article / 24 December 2015

Deep Coral Reef Exploration and Discovery: Two-way Technological Flow

David Gruber, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, is a marine biologist working to develop fluorescent proteins into modulatable probes with neurobiological and medical applications. In his talk for the WWF Fuller Symposium, David dives through the history of deep ocean exploration technology. He reveals how new advancements in robotics are transforming our ability to access and understand the deep ocean, and highlights opportunities for us to learn about new technologies from nature. 

Why the Ocean? 

Water covers 71% of our planet. Coral reefs are home to 25% of known species in the ocean, yet they cover less than 1% of the total marine area. We only know about 1 in 10 estimated species in the ocean, which is unsurprising given that 90% of the ocean is more than 1/2 mile deep and still remains largely unexplored. 

This begs the question, how can we protect what we don't even know exists

How can we protect what we don’t even know exists?David Gruber

A Short History of Deep Sea Exploration

Our earliest method of exploring beneath the ocean was a diving barrel created by James Lethbridge in 1715. Although these early submersibles could only dive 20 meters and stay down for about 20 minutes, what they discovered was enough to inspire countless others to explore our oceans to greater depths. 

In 1929, the creation of the bathysphere by William Beebe opened up new depths of the oceans. Able to dive to 30,000 feet, it allowed scientists to uncover species never seen before (or since, in some cases). To capture information about what the divers were seeing, Bell Labs designed an underwater telephone that allow descriptions to be related in real time to artists on deck. 

While it was one thing to get someone safely down in underwater environments, it was another to develop technology that allows people to interact with the environments and animals discovered below the water line. Underwater suits were developed, like the dive helmets invented in the late 1800s that allowed scientists to go underwater and stand on coral reefs for the first time. More recent updates like Joseph Salim Peress' dive suits mean that samples could now be collected that previously would have been impossible. In 1976 Sylvia Earle was able to go down in an assisted dive suit to 1,250 feet, an incredible accomplishment that no human had done before — or has since. 

In spite of the technological advances made in the 300 years we've been exploring the ocean, it doesn't seem like we've come all that far in terms of designing agile and meanuvourable suits that are suitable for biological surveying. As David points out, modern suit design is driven by the needs of divers working in the oil, gas and military industries, rather than those of biologists or scientists needing to observe, collect samples and interact with delicate underwater ecosystems. In fact, what he discovered was that a submarine (pictured below) with 360 degree vision was a far more preferable way to explore the deep sea than the most high tech exosuits.

However, although submarines improve visibility tremendously, they still don't allow the delicate interaction with the environment needed. Newer designs for submersibles (single person or submarines) based on systems seen in nature could change this reality. For example, a suit that draws inspiration from an octopus could use tentacle-like grabbers instead of standard grappling claws to pick up, collect or study something in the depths below us. Learning from how species operate and interact underwater could transform our exploration of the deep sea. 

'I've been studying coral reefs using extended range scuba diving for 15 years, and I had this idea of what I thought the bottom of the ocean was like. The moment i got in this, my whole image of what the deep sea is like changed in one minute,' explains David Gruber.

Underwater Photography 

Although the first underwater explorers used artists to record their observations, by 1926 explorers had begun dabbling with underwater photography. This meant going down with a high explosive magnesium powder and lighting up an explosion that often landed the researcher in hospital with burns.

As still remains the case today, the main concern with underwater photography is light. Back then, explosive magnesium, no matter how dangerous, was the only way they had to get enough light for a photograph. Yet, taking light down into these deep environments is like taking a disco party birdwatching; all you will see is what can't move away. Today, we are just now moving towards low-light technology and using light on the low, red end of the spectrum that doesn't disturb fish and other animals. David and his team have worked to design extremely-light-sensitive cameras to film shimmering sea creatures in much sharper resolution. 

The capacity to capture underwater environments and reveal them to the general public is an incredibly powerful tool. Humans are visual creatures, and without this sort of evidence, we have what David discribes as the 'vanishing of the unseen'. While we all know about the loss of corals, with new photographic technology that allows high definition photos to be stitched together, we now have to capacity to see with our own eyes the coral reef decline. 

High definition images stitched together to show the decline of a stretch of reef 40 by 20 feet.

Discoveries from the Deep

Why should we be concerned about the vanishing of the unseen? David's exploration of the undersea world has uncovered bioluminescent and biofluorescent marine animals, providing a wealth of new insights into a secret "language" of shining colors and patterns that help many marine creatures communicate, interact, and avoid enemies. He and his collaborators have illuminated and discovered novel fluorescent molecules from marine animals and are searching for connections between glowing sea life and the ability to visualize the inner workings of human cells. 

The discovery of these novel fluorescent molecules and bioluminecent proteins have given us a portal into our own conciousness by allowing us to witness how our brains work. These molecules and proteins have allowed scientists to see how alzimers progresses in the brain and and observe how neutons talk to each other. These discoveries have had a profound influence on all of our lives because of the impact they have had on science. 

Take Away Messages

David concludes by reflecting on his key take away messages about deep ocean exploration. He points out, if we think about our technology, it's not been that long since we've been in the ocean. We should not be satisified with where we are; we must evolve our technology to be less disruptive and more elegant. 

He also believes that we should look the ocean as a model for technology. We don't have the technology to save the world; the ocean has this technology. We simply need to change and look at our relationship with the reverse perspective so that we can learn from the oceans. 

Finally, we should be targeting out technology to undo the harmful effects of our existence. Why? Because overall, a healthy ocean means a brighter future for the human race. 

Dr. David Gruber, Marine Biologist, Baruch College & National Geographic Emerging Explorer, is known for his images of bioluminescence and recent realizations that a shark and turtle species are also luminescent. In his presentation at the 2015 WWF Fuller Symposium he discusses the state of technology for monitoring the oceans. Dr. Gruber explains the types of technology used to access, study, and inventory deep sea corals and focuses on the relatively slow progress in development that has been made since the advent of remotely operated vehicles. He highlights what advancements in robotics are to come, and what more is needed, in a time of increased pressures on our oceans.

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