Exploring the world's last frontier

WESLEY MARX April 2 1966

Exploring the world's last frontier

WESLEY MARX April 2 1966

Exploring the world's last frontier


DR. WHEELER NORTH likes to wander through underwater jungles of kelp, a giant seaweed that fringes the Pacific coast from Canada to Chile. In his black-rubber “wet suit,” he arches among the two-hundred-foot vines like a giant penguin, while slanting sunbeams play among the brownishyellow vegetation and schools of silvery smelt pass like rainshowers. He is not, however, down there for the fun of it: he is hard at work, estimating a crop which, once harvested by sea-going mowers and refined into chemicals, will be used to stabil-

ize the head on beer, ensure the viscosity of ice cream, put a bigger bang in ammunition, and fertilize corn fields.

Dr. North is one of the new mariners, men of courage, scientific vision and rarefied interests who seek the knowledge that will enable man to work, play, even live beneath the sea, this planet’s final frontier. The discoveries they make, and the new products they help develop, will change our lives in dozens of major and minor ways. Scientists at McGill University have found that sodium alginate in kelp purges strontium 90 — harmful radioactive fallout — ingested by rats. (British scientists have conducted similar successful experiments on humans.) The salmon we eat may some day be raised in ocean stockyards which the new mariners hope to develop. A buoyant foam may soon enable salvage crews to refloat sunken Spanish galleons. Meanwhile, sea miners may be vacuuming minerals off the ocean floor, while couples honeymoon in hotels nestled underwater on coral reefs. For. with such fantastic projects as these in the offing, the new mariners are transforming our ocean frontier into a part of the known world as vital and productive as our forests and our farmlands, our ! continued overleaf

What's ahead? Undersea hotels,and ranches with cod-boys riding herd

continued / mineral mountains and our rich subterranean oil pools.

Dr. North, a biologist trained in oceanography, started working seriously in the kelp beds in 1958. California authorities had discovered a mysterious recession in extensive areas of kelp and asked him to go down and investigate. North first noticed that visibility was remarkably poor in the kelp beds he explored. That could mean that the water was polluted by sewage or that sunlight was being shut off. Either could kill the kelp. Then one day he observed that sea urchins, spiny little creatures that eat kelp, were sitting on the bottom of the ocean instead of moving along at their customary yard a day. Why were they so sluggish? To find out. Dr. North put urchin stomachs under a microscope. Fie quickly discovered that the urchins had found a new source of nutrition — suspended particles of sewage and scum algae formed by sewage. North concluded that the sewage had turned the urchins into stationary feeders. They were still eating the kelp, all right, but they weren’t moving on and giving it a chance to grow. It was as if a hundred cattle were grazing on an acre of alfalfa. In corrupting the delicate ecology of the ocean, sewage had made the urchins lazy which in turn had deprived the kelp beds of their natural means of regeneration.

Since coastal cities in California (as in most other places all over the world) persist in using the ocean as a cheap and convenient sewer. North could only control the kelp recession by controlling the urchin concentrations.

He thought of several possible methods and even got volunteers from a skin-diving club to try knocking the little creatures off with hammers. But nothing worked until he remembered reading somewhere that quicklime had been used to exterminate starfish gorging on commercial oyster beds. Lab tests showed that urchins were as susceptible. In 1964 he had tons of quicklime dumped onto twenty-seven acres of urchin-infested kelp. Today that bed is being harvested for the first time in nearly eight years, and other beds are being revived in the same way. Dr. North is busy transplanting kelp to marine areas devoid of its bénéficient foliage. His work foreshadows the day when a new breed of sea farmers will seed marine deserts in the spring and reap their underwater crops in the fall.

Meanwhile, another of the new mariners has succeeded in establishing an underwater chain of hotels — for fish. During his diving forays, John Carlisle, Jr., of the California State Fish and Game Department noticed that sunken ships and the hulks of old automobiles attracted large colonies of fish, probably seeking shelter from sharks and other bullies. Carlisle figured he could colonize unpopulated parts of the offshore ocean by systematically dumping old auto wrecks. With two colleagues he supervised the dumping of twenty car bodies in an area where an underwater census had established the presence of only two yellow crabs and six whelks (small shellfish). Two years later, he explored his underwater junkyard and discovered twenty-four thousand fish darting in and out of car doors, trunks and pas tanks.

