The history of seafloor exploration: Part 1

Why do we need to find out about the seabed?


1. Sailing

The most obvious reason is to find out how deep the water is. To avoid grounding the boat or even putting holes in the hull, must be a priority for all sailors! This remains a priority and it is rarely taken for granted around coastal waters, for example the active processes within the sea can cause port entrances to silt up.
As the world’s oceans were explored it was important to find safe anchorages. The boat was the key tool for exploration and needed to be looked after. It could not be allowed to drift. Whether anchoring over rock or soft sediment matters to sailors.


2. Resources

A major stimulus for sea bed exploration was driven by the desire to lay underwater cables for communication purposes. The first transatlantic cable was laid in 1858. It was important to know two things about the seabed – how its depth changed and what it was made of.


Trawling for shrimp

The sea has always been a source of raw materials, particularly of fish. Understanding fish breeding behaviour and the location and nature of their spawning grounds should help us to manage fish stocks better.


Photo courtesy www.offshorepictures.com

There are many other raw materials which we can gather from the sea and the sea bed. Oil is the most major resource currently exploited, often from far below the seabed. However, there are several other raw materials that could be mined – manganese for example. Last century, the Germans managed to extract gold from sea water, although it cost more to collect it than the gold was worth.


Mn nodules brought up by a deep sea dredge


3. Warfare

Since the first World War, when submarines started to play a role in warfare, there has been a major military reason to explore the seabed. It is often the case that warfare stimulates very rapid progress in a technological area, and this aspect of science is no exception. For years, especially during the Cold War, both USA and Russia devoted much resource to underwater technologies. For a long while these remained the preserve of the military. Fortunately, much of this technology is now shared with scientists for research purposes, such as development of deep sea submersible vehicles. such as the US Navy-owned Alvin.

Military technology, such as that used in submarines (above left) can help in development of scientific instruments like the deep sea submersible vehicle, DSV Alvin (above right).

4. Science!

Finally, scientific research; we often ask why do scientists bother finding out about things that do not affect our normal lives? Perhaps one day they will. However, just imagine what it would be like to remain in ignorance about our world. Would we have gathered the evidence for the theory of plate tectonics? We’d still believe that no life could exist in the deep oceans and we’d have no idea about ecosystems and communities based around using thermal energy that is emitted from deep ocean vents.


There is more to find out about the secrets of the ocean and its seabed than we can imagine.
It is a huge and largely unexplored part of our Earth.
Did you know that scienstists know more about the surface of the moon than they do about the deep oceans?


Find out more about ocean exploration:

Ocean exploration: Part 1
Ocean exploration: Part 2
Manned exploration of the deep
The Challenger Expedition
Ocean exploration timeline
Navigation: Dead reckoning
Early navigation
Improved navigation
Modern navigation
Mapping the seafloor
Exploring below the seabed


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© NOCS
February 2007