Privately Owned Oil Companies Do Most Ocean Floor Exploration, It is Expensive & Boring

American Oil and Gas Historical Society Logo Establishment and enforcement of the Global High Seas Marine Preserve will be a public-private affair that benefits everyone. Danny Quintana contends that banning industrial fishing in international waters will save the fishing industry rather than destroy, as many critics of such a ban might contend. Most people don’t realize just how much the private sector contributes in technology and information about our world and the how vital those are in our daily lives.

In this article it is show how mapping of the ocean floor, done primarily by private oil companies at great expense and effort, is vital to understanding and keeping the oceans healthy. Oil companies don’t want to destroy the oceans and have made great strides in safely extracting oil from deep wells.

Cross section ocean view of all kinds of deep sea oil drilling rigs The technological revolution in off-shore oil and gas drilling has also been accompanied by wide-array of high-tech tools for mapping ocean floors, a key to finding possible large scale oil and gas fields. So here is a ready made partner for use in the reporting on the violation of industrial fishing bans along with a wealth of information to be drawn from the oil company mapping operations around the in terms of fish stocks, rare species, migration routes, breeding grounds and more.   

Offshore Oil Drilling Industry Documentary

Forbes Magazine Question to Ryan Carlyle,
BSChe, Subsea Hydraulics Engineer

Why Don’t We Spend More On Exploring The Oceans,
Rather Than On Space Exploration?

Ryan Carlyle works in the oil industry as an engineer for deep-water well control equipment. My primary job scope is directing the installation and operation of seafloor equipment designed to make sure sub-sea oil wells can be safely drilled and completed. So he prevents  offshore oil spills for a living.

Most of the ocean floor is just sand, like this picture, no plants, no fish, nothing

Ocean Floor Mostly Sand

I’m one hundred and twenty miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico right now, working on installing seafloor equipment for an oil project. No one spends more time exploring the deepest oceans than the oil industry. In the last twenty years, there has been a veritable explosion of deepwater exploration, with extensive subsea surveys for pipelines and anchors and oil well infrastructure.

We have fantastic subsea robots that let us see and work down to 10,000 ft depth—as well as a host of seismic imaging systems to see below the seafloor, sonar, Doppler current sensors, monitoring buoys, and so forth. The equipment to explore the oceans exists today and is in routine use for energy exploration. For example:

Subsea Tractor for mapping the ocean floor in oil exploration efforts

Subsea Tractor

So as someone whose job deals with exploring the ocean deeps—see my answer to Careers: What kinds of problems does a subsea hydraulics engineer solve?—I can tell you that the ocean is excruciatingly boring. The vast majority of the seafloor once you get 50 miles offshore is barren, featureless mud. On face, this is pretty similar to the empty expanses of outer space, but in space you can see all the way through the nothing, letting you identify targets for probes or telescopes.

ROB, Remote Operated Vehicle, Sub-sea robots used to map ocean floor by oil companies looking for oil fields

ROB, Remote Operated Vehicle

The goals of space exploration are visible from the Earth, so we can dream and imagine reaching into the heavens. But in the deep oceans, visibility is less than 100 feet and travel speed is measured in single-digit knots. A simple seafloor survey to run a 100 mile pipeline costs a cool $50 million. The oceans are vast, boring, and difficult/expensive to explore— so why bother? Sure, there are beautiful and interesting features like geothermal vents and coral reefs. But throughout most of the ocean these are few and far between. This is a pretty normal view from a sub-sea robot.

Giant Isopod, lives in the deep sea.

Giant Isopod, They Get Bigger

Despite the difficulty, there is actually a lot of scientific exploration going on in the oceans. Here’s a pretty good public website for a science ROV mission offshore Oregon: 2009 Pacific Northwest Expedition. To reinforce my point about it being boring, here’s a blog entry from that team where they talk about how boring the sea floor is: 2009 Pacific Northwest Expedition.

What IS really interesting in the deep ocean is the exotic life. You see some crazy animals that are often not well-known to science.

Something floats by the camera 5000 ft down, and you say “what the hell was that?” and no one knows. Usually it’s just some variety of jellyfish, but occasionally we find giant isopods. 

Strange unidentified sea creature at 7000 + feet off
Shell Oil Drilling Rig in Gulf 
Maybe a Bigfin Squid?

Unfortunately, deep-sea creatures rarely survive the trip to surface. Their bodies are acclimated to the high pressures (hundreds of atmospheres), and the decompression is usually fatal. Our ability to understand these animals is very limited, and their only connection to the surface biosphere is through a few food chain connections (like sperm whales) that can survive diving to these depths. We’re fundamentally quite disconnected from deep ocean life. Also, there is no hope of ever establishing human habitation more than about 1000 ft deep.

The pressures are too great, and no engineering or materials conceivable today would allow us to build livable-sized spaces on the deep sea floor. The two times humans have reached the deepest part of the ocean, it required a foot-thick flawless metal sphere with barely enough internal space to sit down.

As far as I can tell, seafloor living is all but impossible—a habitable moon base would be vastly easier to engineer than a seafloor colony. See my answer to International Space Station: Given the actual space station ISS, would it be cheaper to build the equivalent at 3-4-5 miles deep underwater? Why? To recap: we don’t spend more time/money exploring the ocean because it’s expensive, difficult, and uninspiring. We stare up at the stars and dream of reaching them, but few people look off the side of a boat and wish they could go down there.