Is Deep-Sea Exploration Worth It?

17:07 minutes

The Pisces V is one of two deep diving manned submersibles at the Hawai‘i Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL) based in Oahu. It can operate at a depth of 2,000 meters, or 6,280 feet. Photo by HURL/Colin Wollerman
The Pisces V is one of two deep diving manned submersibles at the Hawai‘i Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL) based in Oahu. It can operate at a depth of 2,000 meters, or 6,280 feet. Photo by HURL/Colin Wollerman

This week in The New York Times, journalist Chris Dixon posed the question: “Do humans have a future in deep sea exploration?” With the rise of robotic exploration carried out by remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), for example, financial support for manned submersibles—like the Pisces IV and V at the Hawai‘i Undersea Research Laboratory in Oahu—is increasingly limited. In fact NOAA’s deep sea exploration budget is a mere fraction of the one for NASA’s exploration funding. And yet, at least 90 percent of the world’s oceans remain unexplored. This is a problem, say scientists. In a 2012 interview with Science Friday, famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle said, “to explore—to peel back the layers of the unknown—is one of the most important things that we can do. Ignorance is killing us.” She returns to the program, along with deep sea explorers and researchers Hanumant Singh and Colin Wollerman, to discuss what place people have in deep sea exploration as technology continues to advance.

Segment Guests

Sylvia Earle

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle is founder of Mission Blue and an explorer-in-residence with the National Geographic Society. She’s based in Oakland, California.

Hanumant Singh

Hanumant Singh is a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Colin Wollerman

Colin Wollerman is a pilot and technician at the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Oahu, Hawaii.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. And this week in The New York Times, journalist Chris Dixon posed the question, do humans have a future in deep sea exploration. With the prevalence of remotely operated vehicles, the ROVs, and the autonomous underwater vehicles, AKA AUVs, there’s less financial support for manned submersibles. And just for context, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has a fraction of the exploration budget that NASA does. Dixon founded in fiscal year 2014, NOAA had $26 million for deep sea exploration compared to NASA’s $4 billion dollar budget for space exploration, of course, outside of the planet. So with limited resources, what is the best way to investigate the largely unexplored watery depths of our planet’s oceans?

Joining me to talk about the future of deep sea exploration are Sylvia Earle, famed oceanographer, founder of Mission Blue, and a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence. Sylvia, always great to have you back. Thanks for joining us.

SYLVIA EARLE: Great to be back, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Colin Wollerman is a pilot and technician at the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, or HURL, H-U-R-L, in Oahu. Welcome to Science Friday, Colin.

COLIN WOLLERMAN: It’s a pleasure to be here, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: And Hanumant Singh is a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. Welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: Let me begin with you, Sylvia. Can you imagine your work as an oceanographer without a trip to the ocean depths? I mean, what would your understanding of the ocean be like if we never went down there?

SYLVIA EARLE: As I say, there’s nothing like being there. I don’t think this is an either/or debate or whatever. We need all the tools in the box. I wholeheartedly approve of AUVs and remotely operated vehicles. They can go places that you probably wouldn’t want to go or send a human being. And they can stay for long periods of time under circumstances that wouldn’t be so appropriate for humans sometimes. But they cannot do what a human can do, especially a trained human, but even one, a human being, who’s curious. Machines are not curious. They have no sense of humor. They cannot follow hunches. And a scientist or a kid, anyone, has that capacity to wonder and to explore.

IRA FLATOW: And if you see something that you didn’t expect down there, you can just pilot your way over there.

SYLVIA EARLE: That’s correct. Yeah, that’s right. Well, you can, in a sense, from the surface, piloting a remotely operated system. But it’s just not the same. You have a limited view. And spatial correspondence is different. But it’s a qualitatively different experience. And I talk with my friend and colleague Bob Ballard about this sometimes because he is very strong proponent of, you don’t need people under water, we’ve got other means. And I say, sure it’s like well, you can take a nice film, even a live video feed back to having a fine dinner in a restaurant in Paris, drink the wine, just looking at it vicariously. Or you can be there. There’s a qualitative difference.

IRA FLATOW: Now let me bring in someone who is a pilot of a remote vehicle. Colin Wollerman, you pilot the Pisces subs out there in Hawaii. What’s it like to be in the deep sea? Can you help us understand what it feels like to be underwater like that?

COLIN WOLLERMAN: Well, first off, I pilot Pisces subs. But I also have spent a fair amount of time piloting ROVs. So I’d like to think I bring a comparative element to the conversation. And like Dr. Earle said, piloting the subs when you’re actually on bottom, when your spatial awareness is on the edge of its seat, if you were. I mean, you have first hand data just hitting all your senses at the same time, there’s no real comparison. And don’t get me wrong. I’m equally as impressed with some of the technologies associated with ROVs and with AUVs. The work they do is phenomenal. But being in person, being in place, they’re different tools. Like Dr. Earle said, you can’t really compare the two for most applications.

