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Marine Technology Makes Headlines

Aileen Torres-Bennett,
Managing Editor,
Sea Technology Magazine

Marine technology is a highly specialized field, but it has widespread applications for society. Sadly, this becomes evident particularly during tragic events that become big news stories. Nevertheless, such instances highlight the importance of our industry in the modern world.

When Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared over the ocean on March 8 on the way to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, no one knew what had caused the plane to vanish. The 239 passengers and crew on board left barely a trace, leaving their loved ones at first shocked by the disappearance, then anguished over the lack of information.

Technology was called in to hunt for the wreckage. Underwater hydrophones were used to try to pick up signals from the plane’s black box, and the Bluefin-21 AUV, depth rated to 4,500 meters, was brought onto the scene to search for wreckage.

In another tragedy that made international headlines, a South Korean ferry sank while full of schoolchildren on what was supposed to be a routine trip between Incheon and Jeju. Of approximately 476 passengers and crew on board, only some 170 survived. The passengers were mainly high-school kids, who were told to remain in their cabins and wait for orders from the crew. As they waited, the ship continued to sink, and word of what to do never came because the crew, including the captain, abandoned ship.

Contributing to the accident was an overloading and improper storage of cargo. The ferry had been carrying more than three times what was considered a safe amount, causing an overbalance that led to the sinking of the vessel. Divers were dispatched to look for bodies from the wreckage. Two divers have died so far during the recovery effort. South Korean President Park Geun Hye, expressing collective anger, said she will dissolve the country’s Coast Guard for its failure to conduct effective rescue operations. The ferry captain has been charged with homicide, and a shuffle in top government personnel is inevitable as the process of accountability unfolds.

While the recovery efforts for Flight 370 are an example of how marine technology can benefit humanity by potentially providing much needed answers to the questions surrounding the fate of the passengers, the South Korean ferry incident shows how human shortcomings can lead to fatal technological failure.

Technology is meant to help us, but sometimes things go awry, whether through human or technical faults, or simply the laws of nature. Nereus, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI) hybrid ROV, was confirmed lost on May 10 at 9,990 meters deep in the Kermadec Trench northeast of New Zealand. It was built in 2008 to perform high-risk, high-reward research in the deepest parts of the ocean. This was incredibly risky because the atmospheric pressure on the vehicle could have been as much as 16,000 pounds per square inch. Indeed, scientists believe Nereus imploded under such pressure during what was to be its last mission. Previously, it had explored the Marianas Trench and the world’s deepest known hydrothermal vents along the Cayman Rise in the Caribbean Sea. Nereus was able to bring back previously unknown animal specimens and seafloor sediment for studying what shapes the ecosystems of ocean trenches.

Nereus was pushing the limits of exploration, helping us study the ocean’s hadal region from 6,000 to 11,000 meters deep, and it was lost to a worthy cause. Fortunately, no loss of life accompanied the loss of the vehicle, but there is sadness in the ocean research community. As filmmaker and ocean explorer James Cameron put it, WHOI has “not only lost a child, they’ve lost a great opportunity to explore one of the ocean’s deep trenches—the last great frontier for exploration on our planet.” WHOI hasn’t given up, though. It vows to build more advanced vehicles to carry on the task of understanding what is just beyond our reach. The spirit of Nereus will live on.

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.