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Salvaging What Matters From the Big Blue

Aileen Torres-Bennett,
Managing Editor,
Sea Technology Magazine

We deal with rather cold subjects at Sea Technology; objects designed, built and deployed to perform tasks for industry, scientific research and defense purposes related to the ocean. But these practical objects can also fulfill emotional objectives. After all, technology is made by humans to fulfill human needs.

Salvage, one of the themes of our July issue, is a sector that illustrates this point well. Marine technology, from aircraft and vessels to underwater vehicles and integrated tools, has been out in the field in full force in search of the remnants of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370), which disappeared mid-flight over the ocean on its way from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, China, in March of 2014. It has been more than a year since the incident, which was covered extensively in the international press. Numerous family members of the missing were featured on TV, in the papers and on the Web, anguished not only at the loss of loved ones, but also at the gaping hole of knowledge they were facing, and continue to face. What happened to the people on that plane? We still don’t know. But we have been employing a vast arsenal of technology to search for clues to the mystery in the ocean depths.

Another recent tragedy, the sinking of the Sewol ferry in April of last year, which caused the deaths of more than 300 individuals, has also left a lot of people wanting for information and closure. The ferry was carrying mostly high-school students when it sank, triggering a tidal wave of anger and frustration among the families of those who were lost. A year later, the sting of loss remained potent, and protestors marched in Seoul, South Korea. Riot police responded by spraying tear gas, but this didn’t stop the crowd from demanding salvage of the ferry to understand what caused the ship to sink. Acknowledging the protest, South Korean President Park Geun-hye ordered a feasibility study, which determined that the ship can technically be raised. The salvage project will take 12 to 18 months and cost $92 million to $138 million, The New York Times reported. This will be the largest salvage operation in the country’s history.

To be metaphorical, salvage doesn’t just apply to the literal act of raising a ship from underwater. Implicit in salvage is the idea of saving something; bringing it back from the brink of extinction. On this note, I’d like to bring up Aquarius, the sole undersea lab in the world. I stayed a few weeks in the Florida Keys recently, spending some time on and in the water. While driving on the Overseas Highway, or U.S. Route 1, which runs through the Keys, I was pleasantly surprised to catch a glimpse of the sign for Aquarius as I was passing through Islamorada on my way to a dive excursion. It’s good to see that the lab is back.

In 2012, Aquarius, owned by NOAA, was in a precarious position. Back then, the budget battle on Capitol Hill was raging, with the threat of sequestration looming over all appropriations. NOAA’s wet side programs were in trouble, and Aquarius was on the chopping block. It wound up being cut from the federal budget in fiscal year 2013.

Sea Technology spoke with Aquarius Director Tom Potts during the lab’s days in limbo. With its financial tether cut, the lab had been effectively shut down, and Potts told us that he was looking to make a new deal for the lab.

A deal did go through, and Aquarius is back up and running in Islamorada, now operated by Florida International University. I’ve driven by the office several times during my journey in the Keys, and there were always cars in the lot; indication of a good fight won and more significant work being done. Aquarius enables saturation diving missions, which involve individuals living for an extended period underwater in the lab, where they can conduct research on the surrounding reef and examine samples while remaining at depth. The saturation diving aspect is also conducive to training for astronauts, and NASA has availed itself of the lab’s resources to test and train for manned space missions. Salvaging Aquarius from an unfortunate end keeps important endeavors alive; ones that add substantially to our bank of knowledge.

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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.