20,000 Explorers and Tourists Under the Sea

New technology and the buzz over recent finds spark a boom in deep-sea exploration.

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. These maps allow firms to plot likely oil deposits and have boosted the probability of striking oil.

For underwater archaeologists like Ballard, meanwhile, deep-ocean shipwrecks are becoming more accessible with improved sonar and remote submersibles. Now topside researchers spend more time looking at sites and collecting artifacts than scouring the ocean floor in the darkness.

But not all the research is in conventional fields. University of Hawaii professor Craig Smith is looking at how bacteria dissolve fat and bones from dead whales in the deep. He hopes to find a new soap or detergent additive.

Detergent from the deep?

"These are extreme conditions," says Dr. Smith. "So if a bacteria creates an enzyme that can dissolve fat - like detergents dissolve grease - in water at cold temperatures, it could present tremendous energy savings."

Smith is collaborating on his cold-water soap project with Diversa, one of several firms looking for pharmaceuticals and industrial enzymes in the deep.

Scientists may also get aid from an unexpected source - tourists. Zegrahm Expeditions in Seattle has launched DeepSea Voyages - trips in subs to observe, for instance, exotic Sixgill sharks off Canada. Tourist dollars will provide an influx of funds. Running a sub costs $10,000 a day.

Titanic price tag

Another trip has already sold out for 1998 - a journey to Titanic in one of two Russian subs used by Mr. Cameron. At just over $30,000 a head, it will help fund studies of how Titanic's superstructure is faring in the deep as well as life forms at the wreck site.

Despite the public interest in deep-ocean work, however, US government support for these projects is waning. Appelgate, for instance, would rather do only pure scientific research, but he devotes 40 percent of his efforts to commercial work to stay solvent.

Also, as remote vehicles improve, the demand for more-glamorous (but more-costly) manned deep subs is falling. The Navy recently mothballed its manned deep submarine. It now uses tethered remote submersibles.

But scientists hope industry will fund more-exotic research, such as microbe projects. Dr. Stein of Diversa notes skyrocketing interest thanks to Titanic and the Yorktown, as well as findings of ecosystems living on scorching-hot deep-sea vents - another potential source of enzymes and medicines. "Few companies," he says, "have thoroughly examined deep-sea microbes for their full potential."

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