Former investigative documentary maker Oliver Steeds, describes the painful epiphany that led him to found Nekton, a deep sea exploration mission hoping to change our understanding of, and relationship with, the ocean
“Altitude, two – zero – metres, one nine metres, one seven meters…”
“One five meters, one three metres…”
“Stop! I’m taking control of the submersible.”
My instructor, Dmitri, took the joystick and brought the submersible down on the soft sandy seabed. We were 120m underwater, seven miles off Malta. This was my first dive in the pilot seat as part of my training. I had been counting down the altitude, the meters above the seabed, and had been looking around for the silver thread of a fishing line that Dmitri was warning us of. Industrial fishing lines can cause entrapment and are the stuff of nightmares for submersible pilots. The Triton we were in was one of the most capable submersibles around, able to dive to 3,300ft and with 96 hours of life support systems, but I had no particular interest in putting all that to the test with a prolonged stay on the seabed.
“Line? I didn’t see one. Where is it?”, I said.
“No line. Turn on lights. Rise three metres off the seabed and rotate 180 degrees. See what’s behind us.” Dmitri was usually notably phlegmatic, but on this occasion he had an intensity I had not heard before.
I followed his instructions and in front of us, was not a fishing line, but a mine: a Second World War ship destroyer. My great dream of becoming Captain Nemo had come a few inches from ending with a quick fade to black. It was not the impact I was looking to have. It may have been inactive but I was in no mood to find out.
The Maltese mine was one of a number of steep learning curves I’ve encountered in the past few years since launching Nekton. Taking the name of aquatic animals that can swim against the current, our mission is to explore the deep ocean, gathering actionable scientific data that can inform and catalyse marine policy and help preserve these vast, uncharted, eco-systems.
Having come from a background of investigative journalism, working for the likes of ABC, NBC, Channel 4 and Al Jazeera, I’d spent much of my career reporting on human tragedies, ranging from chattel slavery in west Africa, Burmese junta smuggling and the trafficking of sex slaves from North Korea, to corporate corruption and the abduction of the mentally impaired by Chinese brick-factories.
In 2011 I was sent to the Isle of Arran in Scotland to report on the ecological impact of trawling there. One mile squared of Lamlash Bay had been protected as a designated conservation area. I dived down with scuba tanks to find an underwater oasis, a kelp forest teeming with life. Then I swam to the boundary of the protected area and sat on the seabed in a state of shock. What I witnessed 20 metres below the Hebridean sea changed my view of the world: In front of me was a desert, with a seabed scarred with deep furrows, the wounds of chain trawling for scallops.
I was astounded by how little I knew of the situation. I had spent the best part of the previous 15 years reporting on under-reported issues; yet until that day, everything had been on land — I’d had no idea of what was happening to the oceans that cover 71% of our planet.
It transpires that we trawl about 150 times the amount of seabed as we clear cut forests. It’s like taking an immense bulldozer, driving it across the countryside, felling all the trees, destroying all the farms, massacring all the wildlife, just to catch a couple of cows. It’s the very antithesis of the managed farming and husbandry we would like to associate our food production with, and it has turned large swathes of our seabeds into underwater deserts. It is one of the most, if not the most environmentally destructive activity we are doing to our planet, yet it’s something that very few people seem to know about. It’s a classic case of out of sight, out of mind.
It was a painful epiphany. I wanted to do something meaningful to change this, but it was three more years before I was able to set up Nekton. I knew nothing and I was starting from scratch, so, following the Arran trip, I tried to focus my reporting and work more and more on the ocean: finding out how and why it is changing, why it isn’t being protected and why it’s not on the climate change agenda despite the fact it regulates Earth’s climate. I was looking at who the movers in this space were and who were not, which scientists and conservationists were getting funding and why. I also needed to know why far less of the ocean was protected compared to land and what were the most critical scientific questions that needed to be asked.
Those questions proved crucial. What I learnt was that although there are many great and good organisations looking to understand and protect our oceans, they are all hampered by a lack of scientific knowledge. It is hard to have an informed decision about ocean governance unless you know what’s there. Today we have better maps of Mars and the dark side of the moon that we do of our own seabed and, to date, we have explored less than 5% of the ocean.
We need to go deep and discover the functions, health and resilience of the ocean. In long discussions with professor Alex Rogers, a leading marine scientist from the University of Oxford, I learned that there are no standardised universal parameters or frameworks to conduct multi-disciplinary marine research. For example, lots of people are doing great work around the world sampling bathyal water colonies with nets but they’re all using different size nets: you might catch more, you might catch less, you might catch different animals — so it becomes very difficult to compare different colonies around the world, let alone make policy on the back of this data. Addressing this had to be our first step and Alex agreed to join us as Nekton’s science director.
