When deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard found the muddy hull of the USS Yorktown three miles down in the Pacific Ocean near Midway Atoll in late May, the world cheered another conquest of the deep.
It was Dr. Ballard, after all, who found Titanic in 1985 and brought back eerie footage of the vessel - a discovery that inspired James Cameron to make the now-epic Hollywood movie.
But the hit movie and the Yorktown - which the Japanese torpedoed in 1942 at the battle of Midway - are just two blips on the ever- more crowded screen of deep-water exploration. Indeed, undersea discovery is entering a new era. Oil exploration, underwater archaeology, telecommunications, and drug research are fueling the boom. New technology is enabling it to happen. The coming years promise even more deep-water advances - everything from grease- cutting laundry detergents based on deep-water microbes to tourists getting an on-the-scene glimpse of Titanic. Even as government funding for deep-sea research shrinks, the buzz around the field portends an influx of private funds as mankind seeks to tap the resources of the deep. "There has been a lot of excitement generated about the deep-ocean recently," says Jeff Stein, chief scientist at Diversa, a San Diego biotech firm that specializes in deep-water exploration. "And investors are going to be influenced by what they hear." Much of the deep-sea success is due to scientists like Bruce Applegate, a geophysicist who specializes in deep-sea mapping. Dr. Appelgate and his University of Hawaii team helped find the Yorktown by creating detailed sonar maps from a scanning submersible called Hawaii MR1. The 15-foot-long torpedo-shaped device was towed by a US Navy ship at a depth of 330 feet. The maps were accurate enough to allow Ballard's team to quickly find the 855-foot ship in a 200-square- mile area where the waters are a full mile deeper than those that hold Titanic. This was the first time Appelgate had searched for a sunken ship. His past missions include examining deep-water fisheries and plotting maps for undersea fiber-optic cable links. "With the explosion in telecom and the Internet, people are putting fiber-optic cables all over the ocean," says Appelgate. He and his colleagues are in hot demand -helping to plot courses for cable projects totaling investments of billions of dollars. The largest such effort is FLAG - a 17,000-mile, $1.5 billion project that will span the globe with fiber-optic cable. Also, advances in imaging technology and oil-extraction are enabling oil firms to develop 3-D pictures of the earth beneath the ocean floor. …