Earlier in 2013, scientists discovered the largest volcano on Earth, which sits under the Pacific Ocean a thousand miles east of Japan. This geologic giant also rivals the largest volcano in the solar system – Mars's Olympus Mons peak, which we've known about for centuries. That a dome-shaped formation the size of New Mexico on the seafloor had gone unnoticed until long after the advent of space exploration speaks volumes about just how little knowledge we have regarding the 70 percent of the world that's covered by water.
This century will see the end of our ignorance.
From state-of-the-art diving gear to vessels that appear to have been lifted from the pages of science fiction, new technologies are allowing underwater explorers to go farther and deeper than ever before. Several decades after scuba gear first allowed us to poke around in the shallows, manned and unmanned submersibles are taking scientists into the depths, cameras are bringing open water to the masses, and underwater planes are swooping through vast expanses of blue.
Technology is the prerequisite for oceanic exploration, and the next wave of innovations has arrived. Here are the devices and vehicles that will finally allow humans to explore the rest of our world.
There aren't too many private ships in the modern world as tech-laden as the 'Nautilus,' which fittingly borrowed the name of the mythical submarine in '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.' This surface ship may not sink beneath the waves, but the 21st-century technologies on board would turn Captain Nemo green with envy.
The 'Nautilus' recently installed a new hull-mounted multibeam echosounder to better map uncharted swaths of seafloor, but the star gadget on board is Hercules, an elevator-size remotely operated vehicle, or ROV. Hercules is often tethered to Argus, its boxy ROV counterpart, and is lowered over the side to scoop up samples or turn its floodlights and high-definition camera on terrain that has never been seen before.
It's the kind of exploratory work that Dr. Robert Ballard has done since discovering the wreck of the 'Titanic' in the mid-1980s. Ballard is the founder and president of the Ocean Exploration Trust, owner of the 'Nautilus.' During the ship's recent Mediterranean cruise, Ballard and crew came across about 50 previously unidentified ancient shipwrecks, among other surprises.
"We target places that are unexplored or poorly understood. From the exploration perspective, those are the places that we want to go," says Katy Croff Bell, vice president of the OET and a chief scientist on the 'Nautilus,' which is now charting a course through the Caribbean – as anyone can see thanks to the streaming video on the boat's website. Anyone in the world can tune into the expedition at any time to see what Hercules and the mother ship are doig. A designated crew member even fields questions, in real time, around the clock.
"It's not only a lot of fun, it makes it so much more meaningful," Bell says. "To hear from people, to get their feedback, to have them tuning in and participating with you, watching with you. It creates this global community of exploration. It's really an incredible experience."
Credit: Ocean Exploration Trust