One of the SA Navy's Heroine class submarines

Article(s): Newsweek on the future of ocean exploration

Newsweek recently published two articles on the exploration of the ocean.

The first concerns Sylvia Earle and Robert Ballard, both pioneers of ocean exploration. Ballard favours unmanned Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) allowing so-called “telepresence” in the deep ocean by humans, while Earle favours putting actual humans in the ocean as opposed to robots. Aside from the deeper issues it raises, it’s an excellent potted biography of both these eminent ocean explorers, as well as an introduction to the mechanisms available to us when plumbing the sea’s greatest depths.

Ballard’s thoughts on the subject of exploration – and the trajectory of funding – are explained like this:

“The body is a pain,” says Robert Ballard, the marine geologist who discovered the Titanic, striking a common note about the problems with manned travel. “It has to go to the bathroom. It has to be comfortable. But the spirit is indestructible. It can move at the speed of light.”

For two decades, he’s been arguing the virtues of “telepresence” technology: remotely controlled subs and rovers, pumping video to an unlimited number of researchers worldwide. This year he seems to have finally closed the conversation. While the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) pulled money from manned exploration, Ballard’s telepresence efforts comprise “the only federal program dedicated to systematic exploration of the planet’s largely unknown ocean,” according to NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

The second article is a response by director James Cameron to Robert Ballard’s assertion that unmanned submersibles are the future of ocean exploration. Cameron visited Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, nearly 11 kilometres deep, in March 2012. His view is that

No kid ever dreamed of growing up to be a robot. But they do dream of being explorers. And inspiring young minds and imaginations is one of the most important things we can be doing if we want a future supply of engineers and scientists insuring our lead in innovation.

Andrew Thaler of Southern Fried Science (the best ocean-related blog I read) wrote an eloquent summation and response to both these articles. His assertion is that there is actually very little distinction between manned and unmanned ocean exploration, particularly at the extreme depths that the Deepsea Challenge expedition operated at (and at depths much less than that, too). Cameron did not look out of a viewport or window in his submersible; he viewed the output of an array of 3D cameras, on a screen, from inside the sub. Thaler makes his point convincingly:

Technology doesn’t create explorers, explorers create technology. Any tool, from Wormcam to Alvin, that provides a glimpse into the wonderful unknown, is a tool worth having.

It is the ocean that inspires us. Everything else is hardware.

His point is that to get caught up in what is very nearly a purely semantic discussion over which form of exploration has greater virtue and potential is to miss the point that funding is lacking and political will to explore the ocean is low. Perhaps one day, when we’re knee deep in ROVs and manned submersibles, we can have this discussion again. For now – anything that assists people to see what’s under the sea is a good thing.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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