How Man and Machine Unlocked the Ocean's Depths

To understand the sea, to dive beneath the waves and experience its awesome, unforgiving wonder, was once the privilege of a few fortunate explorers.

"And if some god shall wreck me in the wine-dark deep, even so I will endure."

Homer, Odyssey

To understand the sea, to dive beneath the waves and experience its awesome, unforgiving wonder, was once the privilege of a few fortunate scientists, but new technologies are lowering the barriers to entry and creating a generation of globally-connected ocean explorers.

For almost all of human history, from Homer's Odyssey to Melville's Moby Dick, the ocean was a vast and unknowable mystery, as dark as wine. It was a world hostile to human presence, which only begrudgingly permitted us to glide across its surface. Though fishermen and divers were familiar with their local coastlines, the sea was a place to venture into with extreme caution, to challenge for its treasures and return quickly to shore.

For the coral divers of Catalonia, this challenge was often fatal. After witnessing the drowning death of a coral diver in the mid-19th century, Narcís Monturiol conceived of the first true submarine, a machine not only capable of diving deeper than any before, but equipped with portholes from which a pilot could observe the undersea world, and in proposed future incarnations, an arm by which coral could be harvested from the safety of a portable atmosphere. Though the two Ictineo submersibles made hundreds of dives in the Barcelona Harbor, carrying statesmen, laborers, and admirals beneath the surface, they were too revolutionary for their time.

Ictineo I replica at the Museu Marítim, Barcelona. Image: Till F. Teenck/Wikimedia

Monturiol could not find the financial backers to support his venture. Ictineo was crushed when a barge broke free of its mooring. Ictineo II, a submarine that wouldn't find an equal for almost 100 years, was scrapped. Her portholes, so important to defining our vision of the ocean, would live on, as tiles in the bathroom of Monturiol's creditor. The sea, to most, was still a wine-dark deep.

The Challenger expedition was the first major attempt to understand the sea below the waves, but even it was hindered by our inability to penetrate the deep with anything but nets, dredges, and sounds. The animals brought to the surface were a poor facsimile of the diversity of life beneath. It was during this expedition that the deep abyssal plain was declared a desert, devoid of all but the sparsest life below 600 meters. This azoic hypothesis, championed by Edward Forbes, would endure until the advent of deep-diving submersibles in the 1960s. So shallow was our vision of the deep that we failed to fathom the full extent of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, one of the largest geologic features on our planet, until the early 20th century.

Even with the advent of commercial diving equipment, clunky, graceless suits with air pumped from the surface, the sea was off-limits to most. Industrial diving operations, focused on infrastructure, maintenance, and salvage, did not lend themselves to curiosity. The dangers of distraction and the limits of decompression prevented deeper inquiry. Scientists had these tools available to them, too, but the fraternity of ocean research was small.

The Aqua-Lung changed everything. Émile Gagnan and Jacques-Yves Cousteau unveiled the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus in 1943. Without a tether to the surface, SCUBA divers experienced an unparalleled freedom to explore the marine world. The Aqua-Lung shepherded in a new era of ocean exploration, with amateurs and professionals sharing equal rights to the underwater world. Along with this renewed excitement came massively appealing popular media. Cousteau's "The Silent World," released in 1956, took home an Academy Award for best documentary. The public, beyond just those who had the tools to enter the water, were able to venture beneath the waves for the first time.

This new perspective yielded a boom in ocean research. Beginning in the 1950s and extending into the 21st century, a fleet of new vehicles emerged to carry humans into the abyss. The 50s and 60s burst with a diversity of deep-sea submersibles unmatched even today. In 1960, Trieste touched down in Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the ocean. Her voyage splashed across the pages of LIFE magazine. The HOV Alvin, commissioned in 1964, continues to dive today. Less iconic, but no less capable, were the Aluminaut, Turtle, Sea Cliff, NR-1, and Pisces, as well as Cousteau's own Minisub 1 and 2. The 1980s saw the addition of the French Nautile and the Soviet Union's twin Mir submersibles. Many of these vessels have long since been decommissioned, but others are still diving.

