Editorial: Call of the Deep

Published in The Hindu on April 6, 2012

After stirring the imagination of people by bringing them up close with The Titanic on the silver screen, legendary film director James Cameron recently pulled off another spectacular achievement that will go a long way in igniting public interest in deep-sea exploration. By plunging nearly 11 km down to the Challenger Deep located in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean — where a structure as tall as Mount Everest would be more than 2 km below the sea level — Cameron became the first man to reach the deepest depths of the ocean all alone. After spending nearly two-and-half hours to descend in his “Deepsea Challenger” submersible, he stayed at the Challenger Deep for nearly three hours to collect samples and capture on film the life and terrain of one of the world’s most harsh and inhospitable regions. Though the Swiss oceanographer, Jacques Piccard, and Don Walsh, a lieutenant with the U.S. Navy, were the first to reach the dark abyss in 1960 in their bathyscaphe “Trieste,” Cameron’s journey has captured the world’s imagination like never before. His timing has been perfect as our ability to build advanced submersibles equipped with a slew of sophisticated instruments for carrying out various scientific studies has improved vastly since the first journey.

With the team planning to undertake three or more dives in the coming weeks to understand more about life on the rocky sides of the Trench, excitement and awareness is bound to increase. The Challenger Deep has already been explored in 1995 by “Kaiko,” a remote-controlled vehicle, and “Nereus,” a robot submersible in 2009. But these missions and their findings have gone largely unnoticed compared with Cameron’s. It is beyond doubt that our understanding of many aspects of the deep ocean bottom is at best sketchy, and many times outright wrong. The spotting of snailfish at a depth of nearly 7 kms in different trenches flies in the face of conventional thinking that the deepest parts of the ocean are bereft of animal life. In fact, many unique marine organisms have been identified at depths greater than 6 km. For instance, free-falling landers that reached Sirena Deep, at a depth of 10.6 km last year, recorded the presence of xenophyophores, which are single-celled animals about 10 cm in size. Since they play host to a variety of organisms, their presence in the Mariana Trench is particularly significant. While each place has its own collection of unique species, their presence certainly strengthens the notion of deep ocean floors teeming with life. The need for a re-evaluation of the ocean floor ecosystem has therefore become inevitable. Cameron’s expedition has set the grand stage for this.