New dives to Challenger Deep raise old questions about privatization and exploration

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here:

Featured Images: Friends of the Mariana Trench during the 2008 campaign to obtain Marine National Monument status
Featured Images: Friends of the Mariana Trench during the 2008 campaign to obtain Marine National Monument status for the Mariana Trench and surrounding island and seamounts.

For over 50 years, deep-ocean explorers have been able to claim that more people have walked on the moon than have dived to the deepest point on the Earth. Only two men descended into Challenger Deep in the 20th century–Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard–they were joined in the early 2010s by director James Cameron. Earlier this year, Victor Vescovo became the fourth to reach the bottom of Challenger Deep and, over the course of several subsequent dives this summer, the ranks of those who’ve reached the deepest ocean has swelled. 

Astronaut, oceanographer, and former NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan and explorer and mountaineer Vanessa O’Brien became the first and second woman to dive to the bottom of Challenge Deep aboard the privately owned HOV Limiting Factor, piloted by Vescovo and his team. 

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I sing the praise of my robot underlings, the workhorses of deep sea exploration

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.

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