So what is it about the deep sea that draws scientists and attracts thousands of Okeanos viewers to their computer screens? Singer said much of the drive is pure curiosity.
But there are more practical reasons for the project. Although it seems disconnected, the deep sea is not safe from environmental threats like ocean acidification and pollution.
When animals at the surface fall victim to environmental threats, it exponentially reduces the amount of energy that reaches the deep sea, Singer said. Fishes at the surface provide what scientists call ‘marine snow,’ or discarded flesh, scales and other parts left when an animal is eaten or dies of natural causes that drift down to the deeper levels, Singer said. For example, when whales die, their carcasses sink to the bottom and can feed an entire community of deep-sea fishes for months or even years.
“The reality is when you damage things at the surface, you’re definitely indirectly affecting the fish at deeper levels,” Singer said.
But to protect the deep sea, first we have to find out what’s out there. If we somehow drained the planet of all its water, Singer said the continents would look like tiny mesas, with huge canyons and enormous mountains down below us.
“Mt. Everest is a molehill compared to what’s in the ocean,” Singer said. “But we only know about 5 percent of the species that live there and even less about its geography.”
A seamount mapped on a return voyage to Honolulu. This "Mountain in the Deep" rose approximately 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) from the seafloor. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Mountains in the Deep: Exploring the Central Pacific Basin.
Since we currently have no way to monitor the deep sea, Singer said overfishing of species like Orange Roughy, a deep sea fish that is over harvested commercially in the Pacific, is dangerous because we don’t know how many exist.
“We don’t know very much about the deep sea because it’s just so remote. Sampling it with nets is like flying over New York City in a helicopter with a bucket hanging off of it and trying to catch cockroaches.”
Hindrances in investigating unexplored areas of the ocean during netting expeditions led NOAA to commission the Okeanos Explorer in 2008. Netting expeditions require grueling months at sea and spots on the boat are limited, which also restricts the variety of scientific expertise available on-site during missions.
This video shows highlights from various expeditions Randy Singer has participated in.
Before signing up with Okeanos, Singer experienced an expedition at sea firsthand. He spent two months in 2009 with the NOAA Mid-Atlantic Ridge Ecosystem Project collecting deep-sea specimens as far as 18,000 feet below the surface.
“Life on an ocean expedition is comparable to living on a slow-motion roller coaster for weeks, Singer said. “Going to sea isn’t for everyone, since expeditions often go very long periods of time without returning to shore. When you start out, you have fresh food and by the end you’re literally eating Helper–not Hamburger Helper, just Helper. By the last week, there’s no fresh fruit and you start to get cabin fever.”
For scientists who aim to explore the deep-sea—a place humans cannot visit due to the crushing pressure—technology has become the key to unlocking its secrets.
“The age-old selling point for deep sea research is that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the deep ocean. I mean, talk about needing to know more about our planet’s biodiversity. That’s the first place we can look,” Singer said.