IRA FLATOW: Hanumant Singh, you do undersea robots. What can an undersea robot do that a manned person submersible–

HANUMANT SINGH: Well, I should back up and point out that I actually have worked on all sorts of vehicles. I worked on Alvin, which is probably the most famous of all the manned submersibles. I have worked on ROVs. And I’ve worked on AUVs. And I think Sylvia said it initially in her conversation, which is that there’s no real competition is the way I look at it. I think they’re all complimentary. I think each of those vehicles has a role.

I’ve dove in Alvin to the bottom of the seafloor. It was a fantastic experience. OK? Having said that, the data we get with our AUVs is also amazing in its own way. And there’s always a trade-off about what do you really want to do. Do you want to go out and experience the ocean really live as you are there? And there’s merit in that. And then on the flip side, it’s do you want to collect long-term data. Do you want to do stuff that’s too boring for human beings to do?

OK, a lot of times we’re making maps of the sea floor. When we were searching for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, because we don’t know what the bottom looks like, we aren’t even in view of the sea floor. So that’s boring stuff where the best of pilots get bored and don’t want to do that work. That’s where these robots can actually come in and do a really good job.

On the flip side, if you’re a geologist and you want to go in there and pick up specific samples and when you have a manned submersible for sampling in an environment like that, it’s the best platform there is. So I think it’s a false statement to say, do we really want manned submersibles. Or do we want AUVs? Or do we only want ROVs? I think there’s a rule for all three of them in there. And they all have important roles.

IRA FLATOW: So how do you decide? I mean, there’s such a small pot of money compared to exploring other planets for exploring our own planet, which we probably– as we’ve been saying for years, we know more about the far side of the moon than the bottom of the oceans. Sylvia, how do you decide? How do you divide it up? I mean, how do you get more money, I guess?

SYLVIA EARLE: Well, you’ve hit on the real problem. It is not either/or, manned or remote systems. It’s what are we thinking to be neglecting the ocean. We’ve invested in aviation and aerospace. And it has paid off handsomely. We’ve neglected the ocean. And it’s costing us dearly.

Right now, the exploitation of the ocean has been progressing at a high speed throughout especially the latter part of the 20th century, with the extraction of ocean wildlife through fishing, and now with deep sea mining looming on the horizon. It was an issue back in early ’80s. And then it kind of phased out as the cost, the reality of what it would take to extract from the deep sea. And now we know that there are costs that should be accounted for, like the sacrifice of systems that we’ve just barely begun to explore. And yet, it’s happening.

HANUMANT SINGH: I’d like to elaborate on that, too. I think the pot isn’t big enough. But it’s not big enough in very interesting ways. One way it’s not big enough is that we don’t have enough money for infrastructure. And that’s a problem we have with oceanography. We don’t have enough ships. We don’t have enough manned submersibles. We don’t have enough equipment at the poles. We don’t have enough ice breakers. So we are infrastructure limited.

Having said that, here’s the good news. The good news is the quality of oceanography in this country has gone up amazingly. OK? From the ’50s right up to the Second World War when they were just a few handful of oceanography places– Woods Hole was one, Scripps was another one, Hawaii was another one, Lamont was another one. Now of course they are oceanographers in universities all over the world, all over the US. And so that’s a good thing. We have more oceanographers.

But because there’s more scientific researchers and the parts become smaller and there’s not enough infrastructure, we’re feeling it a lot more. If you look at the budget of the National Science Foundation, just like NIH, just like EPA, just like The Office of Naval Research, just like NOAA, the major proponents of oceanography, their budgets have been flat for the last 10 years. The only budget, only federal agency whose budget has not been flat has been NASA. And we can see the difference.

IRA FLATOW: Colin, I know you’ve done some work with the oil and gas sector with ROVs. Do you see a difference in the amount of money they can spend– I mean, they’re not part of the government– and the quality of stuff that they can do?

COLIN WOLLERMAN: Yeah, you do see that. There’s definitely a difference between what the oil-gas sector budgets have. And of course, they’re for profit. So they’re out using money to make money. So it’s a whole different platform.

I would like to speak to the infrastructure the science work though. I mean, it’s an interesting phenomenon we have going on at Hawaii Undersea Research Lab. We have scientists coming to us saying that they want to use us, that we’re the best tool for their job, but are being told by the agencies that fund their work that they must use some of these other assets instead of the Hawaii Undersea Research Lab. Now, it’s beyond the scope of my expertise to talk about who or why. But the reality is, this is a problem, and not just for HURL, but for the science community as a whole.

Our science community have a tall order in, in a tough budget environment. And their work is critical to understanding the processes of the deep ocean and the world, really. So why would we deny them the tools they need? They ask for us by name because they know that we are the best tool for their specific needs in a lot of cases. So this is an important conversation to have. And I’d like to see some results here.

