We have walked on the moon and developed plans to put a colony on Mars. Given mankind’s interest in exploration, it may be surprising that here on our home planet Earth, 95% of the oceans remain unexplored. In a time when global change is happening unbelievably fast, it has become clear that we should try to understand the incredible diversity our oceans have to offer, before we lose it. This goal is not science for the sake of science- in order to understand the ocean resources and products that will be available for future generations, we need to first figure out what used to be in the oceans, and what is there now. Only then can we begin to make predictions about what will be there in the future.
Answering these three questions- what was in the oceans what is in the oceans, and what will be there in the future- was the main goal of the decade-long Census of Marine Life. This project started in 2000, and wrapped up in 2010 when I was just starting graduate school. While collaborations between scientists from around the world are becoming more and more common, this effort was still an uncommon example of the global science community banding together in huge numbers to accomplish a seemingly insurmountable task. Over 2,700 scientists participated, from over 80 countries around the world.
How many brand new species do you think they found in ten years? How many species do you think are in the ocean, total, and how many do you think we have found so far? After all, the study of the ocean is still fairly young. We have been studying the ocean for about 160 years. Modern ocean science, known as oceanography, has only been around since the mid 1800’s. People mostly thought that no life could exist in the deep sea until the Challenger expedition in 1874. The HMS Challenger was a research vessel employed by the British Royal Navy, and it turned what we thought we knew about the ocean on its head when it started dredging up all sorts of life from the depths of the ocean. Study of the deep sea is so new and the deep sea holds so many surprises, that it makes sense that we are finding new things all of the time. So maybe it won’t surprise you to learn that in 10 short years, the Census of Marine Life documented and described 1,200 brand new species. You may be more surprised to learn that there are MANY more species- over 5,000 in fact- that the scientists have not even had time to look at and describe to the scientific community. That is over 7,000 new species in 10 years! The scientists involved in the Census used the rates at which we were able to find brand new species to try and calculate how many more new species might be out there, and they believe that there are about 750,000 more species just waiting to be discovered. We have only described about 250,000 ocean species so far, so we clearly have only just begun exploring all the ocean has to offer.
If all of this discovery is exciting to you, you should know that you can be in the middle of it. Recently the U.S. has launched an exploratory research ship called the Okeanos Explorer. This ship has her work cut out for her, and her calendar is full of expeditions. Since 2010 the Okeanos Explorer has been to Indonesia, the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California, the deepest part of the Caribbean Sea (the Mid-Cayman Rise), the Galapagos islands, deep-sea habitats in the Gulf of Mexico, and deep-sea canyons along the U.S. eastern seaboard. For the latest expedition (as of May 2015) the ship has embarked on a trip halfway around the globe, from Puerto Rico to Hawaii, mapping the seafloor 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Perhaps the coolest thing about these missions is that outreach is a HUGE component of the Okeanos mission. In fact, that huge ball on top of the ship is a satellite dome, allowing the ship to broadcast video and audio, live-streaming all of the things the ship is doing. They call this telepresence technology. This live feed is not only available to scientists, it is available to everybody. You can visit the live stream and join in on the science happening on the Okeanos Explorer, any time. This is especially awesome when the ship deploys its submarine, and takes video of the ocean depths and all of the critters found there. You can watch the discoveries happen in real time, and listen to marine scientists as they weigh in on the identity of brand new species, the unique geology of the seafloor, and sometimes archeological finds when they are exploring shipwrecks.
In addition, there is another expedition called Nautilus Live. Nautilus Live is led by Dr. Robert Ballard, best known for his discovery of the Titanic shipwreck in 1985. His ship, the EV Nautilus, is currently exploring the Gulf of Mexico. The ship’s crew is investigating the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the deep sea, and exploring shipwrecks along the way. They are also using telepresence technology to live broadcast video and audio, so you can join them on their expeditions. A few weeks ago the Nautilus’ submarine was paid a visit by a sperm whale, and the whole thing was live broadcast to an audience of scientists and the public. Check it out below!
We are smack in the middle of an amazing age of oceanic exploration, and the best part about it is the technology which allows everyone to be involved. So if you want to do a little deep-sea exploration on your lunch break, make sure to tune in to one of the live feeds from the Okeanos Explorer or Nautilus Live. I guarantee you will leave with a sense of wonderment and discovery.