Human-occupied vehicles may have been the first to carry us into the deep, but the advent of robotic assets would further open the ocean to discovery. In 1977, on one of the very first dives to the newly-discovered hydrothermal vent field dubbed Garden of Eden, an entire ecosystem previously only dreamed of, Bob Ballard noted with chagrin that his colleagues aboard the HOV Alvin were peering not through the sub's tiny porthole, but at the monitor tied to an external camera. He realized then, as he told Newsweek, that "there's no benefit to having a human body down there."

It would be another 10 years before the underwater robotics revolution began in earnest with the launch of ROV Jason, a deep-diving remote operated vehicle that took the human occupants out of the submersible. Unfettered by the need for life support systems, Jason could dive longer and commit more payload to the scientific instruments necessary to study the sea. Ironically, by removing humans from the submersible, Jason, equipped with an array of cameras, provided a wider view of the ocean world.

Today, the deep-sea community still debates the relative merits of tethered remote operated vehicles or human occupied submersibles, but a living payload is the most restrictive tether of all. Where once, only two or three occupants could observe the seafloor from a submersible's porthole, now the entire crew can join the dive. The limits of participation would be pushed even further with the Jason Project, where students from around the country and eventually the world could join in on a live telecast of expeditions-in-progress.

The EV Nautilus and the Inner Space Center take telepresence a step further, stationing a team of scientists on land while shipboard operations are piped into control rooms around the United States. ROVs like Jason II and autonomous vehicles like AUV Sentry permit the public to engage directly with ocean research, as it happens—a phenomenon best highlighted by a surprise visit to the ROV Hercules by a sperm whale, a moment that exploded across Twitter in real time, as whales are wont to do.

These are the tools of research: unique, expensive, limited to a few individuals with advanced training and education. It is not enough to pierce the wine-dark deep from within the relatively small ocean science community. The lesson of the Aqua-Lung is that exploration thrives not by the limited access of the wealthy, the well-connected, and the highly-specialized. It is when the tools of exploration become ubiquitous, accessible, and inexpensive, that discovery blossoms. In 2013, the Indigo V, with a crew of scientists and "common oceanographers" sailed across the Indian Ocean using a low-cost, Maker-inspired ocean sampling microbial observatory, collecting critical oceanographic data for tens of thousands of dollars, in stark contrast to related major research expeditions, which achieved similar coverage for tens of millions.

A new revolution in ocean exploration has begun, mirroring, in many ways, the invention of the Aqua-Lung. Small, low-cost, and easy to operate underwater and aerial vehicles are creating a sea change in how humans interact with the marine environment. Where SCUBA requires physical presence and is limited by the frailties of the human form, machines like the OpenROV and other micro-scale observation-class ROVs can dive deeper and longer, with no danger to their human pilots. Aerial drones give us a bird's-eye view, revealing previously unseen animal behavior and providing an ocean perspective that stretches beyond the horizon. Coupled with cheap, tough digital cameras, these machines not only expand our access to the marine world, but democratize it, placing the tools of discovery—once the purview of a few privileged explorers—within reach of the larger ocean-loving community.

It is not just the technology that goes into the water that can fundamentally alter how we interact with the sea. The tremendous power of the internet to share discoveries fundamentally reshapes our view of the ocean, allowing even the most distant participants to join an expedition. Cabled observatories give us a permanent presence on the seafloor while crowdsourced citizen science projects allow anyone who is interested to contribute to scientific research. From a livestreamed exploration of the world's deepest hydrothermal vents, to explorable Google Streetview maps of the Great Barrier Reef, to James Cameron's tweet from the very bottom of the sea, the internet makes us all active participants in the process of discovery.

Two hundred years ago, a lucky few could peer from a single porthole into the murky harbor of Barcelona. Today, anyone, anywhere in the world can become part of a massive distributed network of observers and explorers with thousands of eyes in the ocean, and with each new machine that dives beneath the waves, the wine-dark deep becomes a fraction clearer.

Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.