Technology Opens Deep Seas to Exploration

John Roach
for National Geographic News
June 22, 2004

Humans yearning to chart undiscovered realms of planet Earth need only look below the surface of the ocean.

"About 90 percent of the oceans remain unexplored, and most of this is the deep sea," said Jeffrey Drazen, a marine biologist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California.

Earth's last great frontier, the deep seas are cold, remote, under extreme pressure, and devoid of most things humans need to survive.

In 1960 the U.S. Navy sent Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard 35,799 feet (10,912 meters) down to the bottom of the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean, the deepest on Earth, but humans have explored little of the deep ocean since then.

"That happened once, and it hasn't been done again largely for the reason of technology," said Fred Gorell, a spokesman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Ocean Exploration in Silver Spring, Maryland.

New Technology

Gorell said recent advances in manned submersibles and remotely operated vehicles are now making the deep seas more accessible.

The Office of Ocean Exploration was established in 2000 to investigate the deepest reaches of the sea and supports a myriad of academic research expeditions each year with crews and equipment.

Modern research vessels come equipped with gadgets such as powerful lights, high-resolution cameras, brooms, and manipulative arms that can relay the sense of what they grasp to remote operators.

"All of those things put together are taking us places we have never been before and allowing us to do things that were not possible before," Gorell said.

Drazen is among the burgeoning class of scientists who are embracing these technologies to probe deep beneath the ocean waters, which cover 71 percent of the Earth's surface. "We now have the ability to observe and explore much of the deep sea," he said.

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