surprised that we know so little about our oceans. More importantly, many of us don’t know that we know so little about them. There are millions of species to be found from our oceans and many of those can teach us valuable things in research (e.g. medical and genetic).

Lately the focus has been calibrated more toward the deepest places of our oceans. News about race to the bottom of the ocean support this. One can think about the motives of the people involved with missions like this, but it reminds people about the ocean and how little we know about it.

Cindy Lee Van Dover started her career on the year (1982) that I came to this world. Among many other achievements she was a pilot-in-command of 48 dives with submersible Alvin. She was the main reason for me ending up writing this blog post and studying about deep-sea exploration. It is appropriate that I’ll end this post to her words.

Man has observed less than 1% of the seafloor; the challenge lies before us. During the twentieth century, the deep sea became accessible. In this twenty-first century, the deep sea will become known. (Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover)