5.3 — Ocean Exploration: Into the Deep

Host Walter Isaacson and guests explore the deep-sea technologies that have, little by little, revealed discoveries in a world that remains almost completely unknown to us.
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In this episode:

  • Jacque Cousteau, naturally (0:00)
  • Only 20% (3:13)
  • The era of deep-sea exploration (7:24)
  • Walking the ocean floor (10:56)
  • The Titanic and the Challenger Deep (15:50)
  • Extraterrestrial oceans (23:20)
  • How much more we have to explore (28:00)

For most of human history, the ocean was a big, daunting mystery. That all changed as innovators found, and continue to find, new ways to discover the strange new world that exists below the surface.

More ways to dive into ocean exploration:

Guest List

  • Helen Rozwadowski is Professor of Historyand founder of the University of Connecticut’s Maritime Studies program and author of Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans(2018). She was awarded the History of Science Society’s Davis Prize for best book directed to a wide public audience for Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea (2005).
  • Philippe Cousteau Jr. is the founder of EarthEcho and grandson of the renowned explorer, author, and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau.
  • Sylvia Earle is an Oceanographer and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. In 1979, Earle set a women’s depth record walking on the seabed 1250 feet below the surface of the ocean. In 1998, she was named Time Magazine’s first Hero of The Planet.
  • Ron Allum joined James Cameron’s 2001 expedition team to explore the Titanic. Over the next four years his technical expertise was key to the success of Cameron’s expeditions to the wreck of the Bismark and the Mid-Atlantic and Pacific hydrothermal vents. Ron commenced work on the Deepsea Challenger submersible in 2005 which took James Cameron to the deepest crevasse of the Mariana Trench in 2012.
  • Mark Dallio is the founder and Creative Director of OceanX Media, a production company with the mission to create world-class media that educates and inspires people to connect to the oceans.

“We look across the surface of the ocean, we look to the horizon, but we cannot see into the ocean, and I think that is probably the kernel of why we are so fascinated by it.”

— Helen Rozwadowski, author of Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans

Walter Isaacson: It’s 1935, and Jacques Cousteau has an insatiable desire to explore the wild blue yonder, the sky. It’s his dream to become a pilot and fly for the French Air Force. He’s accepted into France’s Naval Aviation program, and the talented young pilot shows great promise. With only a few months left before graduation, tragedy strikes. He’s driving down a dark and winding mountain road, when all of a sudden his headlights short circuit. Cousteau loses control of the car, and flies off the road.

Walter Isaacson: When he regains consciousness, Cousteau realizes he’s in the hospital. He’s horrified to find out that in addition to dozens of broken bones and multiple fractures in both arms, the right side of his body is paralyzed. He’s survived, but his career as a pilot is over.

Walter Isaacson: After months of grueling physical therapy, Cousteau is sent to a naval base in the south of France. He is determined to regain his strength and the full use of his arms, so he starts swimming in the Mediterranean to help rehabilitate his broken body.

Walter Isaacson: Eventually, his strength and mobility return, and so does his exploratory spirit. He’s surrounded by intriguing marine life he’s never seen before. Then, Jacques Cousteau has a brilliant idea. He decides to fashion a pair of swimming goggles from a pair of old pilot goggles, so that he can explore the sea floor, and in this moment his life is changed forever. He discovers an entirely new world beneath the ocean’s surface. Plants and sea creatures he never knew existed capture his imagination.

Walter Isaacson: Seemingly overnight, Cousteau discovers his new passion: the ocean. In just a few years, Cousteau will help invent the aqualung, a piece of equipment that will launch decades of underwater ocean exploration, and cement him in history as a pioneer of the aquatic revolution.

Walter Isaacson: I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2: The ocean floor is a wonderful, watery world of rippling movement.

Speaker 3: The diver is going to locate the octopus.

Speaker 4: in this submarine world of wonder, beauty peeps out in unexpected places.

Speaker 5: You know this diver’s rig isn’t the easiest thing in the world to handle.

Speaker 6: How would you like a trip to the bottom of the sea?

Walter Isaacson: More than 70 percent of the planet is covered by ocean, but we’ve only explored 20 percent of the deep sea. Our lack of ocean exploration, however, is not due to an absence of interest. The mysteries of the deep have captivated the human imagination for centuries.

Helen Rozwadowski: We look across the surface of the ocean, and we look to the horizon.

Walter Isaacson: Helen Rozwadowski is the author of Vast Expanses: A History of the Ocean.

Helen Rozwadowski: But, we cannot see into the ocean, and I think that is probably the kernel of why we are so fascinated by it.

Walter Isaacson: This fascination, as it so often does, sparked a technological innovation. In 1535, an Italian inventor named Guglielmo de Lorena invented the first modern diving chamber, that allowed people to breathe under water, the diving bell. He built his bell with the hopes of exploring a first century Roman shipwreck. It was no simple task. It was a task that required ingenuity and creativity, but also bravery. These chambers were not for the faint of heart.

Helen Rozwadowski: Imagine an upside down, giant pot, and it’s lowered into the water, and it is big enough and heavy enough that as it goes into the water, it leaves a reserve of air in the top of the upturned, pot-like structure, and so a person can ride down in it and survive by breathing the air that’s trapped inside the diving bell.

Walter Isaacson: As the bell descends, the chamber slowly fills with water. As water enters the bottom of the bell, it compresses the air at the top of the chamber. Depending on the depth, a diver may have access to only a few inches of air at the very top of the bell. Later iterations of the diving bell were usually tethered by a hose to a ship at the surface, tasked with resupplying the diver’s air reserves.

Walter Isaacson: In the early 19th century the next leap forward in deep sea technology took the form of the diving helmet, but both helmets and bells were primarily used to explore shipwrecks and recover sunken valuables. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that an essential shift in our collective perspective changed the way we began to explore the deep sea.

Helen Rozwadowski: You had a group of naturalists who started wanting to study the interesting marine creatures which they at first discovered when they got washed up on beaches. That made naturalists start to look to the ocean as a place to discover new species and possibly species that help them understand the origins of life.

Walter Isaacson: It was a widely held belief that marine life could not survive without sunlight. It took a completely unrelated technology to change our minds: the telegraph cable.

Walter Isaacson: At the time, it was thought that sunlight could not reach further than 1800 feet below the ocean’s surface. Then, one day, one of the cables in the Mediterranean Sea stopped working. When the team tasked with fixing the cable pulled it up from a depth of 7200 feet, they made an unexpected discovery. The cable was encrusted with marine life.

Helen Rozwadowski: It couldn’t have accidentally attached to the cable as the cable was raised for repair. Really changed the game in terms of sending people back to the ocean to really not just try to collect marine animals and study them from a couple of feet or fathoms down, but from the deepest parts of the ocean.

Walter Isaacson: While the desire to explore the ocean was revitalized, the technology to do so was limited.

Philippe Cousteau: Really, the only way that people could explore the ocean was free-diving, so breath-hold diving, so you were limited to a few minutes…

Walter Isaacson: This is Phillipe Cousteau. He’s the grandson of the great, underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau.

Philippe Cousteau: … and hard helmet diving. We’re talking the big, copper helmets, the big lead boots, and you had a hose up to the surface on the boat. This was very dangerous, very difficult, very expensive work.

Walter Isaacson: These are some pretty significant technological barriers to ocean exploration. It wasn’t until the 1940s, after Cousteau recovered from his car accident, that these barriers started to disappear. It’s at this moment that Cousteau has a fortuitous encounter with a young engineer named Emile Gagnan. Gagnan explains that he’s invented a valve that can regulate the flow of gases between two different pressures. This piqued Cousteau’s curiosity.

Philippe Cousteau: My grandfather said, “Do you think we could miniaturize this valve, put it on a tank of air, and breathe off of it?”

Philippe Cousteau: They tinkered for a few years, and indeed, they did that.

Walter Isaacson: The result was a system that regulated air flow so that air, stored in tanks, only flowed when the diver inhaled.

Philippe Cousteau: You could go down several atmospheres, where the pressure builds, and you would breathe in, and you would just one lung full of air, so the valve itself was the key innovation.

Walter Isaacson: Cousteau and Gagnan name the technology the aqualung. Today, you probably know it as a scuba tank.

Philippe Cousteau: Now, all of a sudden, humanity had the ability to swim freely in the ocean like a fix. The idea of a lung, be able to breath under water.

Walter Isaacson: The aqualung allowed unencumbered movement and supplied enough air to stay under the surface for more than an hour, but Cousteau didn’t stop there. He also wanted to share his discoveries with the world, so he created a waterproof camera case that allowed him to film the fantastic creatures and sights he explored using his aqualung. The footage he captured became the basis for his first film, entitled The Silent World. Released in 1956, this documentary was one of the first films to show the ocean’s depths in color.

Philippe Cousteau: There was a famous scene in The Silent World where he is dancing with a grouper. He has a little piece of fish in his hand, and he’s kind of leading the grouper around, and there’s music and it’s this beautiful, radical relationship, and literal dance between a person and this very large fish. Now, a fish had a personality and it was interacting with a human being under water in its own habitat. I mean, this was a revolution.

Walter Isaacson: Cousteau produced numerous documentaries in the following years, bringing the beauty of the deep see into living rooms around the world.

Philippe Cousteau: I think it’s hard for people to appreciate just what a mystery the ocean was. All the things we take for granted now. Coral reefs and sharks and whales and all these incredible creatures that exist in the ocean that are now part of our common knowledge and documentaries and movies and books, they were a complete mystery to people.

Walter Isaacson: The aqualung spawned the sport of scuba diving, which has made ocean exploration accessible to millions of people around the world, but diving with a fully tank of compressed air strapped to your back has its limitation.

Sylvia Earle: Breathing compressed air, we can go about 50 meters into the ocean for a short time, but oxygen under pressure becomes toxic.

Walter Isaacson: This is Sylvia Earle. She’s an oceanographer and a National Geographic Explorer in residence. Is there a reliable, modern technology that will let divers go deeper and stay down longer? There is, and it’s called the Jim Suit.

Sylvia Earle: Spelled J-I-M, it was named after Jim Garrett, who was the test diver for the first of these hard suits made of magnesium alloy, lighter than steel, the first one that he tried during the 1920s in England. Joseph Peress was the designer.

Walter Isaacson: Peress’s Jim suit was one of the first, truly usable atmospheric diving suits. On the first test drive, Jim Garrett took his suit to a staggering depth of 477 feet. Then, 35 years later, Peress was contacted by two engineers who understood the value of his invention. In 1975, the new and improved Jim Suit could reach of depth of 1500 feet.

Sylvia Earle: Inside, it’s like getting not a car, or an airplane. It’s one atmosphere, but you can go deep in the sea, with high pressure all around you, but you’re protected from that pressure. You have a life support system. Like an astronaut, carbon dioxide is scrubbed out, oxygen is added as needed, and the Jim suit acts like a little walking submarine. You have hours to walk around at a depth beyond where scuba divers simply can’t go.

Walter Isaacson: In 1979, Earle was planning to use a Jim suit to explore the ocean bed of the coast of Hawaii. The plan was to lower her into the water, attached to a cable that was anchored to her boat, but on the day of the dive, there was a problem. The sea was extremely choppy which caused her boat to violently rock and bob in the water. Her team was worried that her line would tangle, or drag Earl across the ocean floor. They debated canceling the dive, but Earl’s team was also equipped with a submarine, which gave her a daring idea.

Sylvia Earle: Hadn’t been done before, and it’s not been done since. They strapped the Jim suit, with me inside, onto the front of the submarine. They likened it to being a hood ornament on a car. I was really perched on the front of the submarine.

Walter Isaacson: That’s how Earle made her way towards the ocean floor. Then, in the darkness, she saw something.

Sylvia Earle: It was incredible. There are all these little flashing, luminous creatures. Fish with lights down the side, looks like a miniature ocean liner streaming by. Plankton, little copepods, little crustaceans, about the size of a flea, when they illuminate, it’s just a burst of bright blue. It’s like diving into a galaxy of light.

Walter Isaacson: When Earl reached the ocean floor, she removed her harness, and dropped from the hood of the submarine. She took her first step, completely untethered on the sea bed. She was 1250 feet below the surface of the ocean.

Sylvia Earle: I landed in a place where there were corals like spirals, like big whiskers, animals that just curl from the ocean floor. Looks like a giant bed spring, but when I touched them, they burst into blue light, rings of blue fire, just traveled them, the length of these amazing, giant whiskers.

Walter Isaacson: The experience transformed how she saw the ocean and everything in it.

