Legendary explorer Sylvia Earle is saying goodbye to the ocean floor, but are machines good enough to take her place?
It’s mid-morning, five miles off the coast of Hawaii, and the surface world suddenly feels like mere imagination, a theory in a water-logged science journal somewhere. Through the small round windows of Pisces IV, one of the deepest-diving subs in the world, our only reality is dark, airless, and teeming with unseen life.
We are sock-footed and smushed into a seven-foot steel sphere: this writer, the sub’s pilot, and Sylvia Earle, perhaps the most accomplished oceanographer since Jacques Cousteau. At 77, she is the grande dame of American ocean science and exploration. But since the moment we closed the hatch, she’s been grinning like a schoolkid, calling out the changes outside our window: “Blue … bluer … blueissimo.” When we hit bottom, she cups her hands over her mouth and peers into the twilight. “Is anybody home?” she calls and, dropping her voice into a cartoonish baritone, answers her own question. “YEESSS,” she says. “ALL OF US.”
For the next six hours we are skimming the seabed, throwing light on an animal-filled terrain of boulders and slopes, cliffs and ravines. We are slimed by passing squid, eyeballed by crabs the size of small dogs, and ignored by fish that walk the ocean floor like something from the pages of Dr. Seuss.
Officially, we are on the hunt for black coral, the longest-living animal known to science, a predator that kills by slipping over other organisms, like a latex glove over a hand. Scientists believe the husk left inside may hold secrets to the path of climate change. But this is virgin ocean, never before explored by humankind, and just plain wandering is useful work, too.
We see military coffee mugs knocked or thrown from American ships during World War II, and the occasional aluminum can, usually Budweiser. “The preferred beer of the environmentally unconscious,” says Terry Kerby, the sub’s pilot. Lunch is peanut-butter sandwiches and, for one of us, a bolt of fear as water dribbles down the walls of the sub. “Condensation,” says Kerby, nonchalant, and we float on until the light falls on a genuine mystery: a white blob on the periphery.
Plopped on an outcropping of rock, it looks like a human brain, only the skin is pimpled. A dead chicken? Kerby radios Pisces V, our sister sub, which is nearby and loaded with scientists. They use a robotic arm to scoop up a sample, and one of them later declares the thing, “likely a new species.”
We may never know, because we may never go back.
Last spring James Cameron became a modern newsreel hero, diving the Mariana Trench, the Earth’s deepest point, and seeming to signal a new golden age of discovery. Virgin Oceanic’s Sir Richard Branson and Sylvia Earle herself, with money from Google chairman, Eric Schmidt, were each developing their own deep-diving machines. And this (quite collegial) “race to the bottom” was heralded as the ocean version of NASA’s hand-off to private rocket-makers. On with the era of civil inquiry! On with individual enterprise! Or as Cameron tweeted from the ocean floor, in a message Twitter declared one of 2012’s best moments of “just plain awesomeness”: “Hitting bottom never felt so good.”
But a year later, something far from a golden age has emerged. When the public looked away, piloted exploration stopped. Schmidt stopped funding Earle. Branson’s effort stalled indefinitely. Even Cameron ran out of time and money, completing just eight “first phase” dives around Australia and Papua New Guinea. Today he says his history-making machine is in his engineering shop in Santa Barbara, Calif., “ready to dive” and available to the science community, but stowed like a moldy wet suit. The hoped-for second phase of his work has no committed funding.
At the same time, government support for ocean exploration has sunk to unprecedented lows. The Pisces subs—once part of an arsenal of public ships, submarines, and laboratories that gave American scientists unmatched access to the deep—were defunded the same month Cameron touched bottom. As of today, none of those subs is operational, the last extended-stay underwater laboratory was shuttered, and at least 40 percent of the academic fleet is scheduled for retirement in the next decade.
It’s a record dry spell, the result of budget cuts but also a shift in philosophy, a definitive break in the decades-old debate over whether it’s even necessary to send people into extreme spaces, when machines are cheaper, safer, and harder working. “The body is a pain,” says Robert Ballard, the marine geologist who discovered the Titanic, striking a common note about the problems with manned travel. “It has to go to the bathroom. It has to be comfortable. But the spirit is indestructible. It can move at the speed of light.”