However, this first artificial fish reef soon rusted away to useless rubble, and the colonists drifted away. Today Carlisle is constructing artificial fish reefs out of quarry rock. Each reef costs five thousand dollars and consists of a thousand tons of rock dumped from a barge. Catches of bass

off established reefs reach almost seven per anglerhour. Carlisle predicts that man some day will supervise veritable sea ranches where salmon, cod and halibut are pastured like Texas longhorns. (Perhaps roving cod-boys will protect the herds from rustlers and sharks.)

Meanwhile, there are many mysteries to solve, even among the most familiar life forms. Whales, for instance. Scientists know little of the superb system of physiology that sustains the world’s largest mammal. Here is a heart that pumps blood through hundreds of feet of arteries at one pulse, a metabolism that maintains ninety-six-degree body temperatures in near-freezing waters, a mother’s milk that is twice as rich as human’s and a spongelike bone structure that can do a repair job on multifractures.

Dr. Paul Dudley White, heart specialist to U.S.

presidents, thought it would be useful to record the heartbeat of a whale. He got an electronic harpoon and set out for a spot off Mexico called Scammon Lagoon, where the fifty-foot grey whale propagates in calm and protected waters. White no sooner arrived than he got into trouble. His harpoon crew happened to drift between a mother whale and her calf, and mama nearly stove in the crew's boat. White resorted to a hovering helicopter and the whales fled. He never did get his electrocardiogram.

Scammon Lagoon also attracts a determined breed of acoustical physicists whose idea is to record and identify whale sounds by planting buoy microphones. The U.S. Navy has had problems telling a whale call from the sound of a submarine — a nasty situation for both navy and whales. The whales, however, tend to remain

silent in the vicinity of hydrophones. "Submarines go silent when they are being spied upon,” speculates one oceanographer. Dr. Theodore Walker. "Why not whales?”

Dr. Walker himself uses a much less sophisticated approach. Seeking to learn about the behavior of whales, he sets out in "Walker’s Ark,” a small rowboat equipped with a plywood forecastle. On the wings of the lagoon current. Walker likes to creep up on a big whale to the point where, when she blows, he is clouded in vapor. While wondering colleagues watch from afar, he daringly moves in to study bull whales while they are sleeping and cow whales while they are nursing. A dedicated scientist.

The unpredictable nature of an even less cooperative marine creature, the shark, also puzzles the new mariners. James Stewart, a diver noted for having logged more than two thousand dives to depths of two hundred and fifty feet, has come within eyesight of any number of the more notorious man-attacking sharks. None of these turned into what Stewart calls “a bad actor.” But one made a college try: it took a bite out of Stewart’s arm. "I thought I was gone then because the sight of my blood should have turned him into a frenzy.” he recalls. “But he just left. 1 guess I didn't taste good." Because of the shark's picky gourmet tastes. Stewart fortunately retains full use of his badly scarred right arm.

While the new mariners may not know what makes a shark tick, they know enough not to trust so-called shark repellent. The United States Bureau of Commercial Fisheries wondered if chemicals labeled “shark repellent” would discourage them from attacking tuna just caught in commercial nets. The bureau's Tuna Resources Laboratory set off to sea in a research vessel and the scientists tossed chunks of tuna into a covey of thirty sharks, then hosed the water with an inky-colored shark repellent. Two scientists cruising by in a Mini-Sub, an underwater observatory, watched wide-eyed as the sharks swam through the repellent to devour the tuna chunks. Packets of shark repellent were tied to the bait. The sharks continued to sup blissfully with the black repellent streaming through their gills. When one shark came alongside the research vessel and bit off the end of the hose emitting the shark repellent, the scientists decided to call it quits.