The birth of modern ocean science was the 1872-76 HMS Challenger expedition, which set out to investigate the prevailing idea of the time — the Azoic Theory — that stated that there was no life beneath 300 fathoms. Lead by the scientist Charles Wyville Thomson, the expedition travelled 70,000 nautical miles, circumnavigating the globe and developing new methods of sampling the seabed. This included systems of dredging and trawling that are now used in an industrial capacity, ironically causing the devastation I witnessed in Scotland. The Expedition catalogued over 4000 new species and John Murray, the Canadian scientist who joined the voyage and published the findings, described it as “the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries”.
Remarkably, there are still samples from that expedition that are sitting on the shelves of the world’s universities and research institutes, that have yet to be analysed. Sadly, these institutions often just don’t have the resources or the funding. It is problems such as this that, in my view, require a positive, disruptive, influence and which led me to set up Nekton. There are a lot of good people doing some great work, but the endgame is not getting any closer; we’ve got a short window of opportunity in which to accelerate the governance and protection of the ocean, before we do further irreparable damage. We face a ‘Race for the Deep’, to discover our ocean and its life, before we destroy it.
Today climate change, over-fishing, pollution, invasive marine species and acidification are causing the ocean to suffer its most extreme ecological flux for 300 million years. How the ocean changes will affect our livelihoods, food security, homes, resources, weather, the carbon cycle, the atmosphere and even the oxygen we breathe.
Today, the ocean is the most critical frontier on our planet and yet it remains the least known. Twelve people have spent 300 hours on the surface of the moon, but only three people have spent a total of three hours in the deepest part of our ocean — the nadir of the Earth: the Challenger Deep named after the Challenger Expedition.
The challenge I laid out for Alex Rogers and principal scientist Lucy Woodall, is simple in its statement but highly complex in its execution: create the next step change in our knowledge and understanding of the ocean. Alex pointed us to where he thought that change would come: in the Bathyal Zone from 1000m to 3000m. Recent research findings have revealed that the greatest biodiversity in the ocean is between these depths.
In the top 200m plentiful food supplies allow the dominance of competitive species: so biomass peaks in the shallows. In the Bathyal Zone, decreasing food supply reduces the potential for competitive exclusion and higher numbers of species co-exist. Beneath 3000m increasingly limited food supply reduces population numbers and diversity declines, with the exception of outposts like hydrothermal vents. Our scientific mission has therefore been focused on exploring the ocean from the surface down to 3000m to create a new inventory of life along with a baseline of ocean health and resilience.
In July 2016 we launched our pilot mission to the Northwest Atlantic with a focus around Bermuda. In the run up to the mission, there were many gaps in my skill base I needed to fill. As well as learning to pilot a submersible I had to understand the role that businesses could play in finding solutions. I’d been fortunate enough to work for the strategic communications company Brunswick, where I learnt how to define and promote social purpose in global businesses. I’d also worked with XL Catlin, a leading insurer and re-insurer, who had funded a series of major global marine research projects. Starting in the Arctic these had investigated sea ice melt and ocean acidification (XL Catlin Arctic Survey) and then coral reef health (XL Catlin Seaview Survey). Their next step needed to be to go deeper to further understand how the ocean is changing. By aligning our interests XL Catlin generously became our founding partners and the title sponsor for our first mission: the XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey.
Our goal was to pioneer both a new standardised research framework and a baseline for ocean health. We assembled an alliance of 40 different organisations encompassing philanthropists, businesses, NGOs and governments. These included the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Ocean Elders, UNESCO, Google Expeditions, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Global Underwater Explorers, Triton Submarines, the governments of Canada and Bermuda, and scientists from a dozen different scientific institutes.
We had two ships, two submersibles, a deep diving remotely operated vehicle (ROV), a team of technical divers and a giddy array of scientific research and sampling equipment. We worked in partnership with the Canadian government, who sent the coast guard ship the CCGS Hudson south from Halifax, down the coast of North America to Bermuda. Along the way the Hudson mapped the seabed, took water and biological samples and carried out chemical analysis.
In Bermuda the Hudson joined forces with the Baseline Explorer, our mothership for submersible and dive operations. Bermuda is a scientifically fascinating location: the Challenger Expedition visited there but the deep water remains relatively unexplored. It also holds heritage status as being the place where the ‘Yuri Gagarin moment’ of deep ocean exploration took place: between 1930-34 the naturalist William Beebe and the engineer Otis Barton became the first pioneers to enter the deep ocean (beneath 200m), making a series of record breaking dives in their Bathysphere essentially a steel ball on a chain that allowed them to explore almost a kilometre below the waves. It was a story I had no knowledge of before my own nautical venture, and, for me, it was illuminating; shining a torch on my ignorance of these dark realms.
