Monday, November 22, 2010

Exploring The Deep

If we were logical, the future would be bleak, indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau

The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides.
Jules Verne

Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life. I thought of their unfathomable distance, and the slow inevitable drift of their movements out of the unknown past into the unknown future, 
H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

Like many curious minds, I was always interested in understanding the unknown. When I was a young boy, I loved to read such books as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne), The Time Machine (H.G. Wells), and the Foundation Trilogy (Isaac Asimov). These books coincided with my interest in exploration of the unknown, both above and below.

While I discussed space exploration in a previous post (see The Space Race), I have yet to address my interest in the underwater world. Between 1968 and 1975, my family and I watched The Undersea  World of Jacques Cousteau, which became our entree into his world. It was a privilege to enter it, to see his love and respect for the natural beauty of the oceans and the beautiful and often strange life it nurtured.

He was one of my heroes, an inspiration to many of us who valued not only discovering the myriad beauties of the sea, but also the protection of the ocean and all it held. Captain Cousteau, who passed away in 1997, was indeed an inspiration to my generation growing up watching him on television, chiefly because he gave us a glimpse in to the fascinating underwater world. His pioneering work continues.

Much has to be done. Even today, we know very little about the undersea world, says World Ocean Census, compiled by The Cousteau Society:
Even now, at the beginning of the 21st century, 95 percent of the world’s ocean basins and seas has yet to be explored (some put this figure as high as 98 percent). Part of the reason is simply the global ocean’s vast size: it comprises approximately 71 percent of the planet’s surface and covers 361 million square kilometers (139 million square miles). And there is more to the world’s ocean than meets the eye – a vast story unfolds below the surface. The global volume of ocean water is 1,370 million cubic kilometers (329 million cubic miles), with an average depth of 3.8 kilometers (2.4 miles).

The deepest ocean trench areas extend 10.5 kilometers (more than 6.7 miles) below the sea surface. And if the obstacles of size, volume and mass were not enough, other deterrents to exploration – darkness and pressure – greatly increase the challenge, cost and risk for those who dare to venture below the surface. Only recently have technological advances allowed scientists to successfully tackle the physical challenges of exploring dark ocean extremes at intense pressures.
Exploring the Ocean Deep:The  Alvin submersible in 1978, a year after first exploring hydrothermal vents. The three-person vessel allows for two scientists and one pilot to dive for up to nine hours at 4,500 meters (15,000 ft).
Photo Credit: NOAA, 1978. Source: NOAA Photo Gallery > NURP Album > Image ID nur07549.
The world's oceans, considered one body of water, truly remains the Great Unknown. What is known, however, is our effect on it. Despite what the sea has had to bear from humanity, including industrial waste and toxins, overfishing, and  it has continued to give us what humans need, including water, minerals and food. But many of the world's leading organizations that monitor the health of the world's oceans are raising concerns that we need to change our ways, lest we destroy our finely balanced eco-system.

One of the chief issues is over-fishing, says National Geographic's Paul Greenberg in Time for a Sea Change:
Too many hooks in the water. That’s the problem with today’s fisheries. Working from small pole-and-line boats to giant industrial trawlers, fishermen remove more than 170 billion pounds of wildlife a year from the seas. A new study suggests that our current appetite could soon lead to a worldwide fisheries collapse.
It sounds sensationalistic, but I suggest that you read the article in its entirety. Business as usual is not a serious option, if we want our children to enjoy the benefits and the beauty of the ocean. Outdated industrial-age large-scale fishing practices are killing fish and other wildlife needlessly, says Oceana, an international organization whose motto is Protecting the World's Oceans:
Destructive fishing practices that include driftnets, longlines and bottom trawls are ruining ocean ecosystems by indiscriminately killing fish and other wildlife, including seabirds and marine mammals. Each year, more than 16 billion pounds of bycatch are thrown overboard thanks to wasteful fishing techniques.
Bottom trawls drag heavily weighted nets along the ocean floor in search of fish or crustaceans in a practice akin to clearcutting a forest in order to catch a rabbit. Centuries-old habitats such as coral gardens are destroyed in an instant by bottom trawls, pulverized into barren plains. Endangered sea turtles drown on longline hooks while sharks have their fins sliced from their bodies, which are then tossed overboard.
The solution is available, and it always is, if we use our imagination and believe that we have a problem and that it needs a humane solution. We often suffer needlessly for lack of imagination. As Mr. Cousteau once said: " The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever."

Yes, there is a certain magic or mysticism involved, words that scare scientists with rational ideas. Yet, imagination is a necessary ingredient in thinking for solutions that often evade us. Which leads to the power of science fiction to free the imagination from its imprisonment. These novels gave us hope and imagination, little of which is evident today in the public discourse. Imagination is not the enemy, but part of the solution.


  1. It is interesting that Cousteau provided television viewers with a glimpse of the Depths even back then. Surely he was among the original catalysts for the ensuing, modern-day Discovery channel specials, and now even the beautiful Disney nature series.

    Does the problem with over-fishing lie in our habits of over-consumption? Or is it simply the sloppiness with which the industries try to meet demand?

    This was definitely less of an issue when each household fished for themselves. I'm certain that this is included in the "self-sustainability" movements we see today.

  2. Shmuel & Raizel
    Thank you for your comments. Mr. Cousteau was indeed a pioneer, leading others to follow. I sense that large industrial concerns, eager for profits, are not overly concerned about the effects of their immediate actions as much as they should.

    Even so, unintended consequences might happen, and they might lose their livelihood. And, yes, you are correct to say that self-sustainability is the ideal.


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