IRA FLATOW: Well, what is the politics going on here? What is the politics behind this?

HANUMANT SINGH: I think the issue is really it does come down to who wants to use want. But I think if you look at the way oceanography is organized, we have some mechanism set up which deals with this. So here’s a classic example. I’m a researcher at Woods Hole, which is south of Boston, on the East Coast of the US. I want to work in, say, Alaska. It doesn’t make sense for me to use a Woods Hole ship to go all the way to Alaska and work there. So what we do as a community is we say, OK, Hanu and his TI’s want to write a proposal to go to Alaska. What are the facilities in Alaska that we can use? And it turns out the Alaskans have a ship. It’s called the Sikuliaq. And they say, OK, here’s the Sikuliaq. Hanu, why don’t you and your party move there and use that ship? So they have a way of spreading it around, optimizing the resources that we have. And I think that system works pretty well.

However, what is a problem is, of course, that we don’t have enough resources overall. And that’s definitely true. So there is a nice way of sharing out the resources. It’s not that all the resources should go to one institution or to one person or to one set of organizations. I believe there’s 16 oceanographic vessels, which are run by different universities all over the US. And we all share them and use them as makes sense.

SYLVIA EARLE: But there are other ways–

IRA FLATOW: I need just to remind everybody first that this is Science Friday, from PRI, Public Radio International. Who was jumping in there? Sylvia.


IRA FLATOW: Sylvia, go right ahead. The sea floor is all yours.

SYLVIA EARLE: It’s the loss of the capacity to actually take humans underwater that is now being shortchanged, at least in this country. But you see China going full speed ahead. They have a 7,000 meter sub that is in active use right now, the Sea Dragon. And they’re building a full ocean depth research submarine. Japan similarly is looking at full ocean depth. They’re building not just for remote operated systems, but manned systems. Russia, likewise, has not just the two Mir subs that have been in active use since 1987. But they’re also investing in manned systems. A popular view of Putin in a little sub operating in the Black Sea just a couple of weeks ago that made the rounds around the world.

What are we thinking in this country that we’re just investing whatever it is that we’ve got in a partial toolbox. The whole Aquarius underwater laboratory was defunded as far as taxpayer support is concerned. And now, private money is helping to fill the gap. And it’s private money that is helping to come in and stave off the decline or demise of all the support that is given for Alvin.

HANUMANT SINGH: Well, I think I should come in here, too, because some of what you just said, Sylvia, I don’t quite agree with. I think if you look at where we are in the US, we operate the preeminent submarine in the world, manned submarine. It’s called Alvin. And there’s no two ways about it. Every other nation in the world looks at our program as a model program. And then if we look at the other robotics programs, whether it’s for ROVs, for scientific ROVs again, we are operating the best programs, not just one institution. But you look at MBARI. You look at WHOI. I know Hawaii’s getting one. Scripps is getting one. So we’re leading that. And then we look at AUVs as well, autonomous underwater vehicle. Again, we are way ahead of everybody else.

Having said that, I worry about what the future brings. I think oceanography as a whole has some interesting issues in terms of sustainability, and how we can keep that going forward. But right now, we are actually doing some amazing work, whether we’re looking at climate change with underwater robots looking at sea ice, whether we are looking at fisheries, whether we are looking at deep sea archaeology, whether we are looking at geology and geophysics, we’re doing some amazing work.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you are doing amazing work. But compared to the other research funding that goes on, you’re rounding figure. The amount of money that’s being invested is lost in the–

HANUMANT SINGH: I agree with you. I agree with you, Ira. I mean, when I give a talk, here’s one thing I often point out. I often ask my audience to try and figure out how much they thought the total budget of ocean sciences is. What is the cost of a single launch of the Space Shuttle? OK? And it turns out we’re comparable. So a single launch, and we had hundreds of those launches was comparable.

And then the next question I ask them is, can you tell me the one good piece of science that the Space Shuttle did. And most people will say, oh, it was amazing. I remember. I remember. I remember. And they can’t come up with a real– whereas if you as them, what did oceanography do for you, they can list out 10 different things of high social relevance. They can talk about fisheries. They can talk about climate. they can talk about all these other things. And so this disconnect, we need to grapple with it. And we need to grapple with it at the politician level so that we can restore some of the disparities that exist in funding.

IRA FLATOW: Well, this is a great year to do that. This is a great political season to bring it up, not just on a presidential level, but all the local levels where Congress hides all the money. And I’d like to think Sylvia Earle, oceanographer, founder of Mission Blue, National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, Colin Wollerman, pilot and technician at the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, HURL in Oahu, and Hanumant Singh. He’s a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today and discussing this.

SYLVIA EARLE: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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