Sylvia Earle: What you can’t see from the surface is how full of life the ocean is. It was just glorious to be immersed in this living system, and to realize that I was witnessing something that so few people have had the opportunity to see.

Walter Isaacson: Sylvia Earle is right. The ocean is full of incredible amounts of biodiversity, and she encountered it first hand on her historic sea bed walk in 1979, but the ocean isn’t just a source of life. It can also take life. It’s April 14, 1912. The largest ship on the face of the earth is sailing through the frigid waters of the north Atlantic, is the RMS Titanic.

Walter Isaacson: This 882 foot long luxury cruise liner and marvel of modern engineering is carrying 3300 passengers on her maiden voyage, from South Hampton, England, to New York City, but just before midnight, 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, a sailor perched on the ships lookout tower, spots an iceberg. The captain attempts to steer around the massive block of ice, but it’s too late. The Titanic slams into the iceberg.

Walter Isaacson: The ship that was billed unsinkable, begins to take on water. In less than three hours later, the ocean liner slips out of sight and beneath the icy waters of the Canadian Atlantic. More than 1500 people on board the Titanic died that day. Visionary director James Cameron brought this infamous story to life with his 1997 Blockbuster movie, Titanic, and in 2005 Cameron continued his near obsession with the Titanic by organizing a live broadcast exploring the ship’s wreckage in its final resting place.

Walter Isaacson: One of the men on this team was an Australian engineer named Ron Allum. He was introduced to Cameron after Allum’s former cave diving partner received a rather unexpected call.

Ron Allum: He gets this phone call saying, “Yeah, I’m James Cameron,” and of course, he just didn’t believe it, but it turned out to be true. Yeah, I guess it all really started from there.

Walter Isaacson: Cameron hired Allum’s friend because he had extensive experience producing underwater documentaries, but Cameron also needed skilled engineers on his team, so he hired Allum.

Ron Allum: It was my first experience at anything deep sea. I was looking after some very small, remotely operated vehicles that could be deployed from the submarine and controlled by Jim from inside the sub. His idea was that he wanted to have one of these small ROVs go into one of the broken windows on the first class deck.

Walter Isaacson: The result was a live broadcast that aired in real time on the Discovery Channel. The broadcast was a stunning success, but Cameron wasn’t done. There was a lot more ocean he wanted to explore.

Ron Allum: Often, between dives, these are dives to Titanic or the Bismark or the hydrothermal vents, we’ll discuss around dinner, just options for the future, what you might do on the next expedition.

Walter Isaacson: Allum and Cameron eventually set their sights on the ultimate under water destination, the Challenger Deep.

Walter Isaacson: Nestled in the Mariana Trench, off the coast of Japan, the Challenger Deep is the deepest point on the ocean sea bed. It’s roughly 11 kilometers, nearly seven miles below the surface of the ocean, so Cameron needed Allum to design a whole new submarine, or submersible, that would allow them to perform an extended survey.

Ron Allum: Often you would draw on napkins, and I still have some of those original sketches, and his vision of a submersible to go to the Mariner’s trench, it was a vertical vehicle. It was more akin to a rocket to go up and down, so Jim’s concept was this vertical machine that would descend quickly.

Walter Isaacson: It had to be compact, relatively light, easy to transport, and very buoyant.

Ron Allum: One of the biggest challenges was actually to find a flotation material, and a lot of the commercial foams at the time weren’t suitable, so we actually manufactured our own syntactic foam. Our foam was more than just flotation. It is equal in strength and density, which meant when it was subject to great hydrostatic pressure, it didn’t bend or distort or crack or break.

Walter Isaacson: That was the ultimate break through. The Deep Sea Challenger was born. On March 26, 2012, Cameron and Allum were ready for their most daring adventure yet. Allum watches Cameron step inside the submersible’s cockpit. The immense pressure at such a depth is Allum’s greatest concern. The smallest leak in the vessel’s exterior will cause the sub to implode. There are so many things that could go wrong with such a dangerous mission.

Walter Isaacson: “Release, release, release” Cameron says. Allum nods in agreement, and the Deep Sea Challenger drops.

Ron Allum: We were in constant communication with Jim, for him to just report on his feelings about the dive. He described his descent as like an express elevator to the bottom of the ocean.