For two decades, he’s been arguing the virtues of “telepresence” technology: remotely controlled subs and rovers, pumping video to an unlimited number of researchers worldwide. This year he seems to have finally closed the conversation. While the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) pulled money from manned exploration, Ballard’s telepresence efforts comprise “the only federal program dedicated to systematic exploration of the planet’s largely unknown ocean,” according to NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.
In 1970, Earle and other female “aquanauts” spent two weeks in a federally built underwater habitat. (Bettmann-Corbis)
“It’s a paradigm shift,” says Ballard, at the University of Rhode Island, a move into “the next great era of exploration.” He promises to provide digital access of more of the Earth than was visited by all previous generations combined—“and still be home in time for cocktails.”
It’s a perspective that mystifies Earle, Cameron, and many others trying to find the funds to maintain piloted exploration of the sea. “I love this,” she says, on deck after our dive. “It’s obscene that we would let this go. What are we thinking?”
Scarcely more than a half century ago, neither man nor machine was diving into the sea. Then, just as Ballard and Earle were thinking about careers in science, the self-styled “fish man” Jacques Cousteau invented the Aqua-Lung and “diving saucer.” Along with the naturalist William Beebe—who dropped a half mile into the sea in steel sphere on wire, and resurfaced spouting poetry about the deep—he made Earle and Ballard enthusiasts in the same revolution: members of the first generation to have regular access to life under the waves.
“The creature who descended from a tree or crawled out of a cave a few thousand years ago,” declared an editorial in The New York Times in the late 1950s, “is now on the eve of incredible journeys.” That proved true for a while. In 1960 the Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard and a U.S. Navy lieutenant named Don Walsh reached the ocean’s deepest point, shared a Hershey bar, and left after 20 minutes, sure they would soon return. The Navy built a second full-ocean-depth bathyscaphe, along with the revolutionary Alvin, the first piloted craft to float across seafloor like a genuine lead zeppelin.
Soon after that, Earle, a graduate student at Duke, became one of the first scientists to use scuba “to see fish, real fish,” she says, not dead fish in a lab, or woolly images in a book. Her dissertation on the Gulf of Mexico merited a whole issue in a top biology journal. And she steadfastly believed, as Beebe put it before her, that anything short of physically being there is “only what a time-table is to an actual tour.” She talked her way onto research vessels, once heading to the Indian Ocean on a trip that garnered her first international headlines, in The Mumbasa Daily Times: “Sylvia Sails With 70 Men, Expects No Problems.”
Back home, the space race took off, and while the heavens dominate national memory, the sea was part of the same boom. Newspapers covered the efforts in parallel. They wrote of both the “outer space” of the sky and the “inner space” of the ocean, the “splash down” of capsules and the “splash up” of submersibles, along with astronauts and aquanauts, national heroes both.
Earle was on the equivalent of a moon landing in 1970: a two-week underwater stay in a federally built habitat—one of what would become about 50 worldwide, proving that man, in the grand language of The Washington Post coverage, could “return to his primordial home, readapt and live there successfully.” When Earle returned to the surface, she was a celebrity: honored at the White House, paraded around Chicago in an open car, interviewed on the Today show, feted by Rolex, and featured in Life magazine, living in “A Nest of Naiads.”
Irked by the sexism—editors dubbed her and the other women “aquababes”—Earle nevertheless tried to leverage her celebrity to excite the public about the great frontier of the sea. And her own voyages continued. She plumbed the Caribbean in an experimental submersible, kicked an aggressive shark in the snout, and went night diving in search of the mysterious coelacanth, a 350-million-year old species of fish thought to have gone extinct until a fisherman caught one.
In 1979, she dove deeper than any soloist ever had, 1,250 feet, to the bottom of the Pacific, through a shower of luminescent blue creatures. She planted an American flag and emerged to prime-time documentaries and a peerless nickname: Her Deepness.
At the time, Robert Ballard was just another working scientist with a submarine, albeit a great one in the Alvin. He remembers the first time he met Earle, in the late 1960s, when she was already a rising star, standing around with Jacques Cousteau; he was a graduate student.
Like Earle, Ballard grew up reading Beebe and Cousteau, but he loved the fiction of Jules Verne. He read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and found an idol in Captain Nemo, a man equal parts “technologist” and “adventurer.” As Earle swam with the whales and talked about fish as “songbirds,” Ballard got his Ph.D. in marine geology, joined the Navy, and started tinkering with machines.
