WOODS HOLE, MASS. -- I have not descended to the depth of the ocean floor, but for a few moments I have the privilege of shaking hands with something that has. Through the robotic arm of an “underwater manipulator,” I can begin to imagine what it might be like and understand why humanity continues to be obsessed with exploration of Earth’s final frontier. “It has touched the bottom of the ocean — literally,” says Andy Bowen, principal engineer of applied ocean physics and engineering at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. When the unmanned submersible Nereus in 2009 descended to 10,902 metres at Challenger Deep — the deepest point in the Mariana Trench — this manipulator tagged along to collect samples of sediment, rocks, and life forms such as anemones.
The objective for me today is not nearly as scientific — I’m attempting to hoist a metal fish out of a plastic milk crate while trying not to destroy $200,000 worth of technology. As a precaution, the aluminum and stainless steel contraption sits on a cushion of plywood to protect against the claws accidentally being rammed into the concrete floor.
Wedging my hand and forearm into the manipulator’s control mechanism, I treat it as a glorified game on the midway at Playland. “The most advanced arcade stuffed-animal thing,” Bowen agrees. Only my chances of winning are much better. I pick up too many fish on the first attempt, drop them back into the bucket, then surgically select out just one. I try not to take it personally when Bowen remarks: “Kids are 10 times faster. It’s kind of shocking.”
Submersible technology has continued to evolve since oceanographers Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh first travelled to the bottom of the ocean in the U.S. navy-owned vessel Trieste in 1960. The move was a game-changer in underwater exploration.
“That’s when the revolution started,” says Jim McFarlane, a former visiting scholar at Woods Hole and owner of International Submarine Engineering (ISE) of Port Coquitlam. “The 1960s were a period of vision and creation, a real breakaway time.” Yet for all science’s advancements, the challenge of putting another human on the ocean bottom has proved more elusive than walking on the Moon, something that’s been done 12 times.
Canadian film mogul James Cameron last month became only the third person to descend to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans lying about 320 kilometres off the island of Guam in the western Pacific. He also became the first to do it solo, describing the place as desolate and lunar-like.
Funding is obviously a factor limiting such submersible expeditions. The Nereus is considered a relative bargain to build at $8 million. “We could underwrite oceanographic research for 100 years if we had NASA’s [$17.8-billion] budget,” Woods Hole’s Bowen laments.
It is also symbolic of the future of submersible technology — a hybrid that can swim freely as an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to survey large areas of the depths, map the sea floor, and give scientists a broad overview. When it locates something interesting, the vehicle’s support team can bring it back on-board the ship and transform it into a remotely operated vehicle tethered to the ship via a micro-thin, fibre-optic cable. Through this tether, Nereus can transmit real-time video images and receive commands from the ship to collect samples or conduct experiments with its manipulator arm.
Today, more than ever, oceanographic research and exploration is tied to submersibles, though Coquitlam’s McFarlane notes — somewhat incredulously — some researchers have yet to adopt them. “There are still some people who … tow gauze bags around and take this gelatinous mess and dump it on a table and try to make something out of it,” he says.
Submersibles today have many applications from aiding scientists in the search for new forms of marine life and strange chemical processes in the deep ocean, in laying cables and salvage operations, and in offshore oil development. They were even used to search for errant oil after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Nations employ the vessels to sweep for mines, in the recovery of crashed airplanes for investigation, and to assert sovereignty over disputed territory.
They are also used for tourism and, in Cameron’s case, as high-tech toys for the ultrarich. “You come with money, you get a vehicle,” said McFarlane. That’s exactly what billionaire Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, did in 2007. He paid McFarlane’s company $15 million to build him a private submarine capable of carrying eight passengers and two crew, complete with a bar and elevator. “It’s one of a kind, and fits in the back of his ship,” said McFarlane.
McFarlane served 18 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, including in engineering and technical capacities related to the Oberon Class diesel-electric submarines, as well as diving tender and submersible projects. Following his retirement from the military in 1970, he joined Hyco International Hydrodynamics, a company responsible for the Pisces class of manned submersibles dating back to the 1960s.
McFarlane founded ISE in 1974 to service the offshore petroleum industry, initially in the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Since then, the company has built a wide variety of manned, autonomous, and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs, tethered to the surface) as well as manipulators and computer control systems.
ISE’s 8.23-meter, diesel-powered semi-submersible Dorado was employed by the Canadian military to hunt for mines in Vancouver harbour during the 2010 Olympics.
Also that year, the company operated the 7.4-meter Arctic Explorer submersible to map the sea floor underneath the Arctic ice shelf north of Borden Island in support of sovereignty claims by the federal government. All supplies were airlifted from Resolute Bay to a remote ice camp, where the submersible was launched in a hole in ice measuring up to 2.5 metres thick.
As ISE mechanical technician Rod Penner puts it, you program the submersible then “send it on a 300-kilometre mission to another remote ice camp.” In 2011, ISE launched a similar operation, this time from the Canadian icebreaker, Louis S. St-Laurent, to within 150 kilometres of near the North Pole. “It’s quite an evolution,” McFarlane says of such undertakings.
An evolution in which ISE has been but one of the B.C. players on the global stage. “There’s quite a number of us in B.C. that are ocean-related,” he confirms. “But we don’t work here, we have to be expeditionary, move around the world to make a living.”
Some of those B.C. pioneers have much better name recognition than McFarlane.
Phil Nuytten of North Vancouver became involved in deep diving and the development of mixed gas decompression tables starting in the 1960s. He later became known for his dive suits and small manned submersibles, and in 1984 appeared on the cover of National Geographic Magazine for his record dives through ice-covered arctic waters onto the Breadalbane, the northernmost known shipwreck.
Through his current company, Nuytco Research Ltd., he unveiled last month the Exosuit — an evolution of its predecessor, the Newtsuit — allowing divers to operate safely to a depth of 300 metres while maintaining dexterity to perform delicate work. It has thrusters to allow the pilot to move through the ocean and its own life support system, capable of sustaining an operator for up to 50 hours. There is a fibre-optic tether supplying full network capability between the Exosuit operator and the surface.
Nuytten’s DeepWorker submersibles are being used by NASA and the Canadian Space Agency to explore early forms of life known as microbialites in Pavilion and Kelly lakes in the B.C. Interior. “This guy is a man for all seasons,” says McFarlane, noting Nuytten is also accomplished at aboriginal carvings. “He’s a pioneer of some substance.”
Another Vancouver player at the international level is Atlantis Submarines, which operates 15-metre-long, 50-person tourist subs in Hawaii, Guam, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Dennis Hurd left Hyco to found Atlantis Submarines in 1986, taking John Witney, another engineer, with him. “They went and decided they could make a tourist sub — and bing! they went at it big time,” McFarlane says. Atlantis is the world’s largest submersibles company, having transported more than 14 million passengers.
At age 76, McFarlane no longer feels the need to personally roam the oceans in his vessels, though his love of exploration, and what it might reveal, remains undiminished. “We don’t have all the answers yet,” he concludes. “We’re still on an adventure.”