When We Explore the Deep Sea, We are Exploring for Our Own Survival

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post as part of TED Weekends.

A diver explores the sea grass bed in Honduras. (© Joanne-Weston)

A diver explores the seagrass bed in Honduras. (© Joanne-Weston)

In 1953, on the heels of a discovery of a second coelacanth specimen in the Comoros Islands off Madagascar’s coast, J.L.B. Smith, the man who described the species, wrote in the Times of London: “We have in the past assumed that we have mastery not only of the land but of the sea… We have not. Life goes on there just as it did from the beginning. Man’s influence is as yet but a passing shadow. This discovery means that we may find other fishlike creatures, supposedly extinct still living in the sea.”

Unlike the coelacanth, which was thought to have gone extinct, we have known for centuries that giant squid have existed in our oceans’ depths. But unable to observe them alive in their deep sea home, we have understood very little about how they live, where they live and how they behave. 

That is, until 2012, when Drs. Edith Widder, Steve O’Shea and Tsunemi Kobodera filmed the elusive and mysterious giant in its natural deep-sea habitat for the first time — a landmark moment in ocean exploration and an example of how technology and ingenuity can overcome the monumental challenges we face in exploring the deep. But it is a drop in the vast ocean-sized bucket of amazing discoveries waiting to be found.

As a scientist, I want to explore the great wonders our ocean has to offer. As a conservationist, I need to explore the vital human-ocean connection: how the ocean can provide for people and how our impacts affect the health of our oceans. This is critically important for us this century. Our population is rapidly growing toward 9 billion people and our demand for food, fresh water and energy is predicted to double.

Healthy oceans can help ease the increasing burden our population is placing on this planet, but we need to be able to explore, observe and learn about the oceans in their entirety in order to protect and conserve them effectively.

I am no stranger to deep-sea exploration. In fact, I was on the same research vessel, just before the filming of the squid, making a documentary that would later become the Shark Week program Alien Sharks of the Deep. We sank a whale carcass, which had died from apparently natural causes and washed up on shore, 2,000 feet below the Sea of Japan and then descended in submersibles to observe the ensuing feeding frenzy by an array of creatures.

A shark in the waters of the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia. (© Rodolphe Holler)

A shark in the waters of the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia. (© Rodolphe Holler)

Although we did not get to film the giant squid or observe any species new to science, we did manage to film an important and often overlooked part of the ocean life cycle. When animals in the ocean, particularly large ones like whales, die and sink to the bottom, they create their own micro-ecosystem, sort of like an oasis in the desert. Hagfish, deep sea isopods and the large and powerful six-gill shark all showed up to feed on the buffet we had set on the sea floor.

Making these kinds of observations are incredibly important to understand how the ocean works. Think of it like an antique watch. As long as it keeps ticking, you will know what time it is. What happens if it is not keeping accurate time or it stops? You can’t understand what the problem is by just looking. You have to crack it open and when you do, you find an intricate and complicated system of gears designed to make this machine function. Unfortunately, getting inside every part of the ocean is not as simple as opening a watch.

The deep sea is the most hostile environment on Earth. Reaching it requires the same kind of methods, technology and expertise required for exploring space. Yet despite the similarity in how we employ technology to explore both the ocean and space, there is a great disparity between the amount of funding put toward space exploration and ocean exploration. The result? We have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of our own planet’s sea floor.

There are no doubt countless discoveries to be made under the surface of the sea, whether they are species we know to exist but have yet to observe in their own habitat, species new to science or those species thought long extinct.

All of these types of findings fit together in a jigsaw puzzle that, as it reaches completion, reveals to us how people fit into the picture and how we can best manage, conserve and protect the oceans for our own benefit.

It is imperative that we keep pushing the limits of our ocean. We will not find megalodon, but we might find the key to our survival on Earth.

Greg Stone is the executive vice president for CI’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans.

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