About halfway through our cover story on the next generation of manned submarines, you’ll find a provocative dispute between two legendary figures over the respective merits of manned and unmanned exploration of the ocean.
In this corner: Sylvia Earle, former chief scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and one of the most revered deep-ocean explorers ever, who says a human mind (and peripheral vision) is essential for finding surprising stuff far below the surface of the sea. In the opposite corner: Bob Ballard, the famed oceanographer who discovered thermal vents on the ocean floor and the sunken carcass of the Titanic, who believes that the best way forward involves sending robotic craft down and monitoring and controlling them from a distance.
It’s a fascinating debate, man vs. machine, but on the bigger issues, Earle and Ballard are in fact allies. They share a passion for the pure discovery that lurks below the surface. Both decry the fact that NASA’s budget is 200 times what NOAA has for ocean science, even though 95 percent of the ocean is unexplored. And both understand that our collective ignorance of those vast watery territories makes it easier for us to exploit them nearly to death, overfishing them and treating them as out-of-sight garbage dumps.
Earle expressed this common ground at this year’s TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference (see video above). Every year, the organization behind the conference anoints three visionaries with its TED Prize and offers to grant each of them a wish. Here’s what Earle asked for: “I wish you would use all means at your disposal… to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas, ‘hope spots’ large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.” She wouldn’t say what proportion of the ocean she’d like to see preserved in such sanctuaries, but I get the impression she’s shooting for something like
50 percent — extremely ambitious, given that such “hope spots” currently account for a mere 0.8 percent of the world’s oceans.
The oceans are essential to our survival, and they’re in dire shape. I strongly encourage you to watch the video of Earle’s talk, and see if you’re inspired to figure out a way to help.