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Discovering Deep Sea Worlds – How Do They Do It?
Our last post was about how much of the world there was left to explore –most of it was in our oceans. With exploration inevitably comes innovation, whether it is new methods, devices or technology to make the task better or more fruitful. This innovation fascinates us here at Discovery Retreats, and it’s what you voted on for this blog – to learn more about the technological innovation that is making today’s deep-sea explorations possible.
It may be surprising to learn that the Vikings, who used sounding weights to test the depth of the waters, undertook the first deep-sea exploration. Sounding weights are lead weights with a hollow bottom attached to a line. When dropped in the water, the weight hits the bottom and can collect a small sample of seabed. When hauled up, the sailors would measure the length of wet rope in fathoms, thus providing a measure of the depth.
Sounding weights were the standard for years, and throughout the 19th century when the first real attempts at mapping the sea floor were attempted. The journey of the HMS Challenger from 1872 to 1876, comprised of British scientists was tasked solely with mapping out the ocean floor. They logged 68,890 nautical miles of sea floor and are credited with charting the first deep basins and over 4,700 new marine species to boot.
Flash forward to the early 20th century and we see huge advances in the ability to study the deep oceans. We see the development of sonar – the ability to measure and navigate distances via sound waves. Submarine technology took a huge leap forward and the prowled the seas during the two World Wars.
Fortunately, the advancement of underwater technology wasn’t just for use in warfare. In 1929 American engineer Otis Barton designed the bathysphere, a round submersible lowered by tethers, which allowed he and naturalist William Beebe to be the first humans the first look at the deep sea. Until their dive, divers using tethers for their oxygen could only reach 100 ft. before pressure became a problem, and submarines had no windows to view their surroundings preventing any kind of research. They set a world depth record in 1934, descending to 3,028 ft.
The world depth record was shattered in 1960 when Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh took their bathysphere, the Trieste to the depth of 35,236 ft. in the Marianas Trench. Not without danger – as the sphere cracked on the way down – their expedition gave the first real picture of the life that lurks in the deep seas, previously thought impossible.
SCUBA equipment (self contained breathing apparatus) made its debut in 1943 by the famous Jacques Cousteau, which freed divers from their oxygen providing tethers to freely roam the ocean floor at moderate depths with the use of tanks of air. Scuba technology has advanced so far that commercial divers can now work at depths of 700 ft. with a special mix of gases (usually helium and nitrogen) along with the oxygen to help alleviate the effects of pressure and oxygen toxicity. Some commercial divers will even live in decompression chambers sunken below the surface so they can maximize their working time underwater without having to spend time surfacing and decompressing.
The biggest leaps forward in understanding the deep seas have come through the onset of Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV’s) and Autonomously Operated Vehicles (AOV’s). These vehicles can be connected to the surface via cables or free standing and are driven by scientists in ship laboratories. Modern ROV’s contain fiber optic cables that transmit images to the surface, lighting that can illuminate its surroundings, and robotic arms used for manipulation of objects and collection of samples for study. In 1974, the famous ROV the Alvin, operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute took pictures of the Mid Atlantic Ridge off the coast of the Azores that helped scientists understand that the sea floor at this site actually spreads at a rate of 1 in. per year. Scientists in a separate expedition off of Ecuador first charted “black smokers” – large vents in the earth’s crust discharging super heated water and minerals. Exploration of these vents has led to a new understanding of how life survives in these extreme conditions, as well as uncovering new mineral deposits.
The Alvin has an impressive record of service with over 4,000 dives since its launch in 1964 as a lighter, more maneuverable replacement to bathyspheres. It can hold three people and dive at depths approximately 14,800 deep. Research conducted by this famous vessel has been featured in over 2,000 scientific papers.
It’s not just the sea floor that ROVs help illuminate. As part of Dr. Robert Ballard’s (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) famous expedition, it was the ROV Argo that helped in the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic in 1985 at a depth of 2.5 miles under the ocean’s surface. A smaller ROV, the Jason helped explore the wreck more completely.
Today, there are deep-sea projects all over the world employing the latest generation of submersibles and ROVs. These new, compact devices fitted with the latest technology are charting such wonders as jellyfish that lure their prey with luminous red flashes and discovering a new kind of bacteria that live on the black smokers. Scientists and commercial explorers have found deep-sea worms that live near carcinogenic amounts of polyaromatic hydrocarbons released by certain vents, yet have not developed cancer. This list goes on.
As vast as the unexplored ocean is, the potential it holds for advancing scientific discovery is unquantifiable. We are not far from the day when scientists will pilot vehicles to explore the deep from computers and send them into the deepest, darkest crannies of the ocean. Their work could potentially help prevent natural disasters by charting more about how the tectonic plates move and are fit together. They could unlock the secrets to new drugs and antibiotics created by marine life we don’t yet fully understand. They could even help us understand how life on other planets might exist.
With that kind of story waiting to unfold it’s no wonder we love hearing more about the mysteries and exploration of the deep sea.
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