He did a lot of physical exploring as well, but says he hated being away from his own young family, as well as seeing the “carnage” that extended voyages visited on domestic life. For more than a decade, as a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, he spent months a year at sea, exploring the Mid-Ocean Ridge, a 40,000-mile mountain range that encircles the globe. One time he crashed into a volcanic rock wall some 20,000 feet under the sea. Another time he found himself and his machine stuck in a crevice somewhere. Death was always a possibility, but so was heartache. Ballard missed being home.
In 1977 he made the most famous of several discoveries that swiped away a shelf of established science. Sensors being towed some 200 miles off the Galápagos Islands picked up a spike in water temperature, close to the sea floor, where frigid water supposedly ruled. Ballard and two other scientists went down in Alvin for a closer look, finding a superhot gash in the earth, spewing shimmering chemicals into the water—and feeding an alien oasis of life. Researchers later dubbed these hydrothermal vents “the Garden of Eden”: sparks of existence far from the sun and the air, and maybe the origin of all living things.
Down on the ocean floor, however, Ballard had an aha moment of a different sort. To that point in his career, manned submersibles had led the way. Machines were seen as a great help with, say, locating a lost bomb or sunken gear, but science required a human presence. Or so ran the conventional wisdom, which Ballard believed was bunk the second he arrived at the vent and saw his colleague’s eyes.
“What are you looking at?” Ballard remembers asking.
“The monitor,” the colleague said, referring to the video screen inside Alvin. “It’s better than what I’m seeing out the window.”
That’s when he realized, as he puts it today, “There’s no benefit to having a human body down there.” It “wastes money” and “ruins families” and “raises bad kids,” all without a return for science.
As the years passed and Earle’s profile continued to rise, Ballard felt more than ever that manned exploration was a dying model, “inhumane and unsatisfactory.” He stopped exploring, took a sabbatical at Stanford, and started contemplating how to keep himself and others high and dry forever. The following year, he came down from the mountain with an idea he believed would drive science and exploration into a new era. In the December 1981 issue of National Geographic, he even gave it name: “telepresence.”
Meanwhile, the lingering significance of Earle’s deep dive in 1979 wasn’t the dive itself or even the wave of publicity that followed: it was the boom it produced in manned submersibles. For two hours, she walked the sea floor in an inelegant suit she called “a walking refrigerator,” complaining about this historic piece of equipment she was in. She particularly hated the machine’s version of hands: “Things just fly right through its jaws! It’s like having a pair of pliers on the end of a stick!”
It was only later that she realized the man on the other end of the wire—a man there expressly for the job of saving her life should she become trapped or entangled—was also the designer of this machine she seemed to so despise. Graham Hawkes was a 32-year-old engineer, owlish and bespectacled, the son of a postman from a self-described “third class” English city, where he had built some of the best submersibles in the world. When Earle found this out, she didn’t let up. She cornered him on the dock, the pier, drinks, dinner. During their whole time together in Hawaii, in fact, all she wanted to talk about was why: why hadn’t he built a sub that could go full ocean depth?
“Oh, gosh,” Hawkes, remembers saying. “Let me count the reasons. First of all, it’s nuts.” He then explained the challenges of an ocean that’s dark, cold, corrosive, and doubles the pressure every 30 feet down, pulling objects toward the bottom and almost certain collapse.
But Earle didn’t let up, and when Hawkes went back to England, he couldn’t shake Earle’s questions, or thoughts of Earle herself. She was 12 years his senior, a mother of three, twice divorced, and absolutely spectacular. She made him feel, well, “you can make up those words,” he says. “You won’t be wrong.”
Hawkes returned to America for the publication of Earle’s book (Exploring the Deep Frontier) and produced a napkin sketch of a sub he said could go full ocean depth. A few months later, he saw her at a conference in San Francisco, and he produced something else he knew would get her attention: his signature on an index card—the work of a new submersible arm, so smooth it was like an extension of the diver inside.
Not long after that, he came to California to stay, moving into Earle’s rambling house in Oakland Hills, where they got to work trying to open the oceans once and for all. “We didn’t have children together,” Earle says proudly, more than 30 years later. “We had submarines.”
