Robert Ballard, the famed scientist that discovered hydrothermal vents aboard the Alvin, argues that manned submersibles are unnecessary. He says that, from a scientific perspective, the video screen does just as good or better at showing what is seen out the window of these submersibles. On the other hand, Sylvia Earle, Her Deepness, disagrees and believes that there is no better way to explore the oceans than actually being in the submersible and experiencing it first hand.
As a graduate in Marine Biology with hopes of someday exploring the depths of the ocean using submersibles, the news that funding was being cut across the board was heart breaking! Almost every dive to a new area in a submersible has shed light on new to science, species and even entire ecosystems! Had it not been for deep sea exploration, we would not know about hydrothermal vents, cold seeps, and the animals that inhabit them; some of which resemble their shallower water cousins, but have adapted to not only survive, but to thrive in these harsh conditions. Traveling into the deep sea is like experiencing evolution first hand!
Could a machine do just as good of a job at making these discoveries with a scientist or group of scientists on the other end? Sort of an extreme version of an RC car, but capable of collecting data and exploring areas humans are not capable of reaching yet. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has demonstrated this concept with their hybrid ROV Nereus (left), which traveled deeper than any human in 2009 and brought back samples for the scientists to analyze. Of course machines can do the work, probably more efficiently and cost effectively, but what can a machine share with the average person? How many people reading this were aware of these record breaking dives when they occurred?
If I have learned anything in the past couple years, the most important lesson is that without education and public involvement, there is no conservation. This is something that Sylvia Earle excels in. Her explorations were covered by media and helped to raise awareness, as well as increase the knowledge of the scientific community. In order to spread awareness about the ocean and what we can do to help protect it or the many wonders that still await discovery, scientists need to share their stories with the world. It is hard to share a story if you have not experienced it first-hand.
In my opinion, having a voice for the discoveries of the deep is necessary because the deep sea is so disconnected from the average human being. I agree that at a scientific standpoint, the unmanned submersibles make more sense. They allow the scientists to discover areas that would otherwise be out of reach, and maybe even make it home for dinner like a normal job. On a conservation standpoint, however, they lead to the dehumanization of new discoveries, and will make the fight to protect the oceans more difficult in the long run.
The only way the unmanned submersibles could help conservation is by glorifying them like the first walks on the moon. Footage from the ROV/AUV should be actively shared through visual media and the average person should be able to experience these trips into the unknown depths. Until this happens, there should still be a human voice for the voyages into the deep.
What do you think, are wo/men or machines better for ocean exploration and conservation?