Personally, the most exciting discovery we made on the mission was the unknown ecosystem atop a seamount on Plantagenet Bank, only a few miles off Bermuda. There are about 100,000 of these submerged seamounts around the world but only about 40 have ever been biologically sampled and explored. As we descended onto the mountain top in our submersibles, we discovered a fertile algal forest teeming with life. As we descended further down the flanks, we came across gardens of wire and twisted coral, rhodoliths and eels. The summit of the seamount was still exposed to sunlight, so the life from there cascaded through an ecosystem down the sides of the ancient volcano. It felt like an incredible discovery and it is tantalising to think it could be just the tip of an ecological iceberg.
A secondary objective of the expedition was to try to engage the global public with a new story about the ocean and help put the ocean on the agenda in the world’s newsrooms, boardrooms, classrooms, living rooms and in the corridors of power. Journalists from the BBC, PBS, Sky News, Forbes, New Scientist, The Guardian, The Telegraph and others joined us on the mission to report on our work. One of the highlights was joining forces with John Fugelsang and one of the most popular radio stations in the USA, Sirius XM, in a bid to broadcast the deepest ever live radio show.
We descended 1,000ft onto the edge of one of the seamounts in our two submersibles and used our manipulator arms to fix our position to the side of the cliff. Lewis Black from The Daily Show, Mark Hamill — aka Luke Skywalker — and David Crosby from Crosby Stills & Nash all dialled in to chat to us, mixing up some jokes, political commentary, ocean issues and some classic tunes like The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.
That experience had a serious point though. There is a growing sense of fatigue in environmental coverage; society often only hears the bad stories and people begin to feel disenfranchised. We need to mix up the coverage if we want to affect change. Martin Luther King didn’t say “I have a nightmare”. In the first six months since launch, our media coverage on ocean health has been extensive and we’ve had a global audience reach of over 700 million (numbers audited by our title sponsors XL Catlin). We’ve also launched a new educational program ‘Submarine STEM’ that’s aligned to the curricula in Bermuda, the US, the UK and Canada, and we have participated in, and spoken at, numerous key global events. These have included the UN’s climate change conference: COP22, the World Conservation Congress (opened by president Obama), Our Ocean (hosted by secretary John Kerry), the Blue Ocean Film Festival and events hosted by the Royal Geographical Society.
While we had great success with our media and public engagement, the primary focus of the voyage was scientific. Nearly 40,000 specimens and samples were collected along with 240 video transects and 15,000 litres of water that are all now being analysed in our new laboratory, established in collaboration with the University of Oxford. Ninety-two square miles of new seabed maps are also being processed and analysed and 15 scientific papers are being prepared for peer-review publication.
However, the legacy of this first mission will come from ongoing research and how our actionable and open-sourced data can help that. We hope the results will be realised by informing and catalyzing policies to improve the governance of the ocean. The results and datasets from the XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey will inform the government of Bermuda’s policies for ocean stewardship, as well as the Sargasso Sea Commission, the UN Convention on Climate Change, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO).
Instigating a sea change
So what’s the next step in all of this? The XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey expedition has allowed us to refine and publish a new standardised framework for marine research and establish the foundations needed to continue our journey of research and exploration. The technology now available for marine research gives us the ability to discover more of our ocean in the next ten years, than we have in the last 10,000.
And we want to do just that. Following the success of our first mission we’re planning to undertake a new mission in the Indian Ocean to research the state of the ocean, creating the first universal baseline of ocean health, function and resilience along with one of the largest new inventories of marine life. The mission will deploy a new standardised framework for scientific research and all data will be open sourced. With ocean governance being significantly hampered by a lack of scientific knowledge, each location targeted on this voyage will generate actionable data to catalyse policy change. Decision makers, journalists and opinion leaders will participate in the mission, while our own educational work will help put the ocean on the agenda.
What the ocean needs now more than ever, is for us to turn our gaze downward and undertake a global odyssey that can transform our relationship with the sea and our planet. I often ask what the great explorers of the past would be doing today — Magellan, Columbus, Amundsen, Shackleton, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay — and I would hope they would also be seeking to explore the last great, unknown frontier of the planet: the deep ocean.
This is our mission, we have no idea how long it will take but we will proceed. Onward and downward.
Formerly a critically acclaimed international investigative journalist and broadcaster, Oliver Steeds is the founder and CEO of Nekton