fb-pixelA new era of ocean exploration - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

A new era of ocean exploration

Shutterstock/Joy Prescott

The ocean covers two-thirds of our planet. It provides more than 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe and absorbs a third of the CO2 emissions we produce. It feeds over 2 billion people, controls our weather, provides wind and wave energy, and quite literally supports life as we know it here on Earth. And yet 95 percent of the deep sea remains a mystery to us.

In a time when the Curiosity Rover sends back selfies from Mars, we have better images of the Red Planet and more detailed maps of the moon than we do of our own seafloor. We've barely scratched the surface of one of the most fascinating places in the universe.


Why is this the case? The ocean is a difficult and expensive environment in which to operate. Deep-sea submersible vehicles are extremely costly to launch and navigate and can spend only a limited amount of time at crushing depths. And their numbers are dwindling — with around 10 of these research vehicles currently in operation worldwide. Lack of investment across government, academic, and private sectors have also prevented ocean exploration technologies from scaling.

It's time to launch a new era of exploration of this vital frontier. We need to develop new autonomous underwater robots that will allow us to locate sunken ships and missing aircraft, pinpoint hydrothermal vents and sources of pollution, discover new species, natural resources and medical breakthroughs, and unlock the mysteries of the deep — all at a fraction of the cost of today's aging submersible technologies.

Innovation is required to reach the scale, depth, speed, and resolution necessary to illuminate the deep sea in an unprecedented way.

One way to stimulate innovation is through an incentive competition — inspiring innovators around the world to focus their time and resources on solving a particular problem. The $7 million Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is a three-year competition challenging teams to advance breakthrough technologies for autonomous, fast, and high-resolution ocean exploration.


What will we find? No one knows — and that's the point. In the last year alone, we've discovered new species of coral, the "holy grail" of shipwrecks that could hold up to $17 billion in treasures, and the world's first bio-fluorescent reptile: a sea turtle that glows. Researchers have also identified a Caribbean sponge that generates compounds used in the AIDS treatment AZT. Other marine organisms have yielded compounds that are being tested to treat Alzheimer's disease or fight cancer.

Many or the world's great mysteries — including the locations of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra — are waiting to be solved. New and strange life forms that dwell far from the sun's rays are waiting to be discovered. And new underwater landscapes are waiting to inspire a new generation of explorers.

A time will come when the human race begins to move off Earth and out into space, but until that time comes, we need to figure out how to take care of the Earth and our greatest natural resource — the ocean.

Let's commit humanity's greatest minds and technological innovations to making our ocean healthy, valued, and understood.

Dr. Peter Diamandis is the chairman and CEO of XPRIZE. He is also co-founder and chairman of the Singularity University.