10 Reasons Why We Should Explore The Deep

Deep sea squid

An example of one of the many species that inhabit the deep sea. Unlike this cephalopod many still await discovery. Gonatus fabricii swims by the PISCES V submersible during dive P5-625 New Zealand, Kermadec Arc Date 4 May 2005 Source NOAA Photo Library Author New Zealand-American Submarine Ring of Fire 2005 Exploration; NOAA Vents Program

This post is co-authored by Craig McClain and Al Dove

Among both scientists and non-scientists there is skepticism about James Cameron’s “Deep Sea Challenge” dive into the Marianas Trench on Sunday and what it really achieved for society.  We keep getting asked: why should we do this and what do we get from Cameron going to the deep?  Deep-sea exploration is expensive, difficult and dangerous. Why should anyone go, let alone he?

One of our more cynical colleagues on Twitter stated:

“Rich asshole builds his own sub and dives really deep. Yawn. Gullible scios and journos mistake such vanity tourism for important discovery”

And one of us [Dr. M] admits that he was also skeptical of the importance of all of this to begin with, but that was before the exciting events of Sunday evening.

Ships of Inglefield’s expedition at anchor

Captain Edward Augustus Inglefield's ships in the Arctic regions 1854

Yesterday, we spoke to some of the reasons why Cameron’s dive was important, while acknowledging that some of these reasons may not be direct scientific gain.  And this brings us to the difference between exploration and science.  Deep-sea scientists are probably more comfortable moving back and forth between these two fields than most other scientists, given that the vast majority (and we do mean vast) of the deep-sea is unexplored.  In other words, deep-sea science is still in its infancy.  Exploration is for when we lack anysystematic knowledge about a subject and seek to gather in this most simple fashion.  We seek to define the unknown.  Pure science, on the other hand, has a more explicit goal of the eventual prediction of pattern and process that arises out of the testing of formal hypotheses.  Of course, the two need not be a dichotomy; exploration can be a subset of science.  Some take a stricter view in which science is restricted to deductive approaches (theory yielding hypotheses that are tested with observation and experiment).  We, on the other hand, feel the inductive approach is a valuable part of science as well (observations eventually emerging into a pattern that yields hypotheses).


The successful explorers at the South Pole. "Original photos taken at South Pole by capt Amundsen Dec. 14th 1911" and "Films developed and printed by E.W. Searle Mar. 12th 1912 for Capt Amundsen."--Inscriptions on album.

There is precedent for this in other fields.  Consider alpha taxonomy (the description of new species), for example, which is where one of us [para_sight], started his scientific career.  The first step to cataloguing new biodiversity is to go out there and collect some samples and take a look; it really is that simple!   As the taxonomy builds, you have to go out ever further and look ever closer, but the process is the same and it is generally NOT built on specific hypotheses, despite how it may be stated in grant applications ;)    Alpha taxonomy is exploratory research in exactly the same way as Cameron’s deep sea mission.  He dove to the Marianas Trench in search of new life, whereas para_sight dissected the guts of fish species that had never been necropsied before in search of new species of parasitic worms.  We don’t think anyone would argue that taxonomy is not science, so why would deep sea exploration not also be?

 “Which is a better investment, science or exploration?  The question is almost as old as the space program itself, and answering it won´t get any easier as humans move toward establishing a lunar base. But could science be an inevitable outgrowth of exploration?”

– David Tenenbaum

We agree with this view that exploration is simply the inductive first step towards more formal deductive science, which brings us to first reason why we should explore:

1.     Exploration is about observation, the first step of the scientific process.  Without exploration we do not have the intellectual fodder for scientific discovery

We may not even know what we should be asking! :

2.     Exploration is about knowledge, about expanding our horizons and answering questions that we haven’t even thought of asking yet


3.     Through exploration we can gain knowledge about earth, life, and potentially other planets.

Of course exploration also has immediate and tangible benefits.  Doing new things means doing them in new ways and, necessity being the mother of invention, technology advances hand in hand with exploration:

4. Exploration leads to technological and engineering innovation as we strive to meet new challenges.

Apollo 15 flag, rover, LM, Irwin

Apollo 15 Lunar Module Pilot James Irwin salutes the U.S. flag. Astronaut James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot, gives a military salute while standing beside the deployed U.S. flag during the Apollo 15 lunar surface extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Hadley-Apennine landing site. The flag was deployed toward the end of EVA-2. The Lunar Module "Falcon" is partially visible on the right. Hadley Delta in the background rises approximately 4,000 meters (about 13,124 feet) above the plain. The base of the mountain is approximately 5 kilometers (about 3 statute miles) away. This photograph was taken by Astronaut David R. Scott, Apollo 15 commander.

