Why don’t we explore our oceans?

“Why do we spend so much time exploring space but not the oceans?” my son asked me as I drove him to visit his friend. Interesting question.

Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that space seems more exciting and modern? Perhaps because space is limitless and boundless? Perhaps, because our primeval ancestors spent such a long time working their way out of the depths, we’re reluctant to go back?

My son’s friend’s father is a marine biologist and so we had a chat about this over a cup of tea while the kids settled into Minecraft. He pointed out that we have better information available about the surface of Mars than we do about our coastal waters – that’s just an amazing thought.

We’ve only mapped about 20 per cent of the Ocean floor. There are great swathes that have not even been looked at let alone visited in any fashion. We have for intents and purposes absolutely no idea what goes on at the titanic depths of the Ocean. We have in fact far greater clarity about what happen on the Moon or on Mars because they have environments we find easier to navigate and comprehend. We humans have a very clear idea about our environment that has sea-level as a pane of glass: So the oceans seem more foreign to us than even the surface of another planet. When you think about it, though, the difference between water and air from the Universe’s point of view is only a slightly different chemical composition. An alien from a different environment might not even recognise that there is any practical difference.

Just last week scientists confirmed that two whales beached in New Zealand were in fact spade-toothed beaked whales. That was amazing simply because there has never been sighting of the animals alive; never. We only even knew the species existed because of a few skull fragments found over the last 150 years. How many other animals and plants exist in the oceans that have no idea about?

The more you think about it the more perplexing it is that we devote so little attention to what is right beside us. Sadly I fear the actual answer to my son’s question lies in a depressing fact: The reason we devote so much attention to space is because, in the back of our collective heads, we’re thinking that we need an escape route if we totally stuff up the Earth.

Image: ADAM NIEMAN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY showing a representation of the world with all the water and all the air in one place.

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