They founded two companies, working at first out of a space shared with Earle’s kids, her mother, a turtle, two horses, a swarm of tailless black cats, some rare lizards, and a reliable old Labrador named Blue. Hawkes took over a backyard stable. Her eldest daughter came home from Berkeley to find the pool commandeered for science: the diving board was gone, replaced by a metal A-frame for dropping new machines into the water, and the bottom was painted pitch black. It looked, to the casual observer, like a portal to the deep sea.
And by 1984 it had become one. Hawkes strapped himself into a real one-person machine based on what he had sketched on that napkin, and he dove more than 3,000 feet, establishing a depth record that only James Cameron would beat. Earle followed him, establishing a woman’s depth record that still stands today.
Immediately work began on a full-ocean-depth version of the same machine. Hawke ran the tests, and Earle went out looking for funding, selling the device as a step toward the creation of a whole fleet of deep-diving subs, workhorses for science and dream machines for human safari.
Earle and Hawkes called the project “Ocean Everest.” And it was soaring, serious—and well received, with spreads in Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. It even inspired a special issue of the flagship journal of the Marine Technology Society (just trust me: a big deal).
Earle and Graham were married in 1986, and for the rest of the decade each year seemed to be the year the machine would be made. But the necessary funding never materialized, and their marriage didn’t survive the pressure test, either. “It was really tragic,” says Liz, Earle’s eldest daughter. The couple separated in 1990, and Ocean Everest melted into history.
The tilt of the scientific community was changing as well. Ballard, the famed Alvin explorer, had become a national figure, and a persistent critic of human-occupied vehicles. At the meeting of one elite science committee or another, he and Earle began to “go at it in front of people,” as he puts it, the start of a fight that hasn’t stopped. “She’s at it on a humanistic, almost spiritual, level,” Ballard says. “I was raised by Germans.”
Ballard returned from his walkabout, in the early 1980s, and told the Navy he could beam video up from the ocean floor, forever taking man out of the sea. The Navy liked this idea enough to fund it, and between 1982 and 1987 he built the Argo, and then the Jason, two fully remote underwater vehicles, unsleeping electronic eyes in seas.
He set about proving their worth the simplest way he knew how: finding the Titanic. In fact, using his robots, he searched miles of ocean floor, leading expeditions to visit perhaps the three most famous shipwrecks in modern history: not only the Titanic but also the Bismarck and the Lusitania. He still went down in submersibles, but in his mind what mattered now were the robots.
Signs of change were obvious almost right away. After separating from Hawkes, Earle accepted the position of chief scientist at the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, founded in 1970 as a kind of “wet NASA.” Her goal, she said at the time, was to put the O (for ocean) back in NOAA. But throughout the 1980s and 1990s, support for ocean research fell by almost 50 percent, frustrating Earle, who ultimately resigned in 1992—just as Ballard’s projects began to take off.
He wired classrooms and auditoriums nationwide, offering schoolkids a virtual journey to the seafloor through the eyes of a $5 million remote-controlled submarine. By 2003 he was working with NOAA to build a national network of “exploration command centers,” a hub for shore-based scientists to receive live undersea video and help steer distant expeditions.
“Mission control” for this network was launched in 2009 at the University of Rhode Island. It’s formally called the Inner Space Center, and inside the new building is a giant screen, banks of computers, and feeds of data. Teams of scientists sip coffee, disappear snack food, and monitor the deep in real time, the same way NASA’s own group follows its robot on Mars.
Now Ballard is taking “telepresence” to a new extreme. This summer he will launch the first 24-hour-a-day ocean-exploration room, striking partnerships that will triple the number of ships in his fleet. “Just in the last couple months,” he says, “the paradigm [of telepresence] has been accepted, and the dam has burst.” The ultimate object is to automate the ships, too, so there is no man at sea.
Ballard defends telepresence in coolly practical terms, but when pressed he also drops into a more personal register, and one can’t help but wonder about his own losses—psychological and interpersonal—during his years at sea. Ultimately, he tells me, putting man into the extreme deep is “unnatural”: we have no right to continue it, and no moral ground to make people continue to sacrifice in its name.
“We’re happiest looking at something green, and a little bit of water, and that’s what I’m doing right now”—Ballard was speaking by phone from his home in Connecticut—“I’m waiting for my daughter to come home, and for my wife, and later we’ll have a glass of wine, and yet in the next room I’ll be able to go down to the bottom of the Mediterranean. I can go anywhere.”