Walter Isaacson: Everything goes according to plan as the submarine descends seven miles straight down into the deepest crack in the ocean floor. Cameron spent the next three hours exploring this deep sea terrain, and for the first time in history, the world’s deepest point was extensively photographed. The sub’s high definition cameras captured footage of several new sea species. For such a bleak and inhospitable location, Cameron discovered a surprising amount of life at the lowest point in the earth. Those samples could lead to breakthroughs in biotechnology, and even our understanding of evolutionary history, and none of it would have been possible without the ingenuity of Ron Allum.

Walter Isaacson: Ron Allum and James Cameron pioneered new depths of ocean exploration, but there’s another team that one day hopes to investigate oceans on other planets.

Walter Isaacson: Ocean X was founded by hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio with the belief that the ocean is humanity’s most important and under examined treasure. He’s right. The vast majority of the sea is unexplored, but Ray and his son Mark are on a mission to change that.

Mark Dalio: we had a little bit of trouble finding the whale.

Walter Isaacson: This is Mark Dalio. He’s Ray’s son, and the creative director at OceanX. He’s been on many dives, but his first dive in a sub might be the most memorable.

Mark Dalio: Then, off in the distance, we saw some movement, and we thought the whale must have been moving slightly with the water, and so as we approached, we realized that it wasn’t the whale that we saw, but a massive six gill shark that was taking a huge bite out of the whale. It was quite a thrilling experience, and I think from then on, it really kind of sent me on a journey for the work we’re doing with Ocean X and the content that we’re creating off of the Alucia.

Walter Isaacson: Alucia is OceanX’s 184 foot research vessel. The ship is outfitted with two submersibles, both of which can reach depths of over 3,000 feet. It also doubles as a floating media studio, where the Ocean X team films documentary content for programs such as BBC’s Planet Earth. In 2016, the Ocean X team took Alucia on their most demanding voyage yet. They took it to the deep waters of the Antarctic ocean. When they reached their destination at the bottom of the world, their deep rover submersible was launched and sank below the ocean’s surface.

Walter Isaacson: The Antarctic Ocean is one of the most remote places on earth, and before OceanX, no team had ever attempted to reach its sea bed, so no one was quite sure what they’d find. What Mark and his team saw shocked them.

Mark Dalio: These weird, strange creature that are just all over the place. It really was teeming full of life, and one was this Antarctic starfish that was absolutely massive and had 50 arms, and we actually nicknamed it the Death Star because it was ravishing these krill.

Walter Isaacson: These subzero oceans aren’t just a place to discover creatures we once thought only existed in our collective imagination. The Antarctic Ocean has a greater, global significance.

Mark Dalio: I was astonished to encounter a large volume of marine snow, which is kind of the nutrients that feed the rest of the oceans, which are these kind of dead matter from creatures. It was like snow flakes in a very large blizzard, and I didn’t realize the role that Antarctica played in providing the nutrients for our global ocean system.

Walter Isaacson: OceanX is also setting its sights beyond this world. They’ve teamed up with the NASA Jet Propulsion lab and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to test out a new underwater drone, named Orpheus. Orpheus is unique because it’s designed for autonomous deep water exploration. It’s a AUV.

Mark Dalio: Autonomous underwater vehicle that would someday be able to explore space and the planets that have a large amount of water on them, but in order to be able to test that out and work in these extreme environments, they use ocean exploration as a way to be able to do that.

Walter Isaacson: Orpheus is programmed to autonomously explore, map and photograph underwater environments, and hopefully, one day explore strange, alien worlds, but for now, Mark and OceanX have plenty left to discover here on Earth. They’ve even teamed up with Ron Allum’s old friend, James Cameron. Ocean X and Cameron are in the midst of filming a series of expeditions for National Geographic, and testing out a new state-of-the-art research vessel that they’ve appropriately named The Ocean Explorer.

Walter Isaacson: For many centuries, mankind has been trying to reach new depths. Courageous and innovated explorers have built devices that let us breath under water, explore shipwrecks, the Mariana trench, and the Antarctic Ocean, but we’ve really only discovered how much more we have left to explore. The insatiable curiosities of daring explorers and breakthroughs in robotics and autonomous technology are helping us reach uncharted waters every day, but one thing is certain. The most significant era in ocean exploration is just beginning.

Walter Isaacson: I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. For more information about any of the guests on today’s show, please visit DellTechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.