Here be Monsters: The Unchartered Depths

I forgot to take a book to the shore.  I sat for hours and watched the sea.  Listening to the waves crash as the water fell over itself in a rush to get to the shore, only to leave with a hiss moments afterward.  Rocks clattered on the sea floor as they jostled for positions closer to the beach.  I thought about what might be living at the bottom of the Mediterranean.  Was any part of it unchartered?  Or did we know and understand every facet of it? The next day, I headed to the aquarium in Monaco to find out.

Beach in Nice, France. Photo credit: Jennifer Cornick

Oceanographic Museum, Monaco. Photo credit: Jennifer Cornick

The gulls screeched and fought for scraps as I ate my oranges on the rocky shore.  Stories flitted through my mind.  Famous books about the sea’s depths and the strange things found on the ocean floor.  Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has the Nautilus, Captain Nemo, and the Giant Squid.  John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes has an alien race invading earth from the depths of the ocean.

These narratives work and are still relevant for science fiction readers because we know little about the ocean.  There is a lengthy list of books and authors working with this advantageous situation. Atlantis sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic in Ancient Greek writings, Jules Verne published his famous seafaring themed work in 1870, and we are still writing about the ocean floor and what is hidden there.

Ocean Exploration – Past, Present, and Into the Future

We know more about the surface of the moon or Mars than we do about the bottom of the ocean.   According to the Smithsonian magazine, we have mapped only 5% of the ocean floor.  This is minuscule given that the world ocean covers 71% of the earth’s surface.

We have explored the ocean for over 130,000 years. Archeologists in Crete have found evidence of early tools for ocean exploration dating back to 130,000 BCE, according to an article in The American Journal of Classical Studies at Athens in 2010.

We continued, hoping to map the depths using a technique called sounding.  Originally, this meant using weighted lines with measurements marked on the ropes.  Thrown from ships, the lines sank, and the measurement recorded when the weights hit the bottom.

Later we used sound and echoes.  While mapping deeper parts of the ocean became possible there were still limitations in the earliest technology as there was too much water in the way.  And thankfully, we have continually improved the technology.  What we now lack is coordinated effort.

Fortunately for us all the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) has stepped in to manage a thirteen-year effort to chart the entirety of the ocean floor.  Currently, the non-profit foundation has been given $18.5 million USD from the Nippon Foundation.  A fleet of ships will systematically travel the world’s oceans and map every square kilometer.  In 2030, we will have the first real picture of the entirety of the earth’s surface.

Fish Stories

We truly have no idea what lurks in the deep.  We have learnt about some creatures.  The shy Dumbo Octopus, the deceptive Angler Fish, the frighteningly large Giant Isopods, and vicious Fangtooth Fish are the stuff of nightmares.  Well, except for the Dumbo Octopus which is quite frankly one of the cutest octopi on record.

Jules Verne brings to vibrant life the creatures encountered by the Nautilus.  One of which is the giant squid.  This is the stuff of legend.  The Kraken.  Stories from marooned sailors suffering from malnutrition and heat stroke were not to be believed, understandably.  Tentacles have washed up on shore occasionally or been caught in fishing nets.  The tentacles and the wounds on sperm whales were the only evidence to be had for many years.  Scientists thought that they must exist but had no proof – physical, photographic, or otherwise.

That all changed in 2012.  Scientists, including some Ted alumni, discovered and photographed the giant squid!  This is a phenomenal accomplishment and one that took many hundreds of years to substantiate.

Undiscovered and at Risk

The mapping of any new territory always identifies new resources.  Once the resources have been identified prospectors are never far behind.  However, we lack understanding of the creatures and habitats at the bottom of the sea.

“We know so little about potential environmental impacts” Kristina Gjerde recently told Smithsonian magazine.  The author and policy advisor highlights the concerns that many environmentalists have with deep sea mining. “Some are starting to question if we know enough to authorize mining to proceed. We really need a better understanding of the deep sea before we start to do any irremediable harm,” she continued in the same interview with journalist Kyle Frischkorn earlier this year.

Supporters of deep sea mining cite the dwindling resources on land, especially with our rapacious consumption of metals for our electronic devices.  Environmentalists are worried about long term ecological effects and the extinction of species we do not know about and the irreparable destruction of their habitats.

There is a certain amount of risk inherent in any exploration initiative.  Especially risks in unknown waters.  This does not dim our continued love of the sea or our fascination with what might be hidden. 2030 will be an exciting year for explorers everywhere. We will finally have a map, we will just need a ship.


Header image belong to the author

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About Jennifer Cornick

Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even cereal boxes).

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