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The Story of Modern Ocean Exploration

Updated: Jan 22

The story of modern ocean exploration is a testament to human curiosity, innovation, and our need to understand the natural world. With each expedition, we move one step closer to unraveling the secrets of the deep ocean. In this post, we'll dive into how modern ocean exploration has evolved over the past 150 years and its impact on our understanding of the deep ocean.

A Groundbreaking Voyage

Our timeline begins with the Challenger Expedition, a landmark scientific endeavor that set sail in 1872. This legendary voyage marked a pivotal moment in the history of oceanography, as it was the first to focus exclusively on the ocean depths. HMS Challenger circumnavigated the globe, collecting samples, measuring oceanographic data, and laying the foundation for the modern study of marine science.

HMS Challenger under sail, 1874. Public Domain from NOAA archive.

As oceanography progressed, so did the technology at our disposal. Innovations like echo sounders, sediment samplers, and advanced navigation tools greatly enhanced our ability to explore the ocean's depths. These technological leaps allowed researchers to delve deeper into the mysteries of the sea, setting the stage for more ambitious endeavors.

The Submersibles Revolution

The 20th century witnessed a revolution in deep-sea exploration with the introduction of submersibles like the Turtle and Nautilus. These crewed vehicles offered scientists unprecedented access to the ocean's depths, revealing a world teeming with life and wonder that had remained hidden for millennia.

Turtle was one of the earliest submarines in history and was created by American inventor David Bushnell in 1775. The submarine was propelled by a hand-cranked and pedal-powered propeller and featured a diving chamber for the operator. Despite its limited success, Turtle is considered an early precursor to modern submarines and played a significant role in the development of underwater technology.

Turtle was a one-person submersible, consisting of two wooden shells covered with tar and reinforced with steel bands. (1)

In the 20th century, the advent of submersibles like the Bathyscaphe Trieste, which reached the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, marked a significant milestone. This descent, undertaken by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in 1960, took humans to the deepest point on Earth, a depth of nearly 10,911 meters, a feat that has only been repeated a handful of times since.

Bathyscaphe Trieste, hoisted out of the water. (2)

Technological Advancements and Deep-Sea Vehicles

Modern ocean exploration extends beyond crewed submersibles. Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) allow for precision research at extreme depths, gathering valuable data without the risks associated with human presence. These advanced tools continue to expand the frontiers of deep-sea exploration. These uncrewed vehicles, controlled from the surface, can stay underwater indefinitely, allowing for extended observations and detailed studies of the deep sea.

The science ROV 'Hercules' (IFE/URI/NOAA) during a launch in 2005. Public Domain

The Development of Telepresence 

The evolution of deep-sea exploration technology is not just about going deeper but also about increasing our presence in the deep sea. With the advent of telepresence technology, scientists worldwide can participate in deep-sea expeditions in real time without leaving their offices. They can observe the live video feed from the ROVs, discuss findings with the onboard team, and even guide the exploration.

Mission Control During an ROV Dive onboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer.(3)

Low-Cost Technology and the Future of Deep-Sea Exploration

As we look to the future, the possibilities for deep-sea exploration appear boundless. At Ocean Discovery League, the next frontier is broadening access to the deep sea by developing low-cost systems that accelerate ocean exploration. As we continue to push the boundaries of technology and accessibility, we can expect to gain a deeper understanding of our world and our place in it.

Image References

(1) "A History of Sea Power" By William Oliver Stevens, Allan Westcott, Allan Ferguson Westcott Published by G. H. Doran company, 1920, pg. 294. Public Domain.

(2) Retrieved from NH 96801 U.S. Navy Bathyscaphe Trieste (1958-1963), Art collection, U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command website. Public Domain.

(3) NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2019

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