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Underwater Exploration

History, Oceanography, Instrumentation, Diving Tools And Techniques, Deep-sea Submersible Vessels, Key Findings In Underwater ExplorationDeep-sea pioneers

Underwater exploration is the relatively recent process of investigating the depths of the sea to understand its physical and chemical characteristics and to learn about the life forms that inhabit this realm. Underwater exploration near the surface and near the shore is an ancient form of earning a livelihood and enjoying the pleasures of the water; but deep-sea exploration is a recent phenomenon (compared to many other sciences) because technological developments have been essential to the survival of human beings in deeper water. Alternatively, these developments have eliminated the need for humans to journey to these depths.

Charles William Beebe and Otis Barton

Charles William Beebe (1877-1952) was the designer of the first practical bathysphere. Beebe, part scientist and part showman, never completed his degree at Columbia University in New York: instead, he became a curator at a zoo, tracked rare species of birds in South and Central America, and climbed volcanoes before becoming interested in underwater exploration. In 1934, he and Otis Barton made a record-setting descent to 3,028 ft (923 m) below the waters off the Bermuda Islands. Barton was a far different character, a virtual recluse who had been born to an extraordinarily wealthy family and was interested in the ocean from his youth. Barton invented his own deep diving helmet and weighted himself down with rocks to explore Massachusetts waters before teaming up with Beebe.

By 1926, Beebe was famous as an adventurer; Barton contacted him and showed him detailed designs for a steel sphere that would serve as a capsule for carrying two passengers beneath the sea. Two oxygen tanks in the sphere carried eight hours worth of air, trays of absorbents collected carbon dioxide and moisture, and panes of quartz that had been pressure-tested were fitted into the sphere as windows. Conditions were so primitive that Beebe and Barton carried small palm-leaf fans to circulate air in the chamber. A steam-powered winch on the host ship hoisted the bathysphere to the surface on a steel cable, and another cable carried two wires for telephone communications with the surface and two for an electric searchlight mounted inside the sphere and aimed through a window. Beebe wore headphones during the dives and described observations by telephone to an assistant onboard the surface craft.

During their historic 1934 dive, the captain of their crew allowed the bathysphere to stay at its greatest depth for only three minutes before beginning the surface ascent. Beebe described eerie and extravagant undersea creatures as well as great water voids with no apparent life. For years, he was condemned for deceiving the public until the observations and photographs made by others verified his observations, and Beebe was officially credited with discovery of hundreds of new life forms.

Auguste and Jacques Piccard

Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard (1884-1962) had twin fascinations, the atmosphere above Earth's surface and the sea below. He was world-famous as an inventor (who collaborated with Albert Einstein, among others), balloonist, and adventurer, and, at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, his hydrogen-filled balloon was displayed next to Beebe's bathysphere. This led to a meeting of the two like minds, and, in 1937, Piccard began building his bathyscaph with its gasoline-filled float and suspended chamber or gondola of spherical steel. Largely supported in his atmospheric explorations by the Belgian organization Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique (FNRS), Piccard asked them to back him in building the bathyscaph, named FNRS-2 (his atmospheric exploration balloon had been named FNRS-1). His research was suspended for the duration of World War II, but, in 1948, Piccard and his son Jacques (1922-) reached a new record depth of 4,500 ft (1,500 m). Jacques was educated in Trieste, Italy, and, in 1953, the Piccards in a new Swiss/Italian bathyscaphe named Trieste engaged the French/Belgian FNRS in a battle to beat the Piccards' last depth record.

In September 1953, the Piccards set the new record of 10,390 ft (over 3,100 m), they were limited only by the depth of the Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. Navy joined the race in 1957 and wanted to purchase the Trieste for test dives and further attempts at world records in the Pacific Ocean off the coast near San Diego. The ultimate objective was a dive into Challenger Deep, the deepest "hole" in the world's oceans in the Mariana Trench near Guam where the Pacific forms "Mount Everest in reverse," a 35,800-ft-deep (over 11,400-m-deep) chasm discovered in 1949 by the H.M.S. Challenger II research ship. The "Big Dive" was scheduled for January 23, 1960, and Jacques Piccard was selected by the Navy as half of the two-man crew with Lieutenant Don Walsh. After descending at the speed of an elevator and having their fragile craft buffeted by thermoclines (differences in ocean temperatures), Piccard and Walsh reached the deepest known point on Earth. With the depth race over, the oceans were open to more thorough scientific exploration.

