Foghorn (A Call to Action!)
Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)
Ignacio R. “Nash” Camacho, a Traditions About Seafaring Islands member, and codesigner of the Chamoru Sakman outrigger replica canoe “Tasi,” talks about his creation during a ceremony at the Guam Museum on June 29, 2017.
Foghorn (a call to action)
The U.S. is turning a significant portion of Micronesia into live fire and bombing ranges to train Marines. It has plans to completely take over one island for this purpose and has control of two-thirds of another island.
If people in the U.S. mainland understood the military’s plan for Micronesia they might be alarmed. But this is really happening to U.S. citizens living in America’s territories.
Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)
The Levee (news from LUMCON)
LUMCON’s DeFelice Marine Center, flooded, as seen from a dormitory balcony. (Photo: Courtesy of LUMCON)
What’s the weirdest think you’ve found in the ocean?
Several week ago, we tackled this question while discussing the incredible shrinking cups the deep-sea scientists like to decorate and send into the wine-dark deep. While toilets and spam cans and beer bottles make for good headlines and shocking images of how extensive human impacts are on the deep sea, those are far from the strangest objects to grace the sea floor.
By most reasonable metrics, that honor has to go to the many nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon components that have been lost at sea over the last 70 years. While a few high-profile incidents have received tremendous coverage, most incidents remain largely shrouded in secrecy, with only sparse reports available. Which brings us to a question that’s been lodged in my brain for the last month: just how many nuclear weapons are sitting at the bottom of the sea?
A Mark-43 nuclear bomb. One of these is at the bottom of the sea.
This, of course, does not include the many, many, many times the United States has intentionally tested nuclear weapons throughout the Pacific, often while forcibly relocating local communities away for their now-test-site homes or, occasionally, not. This also doesn’t include the rare lost nuclear submarine, who’s payloads and whether or not they carried nuclear ordinance are mostly still classified. And, of course, it doesn’t include the Soviets or any other non-US nuclear nation.
For the most part, the 1950s and 60s were a hell of a time for losing track of nuclear weapons. By the time the 70s rolled around we had decide that maybe we should be a bit more careful with these things. But by then, we had accidentally dropped at least ten nukes into the ocean in eight different incidents. And we had lost one in a Carolina swamp. And we had almost accidentally nuked Greenland.
Who the heck thought these things were a good idea?
Octonauts live in the sea. Hardware’s their specialty. While ocean grants are a struggle… their source of funding, it really is a puzzle!
Explore! Rescue! Protect! The Octonauts have an ambitious undersea mission and an equally ambitious fleet of marine vehicles. How they pay for it is a mystery. Are they backed by the federal government? The UN? Is Professor Inkling financing this venture by selling genetically engineered vegetable-fish hybrids? Is a billionaire film-maker backing the venture? One thing’s for certain, an Octonaut-level research program does not come cheap. So how much does this operation actually cost?
Actuaries! To your stations!
With 4 housing/laboratory units and a central command bay, the Octopod would be the largest and most sophisticated underwater research station ever operated. There’s nothing in the marine research world the even comes close. Aquarius Reef Base is currently the only working undersea research laboratory. I can’t find the initial budget to build and install Reef Base, but a modern (albeit unrealized) aquatic residential habitat comes with a $10 million startup costs. Reef Base itself has a wildly variable annual budget, with a baseline around $1 million per year. The Octopod, on the other hand, has four Octo… Pods? each of which is similar in function to Reef Base (though the whole structure more closely resembles the extremely French Galathée Underwater Laboratory).
Galathée Underwater Laboratory
The central command bay is both the core of the Octopod and its power supply. Not much is known about where the Octopod gets its seemingly limitless power, but if the Octonauts are anything like the US Navy, there’s a nuclear reactor in the, somewhere. Meet Nerwin. NR-1 was the USA’s only nuclear-powered, deep-diving research submarine. With room for 16 crew and scientists and a multi-month endurance, Nerwin could hand both covert and scientific missions. The NR-1 was equipped with a wheeled base, allowing it to roll across the sea floor. Unfortunately, NR-1 was a strictly off-book asset for most of its life, so we don’t really know what it cost, but the initial build estimate was $58.3 million. As the military is not often known for bringing projects in under budget, that seems like a reasonable baseline. For annual operating costs, we might as well assume the upper end of Reef Base at $3 million to start. It’s almost certainly much *much* higher.
Cost to build: $98.3 million.
Annual operating cost: $7 million.
Newsweek, in is new and impressive digital format, released a series of articles this week on deep-sea exploration, the challenges of human occupied and remotely-operated vehicles, and the decline in funding for ocean science, particularly in the deep sea. The main article, The Last Dive? Funding for Human Expeditions in the Ocean May Have Run Aground, is a deep, detailed look at the state of deep-sea science, seen through the eyes of Dr. Sylvia Earle and Dr. Robert Ballard, two giants in the ocean community. The follow-up, James Cameron Responds to Robert Ballard on Deep-Sea Exploration, provides insight into the mind of James Cameron, who last year successfully dove the Challenger Deep in his own deep-sea submersible.
Both the articles continue to perpetrate the canard that there is a deep chasm between the human-occupied submersible (HOV) and remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) communities. The reality is that deep-sea scientists use a variety of tools, from mechanical samplers to autonomous robots, to study and understand the deep. The choice comes down to which tool is most efficient, least expensive, and currently available. Absent a sea change, ROV’s will continue to be the workhorses of deep-sea research. And that is a good thing. I sang the praise of my robot underlings the last time this debate breached the public consciousness. I also discussed why basic deep-sea research and training highly skilled ROV pilots is a matter of national security.
Building the Remote Lee. Photo by Andrew Thaler
James Cameron’s triumphant dive and (equally important) return from the Challenger Deep is a landmark achievement. In 62 years, only 3 people have ever visited the bottom of the Mariana Trench. While budgets for scientific exploration have been cut across the board, Cameron ponied up tens of millions to build only the second human-occupied submersible capable of reaching those depths. But the Deepsea Challenger is not the only visitor to Challenger Deep in the last few decades. In May, 2009 the ROV Nereus plumbed the depths of Challenger Deep. More than a decade before that, Kaikō, a Japanese ROV, became the first unmanned vehicle to reach into the Mariana Trench and return with video, sediment, and biological samples during several return trips.
And, while Alvin is in drydocks and human-occupied submersibles are tragically being mothballed across the country, more remote operated vehicles are exploring the ocean than ever before. They are being built and run by scientific institutions, private firms, public universities, high schools, industrial corporations, and individual citizens. My lab mate and I built one last winter, for fun. And while I agree with Al and Craig at Deep Sea News that ROV’s are not as “sexy” as human occupied submersibles, that is a marketing problem, because, like it or not, ROV’s are the real masters of deep sea exploration. If your goal is to learn as much as possible about the deep ocean, if you want the biggest return on your investment, if you want to involve a huge and diverse exploratory team, the ROV is king.