It may seem odd at first thought that while we have been sending objects into space since 1946, catapulting the first man out of orbit on the end of a huge firework an amazing 49 years ago; here at home on our little planet, which is made up of 70.8% water and a measly 29.2% of solid land, over 95% of that underwater world is yet to be explored.
It’s not that there is no interest in examining these strange hidden worlds that sit below the great swell of our major oceans, just that the humongous pressure that exists down there makes it impossible at the moment to go right down to the deepest, darkest portions of our own world; a world that from the glimpses we have already had of it, is so different, so weird and strange, and populated by creatures far beyond the reaches of our imaginations, that it could be a completely different planet altogether. So much of what the sea gives is already at our disposal, but we know there is so much more to find there. So far all we have done is dip in our toe into the water; we are yet to take a deep breath, and dive into the wet unknown.
The seas and oceans have been a focus for man since long before the first human civilisations began to emerge. Just about every race has built some kind of vessel for traversing the waters, enabling travel to other lands, and to pull from the world beneath the waves the many different swimming creatures and plants that can be eaten. But what has been caught must also be preserved for times when food is scarce and once again the sea has come to the rescue and provided us with salt to stop our catch from rotting in the sun. Weirdly the human race has never been so afraid of the deep water that we have stayed on land; it has always been something to be conquered rather than a barrier to pass. And because of the sea we have traded across nations and continents and have met, and become allied with, peoples of other lands, who we have also fallen out with, killed and dominated in battles that have taken place in these great tumultuous arenas of brine. But no matter how many souls have been lost and interred in watery graves, the sea and oceans have always remained our friend; albeit it one that must be respected and acknowledged as dangerous.
Nowadays throughout the world we catch and consume over 90 million tonnes of fish and molluscs each year. And although stocks of certain species have been significantly reduced in recent years due to industrial over-fishing, still we are able to draw from our seas these massive tonnages of fresh food. But fish and salt are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and the sea is much, much more than that.
In 1866 the first successful transatlantic cable was laid between Newfoundland and Ireland by the SS Great Eastern, connecting for the first time the North American content with Europe. Until this point communication across the expanse of the great pond was carried by ship and would take almost a fortnight, but now a message could be sent and a reply received within just a matter of minutes. Designated the eighth wonder of the world, this was a technological advancement that changed the shape of the world, squeezing our giant globe into something smaller and manageable, and beginning what has become known as the ‘special relationship’.
From there we have jumped forward in great leaps, fantastic dives deep into the ocean, and now we have oil pipelines delivering fuel to our country and the cables that enabled almost instant communication back in the 19th century have been replaced by fibre optic networks spanning the globe and creating superhighways of electronic data. All those images that come up on our computer screens from far off places have travelled not only over land but across thousands of miles of seabed as well.
That’s the pretty unseen side of marine technology, but look out to sea from so many locations on the British coastline and you will see giant metallic scaffolds sitting out in there in the distance, ugly and like immense monsters watching us menacingly from just beyond their reach; these are our rigs sitting on oil and gas fields, drawing up from so many fathoms down into the crust of the earth our fuels (In 2005 we drew 1.9 million barrels of oil). These eye-sores in the North Sea surrounded by violent and mighty waves, reachable by helicopter, are what keep our lights burning through the night and our societies mobile through the day. So much of what is needed to quell our ravenous hunger for oil and electricity and plastics is provided by these underwater drills and pipelines.
Unfortunately the sea is also our toilet and our tipping ground, for where else would we expel our human sewage and chemical waste. Strange then to think that we use the oceans for recreation as well; whether that be swimming and diving beneath a glowing sun, or relaxing on our giant floating tin cans, enjoying cocktails while we cruise alongside dolphins and flying fish. Not all sea journeys are happy ones though and so many ships and boats from across centuries have found themselves sinking far down to the unexplored depths where their cargoes have been lost forever and their crews and passengers destined to perish as guests of Davy Jones, or Poseidon, or Neptune, or just the sea.
Every day there are new ideas put into development for new technologies that will take advantage of some aspect of the 139 million square miles of water which surrounds the dry land we live on. There are so many things we are just starting to be able to do out there or that we believe we will be able to do before very long. We have already begun underwater mining of the earth’s crust for elements like cobalt and manganese. But more than that, the seas and oceans may be our best hope for new sustainable sources of energy as well. Offshore wind farms and wave ducks may replace our oil rigs, and as technologies for use in deep, deep waters are developed, ocean floor geo-thermal electricity generation may be something that can seriously reduce our need for fossil fuel burning, carbon-based electricity generation.
Many of these new technologies are impossible at the moment and will remain so until we have built submersibles that can take us down into those places we haven’t been before. And just what will we find down there? Will there be billions in sunken gold, the remains of ancient civilisations like the legendary Atlantis, until-now undiscovered elements, or maybe the secret answer to all our energy needs? Who knows; who knows what is hiding down there in the dark. And it is dark. It is so untouched by the light of day that the strange alien creatures that live down there have their own bio-luminosity on surface of their bodies to produce what little light there is. It is amazing to think that we know more about the dark side of the moon than we do about the bottom of the oceans, which are only around two and a half miles deep, but which have a pressure of around one ton per square inch, and a temperature of just a few degrees Celsius. Because there is no light, there is no possibility of plants, but there are plenty of animals in the form of sea cucumbers, worms, molluscs and spidery crustaceans, coral, weird and wonderful fish, gelatinous jelly fish and oddly shaped octopi. From the relatively few examples we have managed to collect through trawling, it is clear that the creatures that live down there beyond our reach are nothing like anything that exists in the depths we utilise, but are something more akin to science fiction. It is a world of illuminating phosphorescent skin pigments; a moving fluorescent dwelling where the lack of ambient light has caused evolution to create creatures that are themselves glowing shapes gliding, crawling and pulsating in the blackness.
It is all around us, all of the time. In some places it is blue and sparkling and at the end of soft pale beaches, and at other places it is a turbulent watery hell of vortexes, tempests and squalls where there are giant tentacle-wielding creatures and colossal fountain-blowing sea mammals. They are the seas and the oceans, the waters that divide the pieces of rock we call our continents and nations and islands. In the main they are undiscovered and unknown, frighteningly alien yet forever taunting us to dare seek out their secrets. They may be new worlds full of possibilities or they may be the death of us. Whatever they are, they are there, and that is reason enough for us to find a way to survey them and to investigate whatever mysteries they cling to.