Why Do We Explore?
In this short film three preeminent American ocean explorers share their perspective on why it is so important that science focus on exploring our largely unknown ocean. This presentation is part of an archived online teacher professional development course and lesson plan package. The full content of the course can be found at www.coexploration.org/oe . This course was offered Oct. 5-16, 2009 and June 21-July 2, 2010. The associated Why Do We Explore? lessons can also be found at http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/okeanos/edu/welcome.html.
Ocean Explorers: Keynote Address
Dr. Charles Fisher
Dr. Shirley Pomponi
Dr. Edie Widder
Dr. Edie Widder: We have just returned from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ocean exploration expedition in the Bahamas, and I’ve been asked to answer the question, why do we explore? Well, first of all, because human beings are, by nature, explorers. The first time a baby crawls away from the safety of its mother’s arms to see what’s around that corner, it’s expanding its universe. And that’s just innate to all of us. We always want to see what’s around that next corner.
So I’ve always had this concept of wanting to explore. But I’ve always imagined it would be intellectual frontiers. I never really imagined that I’d actually be exploring physical frontiers. But that’s what we’ve just been doing. We’ve been going out and exploring areas around the Bahamas that possibly no one has ever seen before, bringing light down into a universe that has never seen any light but bioluminescence, and seeing these incredible landscapes, just amazing places.
Dr. Shirley Pomponi: I’ve been really fortunate in being able to explore our oceans for the last 25 years. And I’ve been especially fortunate because I’ve been able to use some really unique tools that enable me to not explore only on the ocean but under the ocean as well. And for me, the passion of exploration is just stimulated by that quest for adventure, that whole quest for adventure—and really, for new knowledge—is why I explore.
Dr. Chuck Fisher: On the dry part of the planet, life occupies a space from the ground, up to about at most, 300 feet, or about a football field above the surface. And you take that small area where life exists and compare it to the whole volume of the ocean, and what you’ll find out is that about 99% of the habitable part of this planet—where life exists, where we find animals and plants—is, in fact, in the ocean.
Dr. Edie Widder: We’ve actually explored so little of the ocean. It’s been estimated that we’ve maybe only looked at 5% of the ocean bottom. So it’s incredible to think that we are actually destroying the ocean before we know what’s in it.
Dr. Chuck Fisher: So that is one of the big reasons we need to explore in the deep sea, simply to know what’s there and know how to protect it. We need to know what kind of communities are we going to find in the deep sea, how do these communities interact with each other, and how do they interact with the rest of the ocean?
Dr. Shirley Pomponi: There are things that we discovered that we had no idea we would discover. It’s mind-blowing for me to know that I am one of four people in our Johnson Sealink submersible who are witnessing a phenomenon or seeing a new species for the very first time. One comes to mind where we’ve discovered a spawning site of a commercially important fish species. And that was never known before. And so exploration enables us to discover resources that have economic value so that we can learn more about them. We can protect them, and we can manage those resources.
Dr. Chuck Fisher: One of the focuses of our recent expeditions of exploration in the deep Gulf of Mexico has been to look for, to discover new coral beds, if they exist in the deep Gulf of Mexico—see what kinds of corals live there, and see if these deep coral reefs are, in fact, important to any of the fish that are important to humans in the Gulf of Mexico. Well, last month, during our expedition of exploration for NOAA and for the Mineral Management Service, we did discover abundant hard grounds covered by coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. We discovered new species of corals and new species that had never been found in the Gulf of Mexico, and a lot of different animals that we didn’t know about before that are associated with these coral reefs.
Dr. Edie Widder: There is a lot of interest in collecting some of these organisms for the chemicals that they produce, or in discovering new things about the insides of cells. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was recently awarded for the discovery of how bio-luminescence is produced in a bioluminescent jellyfish. And the scientists that were working on that weren’t really expecting to discover anything except why. But it turned out to be incredibly useful, and it opened up a whole new universe, basically, in exploration because it allowed us to light up the insides of cells and see what was going on there.
Dr. Chuck Fisher: There are resources in the ocean that can benefit mankind. Now these resources range from things like medicines that we may be able to derive from deep-sea animals, or bio-technological products that even exist in the bacteria that live in the deep sea. These products may help us to find newer and cleaner ways to make plastics or other high tech polymers that we need in our society, or even to clean up some of the pollution that is produced for our society.
Dr. Shirley Pomponi: For the last 25 years I’ve been exploring to discover sponges that live in the deep ocean that produce chemicals that can be used to treat diseases like cancer. Over the last few years, we’ve been exploring just off the coast of Florida. And one of our most exciting discoveries is a sponge, a glass sponge that occurs in deep water. And that sponge produces a chemical that is thousands of times more potent than known cancer drugs. And so we’re really excited about this discovery.
Dr. Chuck Fisher: There are also mineral resources in the deep sea. Now these can include things like precious metals or titanium—things that we need for industry—and also resources like oil and gas. Now you might ask why a deep-sea biologist like me should be working around oil and gas seeps in the Gulf of Mexico. When these were first discovered, I think most biologists thought that we would either find no life associated with these oil seeps, or that the life associated with the oil seeps might be sick or, you know, damaged from exposure to the oil, maybe have cancer or something like that.
And that’s where we were in the 1980’s. However, after the first dives that were made to these sites about 25 years ago, we discovered that this was completely wrong. Not only was there abundant life around the oil seeps, but it was a specialized life. We discovered fields of mussels living off methane gas. We discovered tubeworms that live as long or longer than any other animals that we know of on earth, individual animals living for hundreds of years, and communities that can live for thousands of years.
We discovered animals that live on gas hydrates. All of this was a surprise to us. We have now found that these communities, these tubeworms and mussels and ice worms, are hosts to other communities of animals—hundreds of other species of snails and crabs and fish that are dependent upon these communities. We still don’t know the extent of the interaction between these communities and the rest of the deep sea. And that’s one of the reasons that we continue to study them.
Dr. Edie Widder: We had a NOAA exploration in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago where we discovered that methane hydrate fluoresces. And methane hydrate is a potential energy source, so perhaps the fact that we discovered that it was fluorescent could be very useful in being able to locate that energy source. A lot of what we do in order to explore requires the development of new technology. And of course, any time you’re developing new technology, there is the potential for expanding our universe as well and developing technological solutions that may be helpful in other areas. That, of course, has been NASA’s claim for many years for the greatest value of our explorations into outer space, is the technology development that it has resulted in.
Dr. Shirley Pomponi: After 25 years of exploring, am I still as passionate about it? Do I still enjoy going out to sea? Do I still feel the need for exploration? And the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” Yes, I’m still absolutely passionate about exploration. It’s really a privilege to be able to experience the forces of nature. And you can really experience the forces of nature when you’re out on the ocean. And that’s one of the disadvantages I see in the current trend to be able to teach exploration and do exploration sitting behind a computer screen and emailing technicians out at sea to tell them what you’d like to do. For me, exploration means being out on the ocean and being able to experience that. And that’s how you can teach oceanography, and that’s how you learn oceanography.
Dr. Chuck Fisher: Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t know that oil seeps or gas hydrates existed in the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve discovered that not only do these hydrates exist and seep communities exist, but they are abundant and spread throughout much of the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve discovered that the animals that live in these environments are specially adapted to live with poisonous gases, that these special adaptations allow them to live for hundreds of years, that these communities exist for millennia and provide habitat for hundreds of other species, and in fact, that there are abundant and luxurious deep coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.
Now if we can learn all of that studying a fairly well known part of the ocean in our own back yard, what will we learn when we really start to explore the rest of the deep ocean?