And of course exploration through all of the above means we cannot begin to fathom what it may yield:

5.     To explore the unknown means discovery with ramifications unseen. 

“Throughout history, the great nations have been the ones at the forefront of the frontiers of their time. Britain became great in the 17th century through its exploration and mastery of the seas. America’s greatness in the 20th century stemmed largely from its mastery of the air.”-NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. “”I believe America should look to its future – and consider what that future will look like if we choose not to be a spacefaring nation.”

Undoubtedly one metric of society is its culture of exploration of new frontiers in space, technology, Earth but in the arts and sciences in general.  Put simply:

6.     Through exploration, nations become great.

We should visit the moon or trench simply because we have not been there before or not been there enough.  To not go is to deny our very nature.  We should go because we are driven to rise to a challenge presented:

7.     A humans we are a naturally curious species, we deny our humanity if we do not explore the unknown world around us. 

To meet the obstacles, both seen and unforeseen, of exploration requires the dissolution of borders, barriers, languages, and dispute.  We must cooperate.

8.     Exploration allows for the unification of humanity around great achievement.

Importantly, how do we excite the public and youth about technology and science?  How many kids wanted to be astronauts when they grow up?  How many wanted to be marine biologists because they saw Cousteau exploring the oceans?  If we want to inspire in education and get away from standardized tests and No Child Left Behind, we need to offer new heroes and new dreams.  STEM may be about math, technology, and science, but it all starts with inspiration:

9.     Exploration allows us to inspire others to be explorers and scientists.

As we write this we feel that the most important one, which we save for last, nobody ever states seriously.  Sure all these others are important but they do not touch the core of why exploration is important.  We will no longer be ashamed or apologetic about the fact that:

10.     We should explore because it’s cool, awesome, and amazing.

And given the opportunity any of us would have traded places with Cameron.


Dr. M (1759 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Executive Director of the Lousiana University Marine Consortium. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Additionally, Craig is obsessed with the size of things. Sometimes this translated into actually scientific research. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (http://deepseanews.com/), a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.

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10 comments on “10 Reasons Why We Should Explore The Deep
  1. Similar exploration has been accomplished using ROVs without risk to human life. Manned space flights are pure science because they also prepare mankind for unknown stresses on the human body during prolonged periods off-world. Manned deepsea diving has been in vogue for many years now and further exploration is not as relative in aspects of human tolerances and therefore unnecessary except in promoting commercial tours.

    • I disagree, as stated above simply throwing a camera in the ocean wont lead to any engineering achievements and we wont learn as much from it.

  2. I love this!!!! This post echoes my sentiments exactly – it is the exploration aspect of science (rather than the actual hypothesis testing) which is the most inspiring and motivating part of my job.

    In every way, what you said about deep sea exploration is equally applicable to modern-day genomics. We know NOTHING about most organisms’ DNA, but we now have the capacity to generate insane amounts of data. The first step towards understanding genomes is to sift through all that data and just figure out what the hell we might have on our hands. Then we can step back and start coming up with things to test, and design further empirical studies.

    So for deep sea exploration as well as modern day genetic technologies, the pure fact that the human race can actually DO these things is impressive enough in itself. Our species has come a long way in the last 30,000 years.

  3. Al Garnier, though Nerues made a similar dive, it received a tiny fraction of the press attention that the Deepsea Challenge is getting. That translates into (among other things) many more children (1000’s? 10,000s?) inspired to study STEM. That alone is justification enough for me.

    I beg differ with you regarding the general importance of submersibles as tools for marine research, but that discussion may be for another day.

    • Seton, No! It is a discussion for this day! I can’t imagine better time to debate the values of different approaches to deep sea science. As one of the engineering experts involved in this kind of work, we’d love to hear your views

  4. Yesterday only I come to know how difficult it is to go to deep sea. I want to explore it defiantly it will open new scientific field. New ways of communication systems.

  5. i am doing inquiry learning at school and this is a great website for what i am looking and how deep can you dive down the ocean, why do you explore the ocean, what do you see in the ocean and have you seen any unserscuvered marine life and things you no one has seen before

  6. OMG! I love the sea and the creatures down there are inspirational, they look like they came from a painting. I feel like this is the place to give you a better perspective on nature and its beauty.

    • I be usin this web page as help for a project I thought was lame but now……. its pretty cool. theres so much to learn.

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