Though Ballard has soaked up the money (his science-world nickname is “Sponge Bob”), not everyone is on board. Chris German is the chief scientist for deep submergence at Woods Hole, which operates the deepest-diving robot in the world, and also the Alvin, the oldest working deep sub in the world. Alvin is years behind schedule in a crabbed rebuilding process, but German is planning for its return to the water this May. “What’s the best scientific sensor we have?” he says. “The human mind. It’s the only thing that sees in 3-D.”
Bruce Robison, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, perhaps the leading all-robotic outfit in the world, compares the view offered by undersea robots to the view through a pipe, and he “firmly” believes that manned submersibles “should play a much larger role in undersea research.”
At least two national panels have endorsed manned submersibles in the past decade, using words like “linchpin” and “flagship” and pushing for a three-step research process: first, automated machines to dumbly sweep the ocean floor; then remote-controlled eyeballs to take a closer look at everything of interest; and finally humanity to drop down for the ultimate review. To put it on a bumper sticker: machines for the questions, people for the answers.
Sylvia Earle agrees, saying “Ballard’s pony may do its one trick very well, and we should celebrate that, but not discard or scorn other ways to explore the ocean.” In the aftermath of her divorce from Hawkes, Earle formed a separate company, and last summer, in the so-called race to the bottom, they found themselves on different teams. Hawkes pursued underwater “flight,” applying the principles of aircraft design to the sea. The result was DeepFlight, which debuted in the 1990s, was refined, and became Virgin Oceanic’s machine, the chariot of Sir Richard Branson.
Earle, meanwhile, was close to Cameron and his team. The two celebrated his 50th birthday together in 2010 in Russia, diving to the bottom of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest. They were guests of Anatoly Sagalevich, the head of Russia’s Deepwater Submersibles Laboratory, who feted Cameron at a dinner complete with dancing Cossacks and, as a grand finale, a shot of vodka, presented on the blade of a saber. (“Only Jim…” Earle says, shaking her head.)
It was Earle’s company, Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, that built Cameron’s manipulator arm, and pressure-tested the whole lower half of the sub, and all the little parts, says Earle’s daughter Liz, who runs the company. It was paid work, she adds, but also (warning: undersea pun ahead) “squid pro quo”: if Cameron made the dive, it would buoy the work of all manned efforts, including Earle’s own. When he succeeded, Earle let out a little “yeesss” and Liz “blew a resounding blast on the conch shell horn that lives on my desk.”
Cameron himself has celebrated the dive as a win for human presence. “No kid ever dreamed of growing up to be a robot. But they do dream of being explorers,” he wrote in an email. “And the quickest way to get even less interest and engagement is to take human explorers out of the vehicles, and have it all done robotically.”
Richard Branson concurs, striking a characteristically unscientific note in favor of science. “You know 99.9 percent of the ocean has not been explored,” he tells Newsweek, “and we’re obviously hoping to discover mermaids down there.” The real researchers, meanwhile, are looking to find the beating heart of the planet, the secret of why we even exist, and how we might stay awhile.
As for Hawkes, when Cameron hit bottom he was thousands of miles away, sailing the South Pacific aboard the super-yacht of venture capitalist Tom Perkins to test a new sub, the Super Falcon. “I had a rum and coke aboard Dr. No and tried not to think very much about it,” Hawkes says. “We didn’t win. Well, yeah, I’m disappointed.” But to him, the new subs are mostly for fun. For science, he’s gone over to Ballard’s side.
Which leaves only Earle. Last year Eric Schmidt, of Google, declined to give more money to Earle’s effort to build a pair of full-ocean-depth submarines. But Her Deepness has rebounded nicely. She recently partnered with Global Oceans, a new nonprofit, launching The Global Deep Submergence Project, a last-ditch, best-yet, hail-Mary effort to develop a global resource: a pair of piloted “all-ocean” vessels. They have the designs, and the operating plan. All they need is about $50 million, less than the cost of two old space-shuttle toilets.
When we part ways in Hawaii, Earle is in a sunny mood. It’s nighttime, and we’re standing on the back of the launch vessel, braving a light rain to talk about the future. Christmas lights wave at us from the mast of a nearby fishing trawler. “It’s happening,” Earle says of her lifelong push into the deep. “This is a sweet spot in time. For the first time we can see what was once impossible to see.”
Originally published in The Daily Beast/Newsweek.