Maurice Ewing

Maurice Ewing (1906-1974) was a professor of geology at Lehigh University in Lehigh, Pennsylvania. He had used seismic reflection, a technique for bouncing mini earthquake waves generated by explosives off surfaces and measuring their reflections, to locate deep oil and gas reserves in Texas. Different types of rock and other materials reflect seismic waves of different wavelengths. He was approached about applying the same method over the ocean to map the continental shelf, the border of any continent at the point where it drops steeply to deep ocean. In 1934, Ewing began a study of the continental shelf off the coast of Virginia. In 1940, Ewing went to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to learn about the sea, and, during World War II, he performed secret research for the Navy and worked with Allyn Vine and John Worzel to develop the first underwater cameras. He was a leader in developing techniques for sampling soil from the sea floor and in investigating the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and discovered the great rift that divides this ridge. For 40 years, these and Ewing's other pioneering techniques were used to establish depths, bottom characteristics, and conditions below the sea floor, not just along the Continental shelf but over the deepest oceans.

Sylvia A. Earle

Sylvia A. Earle (1935-) extended public awareness of our need to preserve the environment from beyond the shore to the deepest ocean. She spent 40 years working as a marine scientist, assisting government agencies, writing, lecturing, and establishing records for diving and exploring her ocean world. In 1968, she joined a submarine crew on a Smithsonian program for exploring the ocean and fell in love with its challenges and habitats. In 1970, she led a team of women scientists in the Tektite II Project in which the team lived underwater for two weeks to help develop techniques for survival in confined circumstances that might be used in the space program. The media dubbed these women the "aquababes," and Earle learned the power to educate through media coverage. She set her first deep diving record in 1979 and the experience so intrigued her that she and British engineer Graham Hawkes built a deep-water submersible called the Deep Rover and later the Phantom, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). In 1990, she was named the chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the first woman to hold that post. Earle continues to campaign for "sea change" and popular support for the ocean environment.

Allyn Vine

The deep-sea submersibles that provide so many stunning images from the depth of the ocean are Allyn Vine's (1941-1994) work. Vine had worked with Maurice Ewing at Lehigh University and on the Atlantis, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's research vessel. In the 1940s, there were about 45 ocean research vessels around the world, but all of them had the same capabilities with limited ability to explore the greatest depths of the ocean. Vine obtained funds from the Navy's research department to design and build a deep sea submersible, a miniature submarine that could withstand the tremendous water pressures at depth, hold a crew of only two or three, powered by golf-cart batteries, and controlled by a mother ship at the surface, and host a number of cameras, sampling devices, and instruments. The passenger ship on the submersible was fully detachable; if the main craft could not rise to the surface, the passenger ship would. In 1964, the first submersible called Alvin, for the first two letters from Allyn and the first three from Vine, was ready for a deep-dive test. The Alvin was successfully certified on her first deep dive. In 1994, after thousands of improvements, she celebrated her thirtieth birthday and 2,772 dives in the name of scientific research.

Vine's early experience, in the company of Ewing, was with the Navy during World War II in testing and improving the bathythermograph (BT), a device that measures temperature differences with depth in sea water. Because temperature and density in water are directly related, enemy submarines could hide from detection by sonar from the surface by hiding in dense water. Vine's improvement of the BT helped the Navy capture and destroy enemy subs but also helped its own subs find the most efficient hiding places.

