Beginning in 2001, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had an Ocean Exploration program that provided grants for open-ended work, but the program’s priorities have shifted toward more limited work aboard the agency’s exploration vessel Okeanos Explorer.
Most oceanographers rely on support from the National Science Foundation, but its budget, level at best for several years, has had to deal with rising fuel prices and other costs required to maintain its fleet of research vessels, leaving less available for grants.
The challenge of raising money for sea exploration “is the hardest it’s ever been in my career,” says Edith Widder, a deep-sea biologist and founder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association in Fort Pierce, Fla.
Enter the elite benefactors. Hollywood director James Cameron is perhaps the most well known of this group. Having donated the Deepsea Challenger, his deep-diving submersible, to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts in March and giving the institute $1 million to help keep the vehicle operational and to support efforts to transfer technologies developed for the sub to other uses.
Cameron also will support collaboration between Woods Hole scientists and engineers who worked with Cameron on filming his 1989 science fiction thriller “The Abyss” and the construction of his specialized sub.
“I wanted to be sure to fund this enough so that they would have the people and resources to absorb this stuff, describe it and publish it, to have it available” said Cameron, He is also an adviser for Woods Hole’s new Center for Marine Robotics, which aims to speed development of advanced ocean technologies through partnerships with private companies in fields such as oil and gas exploration.
“I think that what we see going forward is that this is just the beginning,” said Woods Hole oceanographer Tim Shank of partnerships with more-engaged donors such as Cameron. “There’s no doubt discovering things is an absolute drug in some ways.”
Last year in his sub, Cameron did the first solo dive to the deepest spot in the ocean, nearly 36,000 feet deep in the western Pacific. Only two people had visited before, in 1960, and only two robotic vehicles have been capable of diving there, one of which has been lost.
Oceanographers say the lack of exploration of this and other deep-sea trenches shows the huge potential for discovery, while the lack of vehicles capable of reaching such depths illustrates that in some ways it is more difficult to do so than it is to reach space.