Dolphins roll at the surface off the stern of Schmidt Ocean Institute research vessel Falkor. (Mark Schrope)

A small but growing number of wealthy patrons, enamored of the possibilities of undersea exploration, are donating the use of ships, submersibles and other resources to support missions that might otherwise be unaffordable.

Funding pure ocean exploration — going where no person has gone before — has always been hard for researchers. Federal agencies do support exploratory work, but they generally award grants to pursue answers to well-formed questions. This can create a Catch-22, in which scientists don’t know which questions to ask until they get into unexplored areas.

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.

Though deep trenches encompass just a small portion of the ocean floor, their unexplored area is as large as Australia. “How did we manage to get into the 21st century and just happen to miss a continent?” asked Cameron, “The answer is that it’s the hardest place.”

Among the technologies Cameron is transferring to Woods Hole is a patented method for manufacturing foam that is strong enough to withstand the massive pressure of the deep ocean and sturdy enough to act as a structural component of the sub.

Also included in the technology transfer are lightweight cameras built from scratch for the Challenger. The sub’s camera equipment and lighting enabled Cameron to capture high-resolution, 3-D images of geologic scenes and deep-dwelling species in the pitch-black depths reached during his dives. Woods Hole scientists will be using Cameron’s spare cameras, which are much better suited to the work than what researchers could normally afford, on an upcoming expedition.

Shank is leading an international team exploring the world’s deepest ocean trenches through the Hadal Ecosystem Studies project. Cameron may participate in at least one of the project’s expeditions, which could include dives by the Deepsea Challenger, although funded work will be done mainly with the Woods Hole remotely-operated vehicle Nereus.

Scientists know little about deep trenches, which are in the hadal region 20,000 feet and more beneath the surface. Questions persist about even their most basic characteristics, such as how far down fish are found and which other animals live there. Exploration has been so limited that much of what scientists do know is from Danish, Soviet and Swedish expeditions more than 50 years ago.

“It’s rather embarrassing,” Shank said. “We just have a catalogue of some species names and things in jars.”

Hollywood and hedge funds

Cameron is not the only person investing in Woods Hole research. Billionaire hedge fund founder Ray Dalio has just donated $5 million to support ocean exploration missions and technology development.

Dalio has also given Woods Hole scientists use of his adventure yacht/research vessel, Alucia, along with his submersibles, scuba support system and other equipment, and other donations to support such work.

A 2012 expedition using Alucia that didn’t involve Woods Hole captured the first-ever video of a giant squid in its deep-sea habitat. Widder, who was on that trip with Dalio, said he “was surprised at how little is spent on ocean exploration, and he recognized that with his considerable resources he could actually have a major impact.”

Woods Hole’s collaboration with Dalio has supported coral reef studies in Micronesia and sperm whale research off New Zealand. The institute’s researchers have also been able to test new camera and remotely operated vehicle systems from Alucia. “One thing that makes this exciting is that [Dalio] is prepared to fund things that might not get funded through traditional sources,” says Rob Munier, Woods Hole’s vice president for marine facilities and operations, “because they might be considered higher risk or might have [only] longer-term payoffs.”

A friend at Google

Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, and his wife, Wendy, have also become heavily involved in ocean exploration. Their Schmidt Ocean Institute, based in Palo Alto, Calif., operates Falkor, a 272-foot research vessel dedicated to ocean research. The ship, formerly a German fishery protection vessel, was retrofitted at a cost of $60 million.

Falkor is far more comfortable than the average research vessel, with large staterooms, outdoor lounges with teak furniture and even a sauna. More important, the ship boasts such assets as a well-equipped command center for controlling remotely operated vehicles and an advanced seafloor-mapping sonar system.

“While federal funding is often available for ocean researchers, we understood that ship time is at a premium and so set out to make the most advanced tools and systems more broadly accessible aboard our ship,” Wendy Schmidt said.

Scientists apply to use the ship on specific expeditions at no charge. The institute uses a peer review process to choose proposals and then plans a route for the year.

Falkor began full operations in March, and this year it will be taking scientists to locations in the Atlantic and Pacific. Projects will include hunting for hydrothermal vents and studying microbes around a submerged volcano. Victor Zykov, the director of research for the Schmidt institute, said the patrons set no bounds for the types of marine science supported other than placing an emphasis on rapid dissemination of research findings. The Schmidt family hopes to join the expeditions on occasion.

“We are seeing a significant increase in interest in the donor community, and the high-net-worth population as a whole, in participating in unique experiences that show firsthand what oceanography is all about,” says Stuart Krantz, executive director of development at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.

Scripps offers its donors the chance to join expeditions — to locations such as the remote Line Islands in the South Pacific — doing research that might not be possible without their support. Last September, Scripps donors helped pay for an expedition to study microbial life in the 35,000-foot-deep Tonga Trench in the South Pacific.

Shank, at Woods Hole,says he hopes the interest in private, hands-on scientific exploration is just beginning. “This may indeed be the wave of the future,” he said. “Private-public partnerships are . . . how we’re going to get more and better oceanography done.”

Schrope is a freelance journalist based in Florida. He was a paid blogger and photographer on a Schmidt Ocean Institute trip last September.