We have better maps of the Moon and Mars than we have of our own seabed,’ laments Oliver Steeds, co-founder and Chief Executive of Nekton. ‘We’ve come to the point where the most important part of our planet is the least known to us.’
Correcting this paradoxical state of affairs was one of the founding principles of the Nekton Oxford Deep Ocean Research Institute, and why in October this year it plans to launch the Nekton II Mission, to explore, study and broadcast, the unknown depths of the Indian Ocean.
Pairing submersibles with innovations in scientific method, data gathering and communications, the three-year mission will focus on six distinct regions of the deep ocean, each representing unique research and exploration potential. From the world’s largest submarine bank in the Seychelles, via the highest diversity of reefs around the Andaman Islands, to the endemic species of the Mozambique channel.
The spirit of early space exploration is soaked into the bones of Nekton; its mission statement being ‘to explore the depth of the ocean and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind’. Replace ‘depth of the ocean’ with ‘heights’, and you have NASA’s.
‘The sea is a mirror to sky after all,’ says Steeds. ‘If you look at the 1950s and 1960s development of space exploration, billions and billions of dollars were invested. It’s that heroic odyssey which inspires people to think differently.’
Having spent much of his working life as an investigative journalist, Steeds is well aware of the importance of communication and storytelling. ‘We think exploration of the ocean as the next great odyssey for humankind is something that inspires people,’ says Steeds. ‘That’s why we look very carefully at what NASA did and see what we can learn from them. There’s a simply purity to what they do that inspires us.’
‘Inspire’, ‘odyssey’ and ‘legacy’ are the bedrocks of this mission, and words that you hear a lot when speaking to the Nekton team. It’s a mantra with a purpose, as marine biologist and the organisation’s principal scientist Dr Lucy Woodall explains, ‘To excite a younger generation, so that in another ten years time there’s going to be someone like me from one of the local regions, go out into their own waters and look at it, rather than needing an organisation like ours to come in.’
When we turn our inquisitive gaze downwards, away from the stars, the lack of knowledge about our planet comes into stark focus. More than 70 per cent of the planet is covered by ocean, yet less than five per cent of the ocean has been explored. At least 97 per cent of our biosphere is in the ocean and it’s estimated that more than 90 per cent of marine species remain undiscovered, yet only 0.25 per cent of the high seas are protected.
‘The deep ocean is the largest and most poorly explored and studied ecosystem on Earth,’ says professor Alex Rogers, co-founder of Nekton and the project’s science director. ‘Given the pressures the ocean is under, at present there is an immediate urgency to get a better understanding of how life is distributed in the ocean, how the ocean works, and how to improve our management of it so it begins to recover.’
Rogers believes marine science needs a massive upscaling to rival that seen in space research, where projects are funded for decades instead of years, and access to the most advanced technology is available.
According to Nekton, much like the space race of the 1950s and 1960s, we now face a ‘race to the deep’, before the damage created by human activity, such as pollution and overfishing, encroaches catastrophically on the bathyal zone (the deep ocean between 200 and 3,000 metres), where the majority of marine life exists. For Rogers this is the next great frontier of exploration and discovery: ‘From 1872 to 1876, the global challenger expedition transformed our understanding of the ocean and resulted in the birth of marine science. With the systematic exploration of the bathyal zone, we have the opportunity to create another step change.’
What separates Nekton from previous deep sea expeditions is a commitment to innovation in both scientific method and sustainable development, with a focus on four key areas in particular: Standardising research; AI; DNA; and ‘Big Data’.
First thing on the agenda was to create a standard protocol for measuring the state of the ocean, the General Ocean Survey and Sampling Iterative Protocol, more snappily referred to as GOSSIP. An apt acronym, as the hope is it will spread in the scientific community, creating a legacy of more accurate, more collaborative marine science.
In the realm of AI it is utilising technology from driverless cars to automate video data analysis, and for DNA it produced the ‘Ocean Ark’, to help progress understanding of the ocean genome and to develop into mobile sequencing labs for scientists in the field.
But perhaps the most ground breaking of the innovations is the even more well-acronymed OCTOPUS (Ocean Tool for Public Understanding and Science) ‘Big Data’ system. A large ocean data storage and analysis platform that ‘harvests’ information from 98 billion global ‘data points’, eventually leading to practical applications such as improved ocean policy and public engagement. This is especially useful for the legacy of continued research in the mission regions after the expedition has moved on, as Woodall points out: ‘Building up the database is really important, a lot of local people we’re working with are saying right now that they don’t have the capacity to know what’s in their waters.’
