The Earth is 70% water, yet mankind has never traveled to the planet’s deepest point, and has encountered only around 10% of what lives down there. New submersible technology is about to change that.
‘‘I’d like to be, under the sea, in an octopus’s garden, in the shade…” Child-orientated Ringo song this may have been, but along with ‘Yellow Submarine’ and the films by renowned ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, it inspired a generation of people to dream about exploring the depths of our oceans. Even further back, people interested in science and science fiction have been inspired to think about ocean exploration by classic stories like Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
So what has happened? Aside from the popular pursuits of beach swimming and scuba diving, few people spend time in or under the waters of our oceans and seas.
We have little idea what wonders will be encountered by deepwater explorers. But chances are some of it won’t be pretty. Take this beastie, the Sloane’s Viperfish, or Chauliodus sloani, from the Australian Museum Fish Collection. The sides of the body are covered with hexagonal pigmented areas, each with one or more small light-producing organs. The photo above taken by Stuart Humphries (© Australian Museum) shows how extraordinary creatures well below the surface of oceans can look like.
I write short articles as well as long feature “explainer” articles on topics including: Google Android Smartphones and Tablets, National Broadband Network (NBN), Space, Civil & Military Aviation, Ebooks and the Publishing Industry, Electric cars, Technology augmenting human capabilities etc for Geare Magazine. The editor of GEARE has kindly permitted me to post articles here after the magazine issue the article was printed in has passed its shelf life. I have added updates where new information is relevant.
Where No One Has Gone Before
According to the US Geological Survey about 70% of the Earth’s surface is watercovered, and the oceans hold about 96.5% of all Earth’s water.
Humans spend billions of dollars ever year on space exploration but only a tiny fraction of that on exploring the vast expanses of oceans, especially the ‘hidden’ depths. As an example, the surface of Mars is mapped to a resolution of a few metres, but there are vast expanses of Earth’s ocean floor which are totally unknown.
“When you go down a few hundred feet, you’re looking at a piece of the planet no humans seen ever before – that is captivating for every human on the planet, even if they don’t think they’re an explorer,” says Graham Hawkes, one of the world’s foremost designers of submersibles.” Once you’re down there it’s incredibly compelling to keep going.”
Hawkes began his career as a mechanical engineer in the UK and US Armed Forces, working on torpedos and submarines. He noticed how little underwater craft had evolved compared with their counterparts in the space and aviation industry. He now has a company, Hawkes Ocean Technologies, that has the capability to build “Deepflight” underwater craft to go down to the deepest depths of the sea – places where humans have never been able to venture before.
It’s a wondrous world down there, but a challenging one for designers, he told the BBC in a recent interview.
“The very bottom, as best we know, is about 36,000 feet (10,973 metres), at a pressure of 16,000 PSI which is enormous and terrifying,” says Hawkes. “So if we took a sphere, which is the best geometry to resist that pressure, and take titanium which is the lightest, strongest metal we have, that will only get you halfway. So we need new materials and different geometries and it has to be really lightweight or the budget won’t work.”
As an engineer and designer famous for “getting things done”, Hawkes is wary of government investments in his research and development. So he approached ultra-rich entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson and Steve Fossett to finance his projects, and this funding has been intermittent. When Fossett unexpectedly died in an aircraft accident in 2007 it threw Hawkes’ plans into chaos.
But just recently, Hawkes announced that DeepFlight submersibles have been built for billionaire Richard Branson and venture capitalist Tom Perkins (who had stepped up to the plate to replace Fossett’s involvement). Perkins plans a multi-year expedition beginning with dives with the “big animals” of the South Pacific.
Branson’s new non-profit company Virgin Oceanic has plans to conduct scientific research and to expand our knowledge of the unique conditions, ecosystems, and geology that exist at the bottom of the oceans, in conjunction with scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Southern California, the University of Hawaii and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
It plans five initial dives (see map above) to the:
- deepest spot on the planet, Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench (11034 metres);
- Atlantic Ocean’s Puerto Rico Trench (8380 metres);
- Indian Ocean’s Diamantina Trench (8047 metres);
- Southern Ocean’s South Sandwich Trench (7235 metres);
- and the Arctic Ocean’s Molloy Deep (5607 metres).
In making his Virgin Oceanic announcement Branson made the point about exploring our own planet clearly:
“What if I were to tell you about a planet, inhabited by intelligent beings that had, in the 21st century, physically explored 0% of its deepest points and mapped only 3% of its oceans by unmanned craft, when 70% of that planet’s surface was made up of water. Then I tried to convince you that only 10% of the life forms inhabiting that unknown world are known to those on the surface. You’d think I’d fallen asleep watching the latest sci-fi blockbuster… Then you discover that planet is Earth…”
This article was originally published in GEARE Magazine issue #66. It is “digitally reprinted” here with permission from the editor. I have added updates where new information is relevant.