Underwater Observation

Knowledge is based on information, based on data, collected in never-ending amounts by scientists, research vessels, satellites, and more and more frequently in and under the water devices by devices, fixed and floating, that record and transmit “newbie-bytes” of observations to data banks everywhere. What do we do with it all?

This information sometimes becomes the basis for studies and reports, for insight into natural systems, networks, and connections that in turn inform our understanding and exploitation of ocean resources – physical data for circulation studies, weather, and military mapping, geological data for oil and gas exploration, chemical data for understanding the origins of life, biological data for DNA analysis, cloning, genetic modification, and invention of new microbes and pharmaceuticals with serious implications for curing disease and the future of human health. Data collection is not for naught.

There are also manned observatories, beyond the orbiting space station. There is Alvin, the long-lived deep-ocean vehicle operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in the US. Research organizations, navies, and government agencies around the world also operate several other such submarine vehicles. There are even individual vehicles that can be privately owned, just in case you want to dive deep without SCUBA from the fantail of your yacht.  Such things have been the subjects of our imaginations since Captain Nemo, and like many of our dreams, they sometimes come true.

Here are two examples. Florida International University, located in Miami, operates Aquarius, what it calls “the world’s only operational underwater research center,”  an 81 ton, self-contained underwater laboratory that can house scientists for fourteen, possibly thirty day missions at a depth up to 120 feet where it is presently located adjacent to deep coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Like the space station, Aquarius contains bunks, shower, toilet, hot water, microwave, trash compactor, refrigerator, and air conditioning – all the comforts of home connected to land-based labs, classrooms, and the Internet by wireless telemetry. Aquarius extends the concept of saturation diving, with the capacity to modify internal pressure so that the scientists can compress/decompress inside, exit, and swim safely to the surface, while the vehicle itself remains on station. Research conducted aboard has investigated reef organisms like sponges and corals for their pharmacological potential for treatment of cancer, arthritis, and heart disease; the light and color producing characteristics of fish and invertebrates to communicate aggression, warning, and attraction, chemistry that informs our understanding of color vision and polarized light; the effect of ultraviolet radiation on coral growth; and the impact of sewage, specific pollutants, changing pH, and other historical environmental conditions on water quality as determined by marine fossil record.

A second example is more visionary and surprising: Sea Orbiter is a concept originated by French architect, Jacques Rougerie, for the construction of a futuristic autonomous drifting semi-submersed vehicle of 2600 tons displacement, built of recycled aluminum, 58 meters high, with 27 meters above the waterline, 31 meters below, twelve deck levels accommodating a 22 member crew on prolonged scientific missions. Sea Orbiter resembles a kind of sea monster, its above water tower curved like an arching neck with a solar electric generating skin, wind turbine, communications antennae, bridge, cabins and labs, and its below water structure s a large circular disk containing pressurized facilities, additional accommodations, underwater access, launch facility for divers and smaller remotely operated vehicles, and propulsion pods and thrusters for course modification when required and close maneuver in harbor, the entire structure further stabilized by an adjustable 180 ton retractable keel.  Sea Orbiter is projected to be a mobile ocean-based home, an underwater laboratory, a space simulator, a scientific platform, a multi-media communications center, and a symbol for the pursuit of ocean knowledge.  Rougerie and his colleagues have been touting this idea for several years now; construction was rumored to have begun with launch in 2013, but the project website suggests only that a small operational model has been built to date, further details unknown, thus the proposed first year drifting circumnavigation of the Mediterranean Sea with multiple port calls is indefinitely postponed. The project cost is estimated to be more that US$50 million. At first glance, Sea Orbiter seems preposterous and unlikely, but not so fast, maybe not; everyone disbelieved the first air flight, the first submarine, and the first visit to the moon. The technology exists for this dream to come true and the ocean beckons as the last frontier.