‘‘The anchor of the mission is a summit on the state of the area that we hope to hold in Oxford in 2021’’
Innovations also come in the communications arena; as well as a live radio broadcast from the submersible, Nekton’s Bermuda Mission made the most of new technology to film and broadcast from depths previously unseen. ‘We put 360º cameras both on the boat and underwater,’ says Will West, a documentary filmmaker and the team’s head of content. ‘Viewers could see from the front of a submarine what it was like at 150m down, which I don’t think had ever been done before.’
Steeds is also keen to emphasise that the majority of the personnel will be from the host countries, which increases local involvement and engagement, while helping to ensure a legacy.
‘You need that local and political willing and support, you can’t just come in and tell people what to do. That’s where we’ve had success in Bermuda,’ says Steeds. ‘We don’t want them to just participate, we want them to be the leaders of what were doing.’
MISSION I: XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey (BERMUDA NORTH ATLANTIC)
By its own admission Nekton’s Mission I to Bermuda was not a total success. All of the planning and organisation had to be done in eight months, the weather caused problems, and many of the innovative filming techniques were yet to be perfected, meaning a planned documentary never became a reality.
‘The greatest challenges were to set up the expedition over a very short time period,’ says Rogers. ‘Organising the science day-to-day for the ship, submersibles and technical dive team was also challenging. Finally there was the sheer physical challenge of long hours during the day, diving and then processing samples, ensuring all our image data was backed up and planning the following day.’
This is not to take away from the achievements of the mission, some of the highlights being the discovery of the deepest invasive lionfish in the Caribbean, as well as sub-mesophotic (deep areas of medium light penetration) communities of black corals, including species not seen before in Bermuda, 100 square miles of seabed mapped, and a combined global audience of 750 million – when all the mission’s media coverage and publicity were taken into account.
But perhaps more importantly for the organisation and its ultimate goals, was that is was a vital learning experience. As Steeds puts it, ‘a chance for us to pilot our approach, our ambitions.’
It was also the first chance for the team to trial and develop the GOSSIP protocol, to get to grips with the pressures and strains of intensive field work on the ocean, and a crucial warm-up for the far more ambitious Mission II.
MISSION II: INDIAN OCEAN (Launch partner Kensington Tours)
Taking the lessons learned and methods developed in Bermuda, the second phase of Nekton’s deep ocean project, planned for 2018 to 2021, will venture into the even less known waters of the Indian Ocean.
The third largest ocean in the world, it accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s ocean surface, yet the Indian Ocean is the least explored, least protected, and in term of the amount of money put into research and exploration, least funded of all the oceans. With around two billion living on its shores, the majority in low income countries, there is rising exploitation of marine resources, pressure from international fishing fleets, and a growing interest in mineral deposits. It is also an increasingly complex geopolitical climate, as China looks to extend its regional influence.
For these reasons, Nekton believes the Indian Ocean holds the greatest potential for transforming livelihoods, through the sustainable development of the Blue Economy, and if conservation action isn’t taken soon the damage may be irreversible.
Starting in October, the mission will involve six major expeditions across six distinct ‘biogeographical regions’ and Nekton expects to more than double its Mission I combined audience, up to 1.5 billion globally, with attention grabbing innovations such as live broadcast explorations from the submersible.
‘The Indian Ocean region contains a treasure trove of unknown biodiversity as well as features such as large submarine plateaus which are scarce or unknown elsewhere,’ says Rogers. ‘It is also a rich area for coral reefs, and mesophotic reef ecosystems are completely undocumented.’
But for Steeds the expedition’s ultimate goal lies in sustainable development. ‘Creating a regional organisation that can manage the sustainable governance of the Indian Ocean is our Everest, and the anchor of the mission is a summit on the state of the area that we hope to hold in Oxford in 2021,’ he says. ‘We’ll bring together our scientific discoveries and policy recommendations and we hope that will be the time to announce that we have these networks across the Indian Ocean.’
ANOTHER GREAT LEAP
The Nekton team is trying to capture some of the sense of wonder early space exploration inspired, and the mysteries of the deep ocean and the possibilities of the bathyal zone provide fertile ground for an organisation that espouses the spirit of pure exploration. The ambitious targets and practical challenges of the Indian Ocean are not be underestimated, but at the very least Nekton aim to offer a different, more optimistic story, not in opposition to the doom and gloom narrative surrounding the world’s oceans, but alongside it.
‘The majority of communication is about demise and around the destruction of the ocean, which has an important place in the spectrum of reporting, but we feel what we can add something different,’ says Steeds. ‘After all, Martin Luther King didn’t say “I have a nightmare” he said “I have a dream”.’
Before launching its mission to the Indian Ocean’s depths, Nekton again looks upwards for the inspiration to delve downwards, summing up its lofty goals by adapting the words of one of history’s great explorers Neil Armstrong, ‘Humankind is poised to make its next giant leap: into the deep ocean.’
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!