The Last Dive

Article excerpt

Byline: Tony Dokoupil

Funding for human expeditions to the watery depths appears to have run aground. As legendary explorer Sylvia Earle says goodbye to the ocean floor, are machines good enough to take her place?

The fall ends with a thud, our machine hitting the ocean floor, 1,500 feet beneath the Pacific swells.

It's mid-morning, five miles off the coast of Hawaii, and the surface world suddenly feels like mere imagination, a theory in a water-logged science journal somewhere. Through the small round windows of Pisces IV, one of the deepest-diving subs in the world, our only reality is dark, airless, and teeming with unseen life.

We are sock-footed and smushed into a seven-foot steel sphere: this writer, the sub's pilot, and Sylvia Earle, perhaps the most accomplished oceanographer since Jacques Cousteau. At 77, she is the grande dame of American ocean science and exploration. But since the moment we closed the hatch, she's been grinning like a schoolkid, calling out the changes outside our window: "Blue ... bluer ... blueissimo." When we hit bottom, she cups her hands over her mouth and peers into the twilight. "Is anybody home?" she calls and, dropping her voice into a cartoonish baritone, answers her own question. "YEESSS," she says. "ALL OF US."

For the next six hours we are skimming the seabed, throwing light on an animal-filled terrain of boulders and slopes, cliffs and ravines. We are slimed by passing squid, eyeballed by crabs the size of small dogs, and ignored by fish that walk the ocean floor like something from the pages of Dr. Seuss.

Officially, we are on the hunt for black coral, the longest-living animal known to science, a predator that kills by slipping over other organisms, like a latex glove over a hand. Scientists believe the husk left inside may hold secrets to the path of climate change. But this is virgin ocean, never before explored by humankind, and just plain wandering is useful work, too.

We see military coffee mugs knocked or thrown from American ships during World War II, and the occasional aluminum can, usually Budweiser. "The preferred beer of the environmentally unconscious," says Terry Kerby, the sub's pilot. Lunch is peanut-butter sandwiches and, for one of us, a bolt of fear as water dribbles down the walls of the sub. "Condensation," says Kerby, nonchalant, and we float on until the light falls on a genuine mystery: a white blob on the periphery.

Plopped on an outcropping of rock, it looks like a human brain, only the skin is pimpled. A dead chicken? Kerby radios Pisces V, our sister sub, which is nearby and loaded with scientists. They use a robotic arm to scoop up a sample, and one of them later declares the thing, "likely a new species."

We may never know, because we may never go back.

Last spring James Cameron became a modern newsreel hero, diving the Mariana Trench, the Earth's deepest point, and seeming to signal a new golden age of discovery. Virgin Oceanic's Sir Richard Branson and Sylvia Earle herself, with money from Google chairman, Eric Schmidt, were each developing their own deep-diving machines. And this (quite collegial) "race to the bottom" was heralded as the ocean version of NASA's hand-off to private rocket-makers. On with the era of civil inquiry! On with individual enterprise! Or as Cameron tweeted from the ocean floor, in a message Twitter declared one of 2012's best moments of "just plain awesomeness": "Hitting bottom never felt so good."

But a year later, something far from a golden age has emerged. When the public looked away, piloted exploration stopped. Schmidt stopped funding Earle. Branson's effort stalled indefinitely. Even Cameron ran out of time and money, completing just eight "first phase" dives around Australia and Papua New Guinea. Today he says his history-making machine is in his engineering shop in Santa Barbara, Calif., "ready to dive" and available to the science community, but stowed like a moldy wet suit. …