Robert D. Ballard

Robert Ballard (1942-) is best known as the discoverer of the wreckage of the H.M.S. Titanic, the legendary ocean liner that in theory could not be sunk, but crashed to the ocean floor on her maiden voyage in 1912, taking over 1,500 lives with her. But Ballard is a geologist and oceanographer with many other astounding achievements to his credit. He was the first to take a submersible on a dive of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and, in an exploration of the volcanic sea floor around the Galápagos Islands, he discovered new life forms around hydrothermal vents at depths thought impossible for life. He investigated the sunken nuclear submarines the Thresher and the Scorpion, but finding the Titanic was a dream. An avid researcher, author, and writer of technical papers, Ballard used the fame that came with the discovery of Titanic to launch the JASON Project to educate schoolchildren about undersea explorations; through satellite links, the students can view the findings of submersibles as they work and even help manipulate it. The JASON Project was named for the Jason robot or ROV (remotely operated vehicle) that Ballard used to photograph the interior of the Titanic; Ballard describes the Jason ROV as "a tethered eyeball."

Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the Calypso

For his immeasurable contribution to oceanography and the preservation of the wealth of the seas, Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997), a former French sailor, deserves special mention. After his education at the French Naval School at Brest, Cousteau served as a gunnery officer and became fascinated with the depths of the sea. During and immediately following his Navy career, Cousteau dived underwater extensively himself, experimented with diving equipment, and created the improvements he needed. His underwater inventions were many, but the most notable is the aqualung or SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus), which he and Émile Gagnan (a French engineer) designed in 1943. The aqualung consists of a face mask, a pressure-regulating valve, and an attached cylinder of compressed air that enables a trained diver to stay underwater for several hours. For the first time, an individual could go beyond his own breathing limitations in exploring the sea. In the 1940s, he was named captain of the Ingçnieur Elie Monnier, the world's first marine research vessel and the pride of the French Navy.

In 1950, Cousteau obtained indefinite leave from the Navy to devote himself to underwater exploration (he was to retire from the Navy with the rank of corvette captain in 1957). He needed a research vessel himself and found one in the Calypso, a former minesweeper that had been built for the British Navy in World War II and served as a ferryboat around the island of Malta after the war. The ship was extensively remodeled to work as a floating laboratory, and funding for this was provided by British brewery heir Noel Guinness. Accommodations were overhauled, sophisticated navigation and exploratory instrumentation was installed, and a "false nose" or underwater observation chamber was constructed on the tip of the ship's prow in a metal cage. Rigging and facilities for diving equipment were installed.

Aside from pure oceanography, Calypso was equipped to study and monitor patterns of biological populations, behavior of coastal and marine animals, the shapes and operations of a coral reef, the effects of undersea instruments, and special diving conditions and equipment performance. Her other assignments included topography, weather, acoustics, geology, chemistry, physics, and geophysics. Other private sources, the French Navy, manufacturers, and even donations from school children kept Calypso constantly moving about the world's oceans, making discoveries that benefited and educated the world. In 1951, Cousteau put Calypso to sea with his wife and two sons (among others) as crew. Operating from a base in Toulon on the French Mediterranean, and under the administration of the Campagnes Oceanographiques Franaises (COF) or French Oceanographic Expeditions (a nonprofit organization), Calypso began her voyages of discovery.

Cousteau brought Calypso's voyages into many families' living rooms thanks to his other skills as an underwater photographer, maker of documentary films, and author. Cousteau learned underwater photography and deep-sea photography at the feet of a master; in 1953, he began working with Doctor Harold Edgerton, known as "Papa Flash," who had pioneered deep-sea cameras and the use of strobe lights for flash as an inventor and electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cousteau and Edgerton developed a sonar device to trigger a flash near the sea floor and a sled-like device for mounting cameras. By separating the cameras from the flash sources, the pair took some of the most remarkable deep-sea photographs ever seen. Cousteau's first film debuted in 1943. He made full-length films, documentary shorts, and many made-for-television films. Two of these, The Silent World (1956) and World Without Sun (1966) won Cousteau Academy Awards for best documentary feature. His best-known books may be those in the series called The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. The books, films, and television programs interested many children in the mysteries of the underwater world and help expand the environmental movement beyond the confines of land.

In the 1960s, Cousteau started a series of experiments in building underwater habitats where people could work and live. These concepts were abandoned because of economics, but, again, they awakened the public's interest in the compatibility of man and the underwater world. He turned more strongly toward environmental interests in the 1970s and started the Cousteau Society for marine conservation before his death in 1977.

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