Until recently, the new mariners were restricted to shallow depths for short periods by the high pressures encountered under the ocean’s surface. But Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau of France pioneered exotic breathing apparatus and marine living quarters that permit men to live for weeks at depths of more than three hundred feet. The U.S. Navy at the same time was sponsoring the hold Sealab experiments, under the direction of a gregarious, pipe-smoking country doctor turned underwater pioneer named George Bond, who earned his medical degree at McGill University in 1945. Bond’s first notable underwater feat was a record-breaking free ascent from a simulated submarine escape hatch at a depth of three hundred feet. (British naval researchers have since that time come up from an impressive live hundred feet under simulated conditions.)

Last September, within eyesight of a California beach where surfers were catching waves, and girls in bikinis were catching colds. Captain Bond supervised three ten - man teams of aquanauts taking fifteen-day turns at / continued on pope 28

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living in Sealab II, a large steel cylinder set on the ledge of a submarine canyon two hundred and five feet below a tending ship. Astronaut-aquanaut Scott Carpenter, leader of the underwater teams, lived and worked in Sealab for thirty consecutive days. As revealed by a television monitor on the ship, the Sealab quarters had the compactness of a submarine — and the good humor of a locker room. With a towel around his waist, one aquanaut fresh from a dive down to the Sealab would extract a peanut butter on rye from a refrigerator and grin at “Pappa Topside” (Captain Bond) through the television monitor.

“A very happy group,” commented an observing psychologist. “I wish I were down there myself.”

The aquanauts entered the sea from the Sealab through a hatch. Sealab cabin pressure being equal to the water pressure at that depth, made this startling air-water entry possible. The men plunged into a cold, grey, almost cavelike world. “Day” was 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when the sun was high enough in the sky to pierce the two-hundredfoot layer of ocean. Even this rationed light could disappear in an instant.

“I was swimming along with another guy when my flipper brushed against the canyon bottom,” recalls William Tolbert, a navy oceanographer. “A cloud of silt completely engulfed us. I couldn’t see my flippers, much less my partner,” A rope between Tolbert and his partner maintained contact until the silt settled.

Despite poor visibility and fiftydegree cold that eventually seeped through their wet suits, the aquanauts managed to raise a specially sunk aircraft hull to the surface with buoyant chemical foam. Salvaging operations will become an important function of underwater pioneers. At the bottom of the English Channel, for example, lie an estimated ten thousand ships. At present they are annoyingly out of reach, but within a few years . . . who knows?

The Sealab aquanauts have taken


The day’s post came by porpoise-mail

core samples from the ocean floor to study its mineral content. Diamonds big enough for engagement rings have already been scooped up off the African coast by vacuumlike hydraulic dredges. Off California, Dr. John Mero, among the first of a new breed of marine prospectors, has located extensive deposits of manganese and phosphate, a rich fertilizer. Initial attempts to mine the phosphate have heen frustrated by the presence of potentially explosive naval projectiles — a dangerous sea-bottom debris resulting from the U.S. Navy's use of the area as a target range.

While Sealab operations involved many surprising hazards, life underwater was nearer to normal than most landlubbers might expect. The Sealab volunteers could get steaks, eggs and even a birthday cake delivered via pressurized dumbwaiter from topside — almost anything they wanted to eat except fish. Gases emitted from frying fish would have contaminated the Sealab’s cabin atmosphere.

The aquanauts even have their own special messenger: a two-hundred-andthirty-pound porpoise named Tuffy, which resided topside with Captain Bond during part of the Sealab project. The aquanauts would press a buzzer, and within seconds Tuffy would arrive with the morning mail tucked in a harness. “Lost” aquanauts could count on him to arrive promptly with a rescue line.

In time, porpoises — whose brains are actually bigger than men’s — may

be called upon to serve as more than underwater St. Bernards. Researchers are seeking to decipher porpoise talk — a high-pitched series of chirps and buzzes — with a view to eventual communication between man and lower mammals.

Man's newly won ability to live underwater has inspired one Bermuda real-estate operator to plan a hotel whose underwater rooms will front on a dazzling coral reef. While proud that their work makes such visions possible, the new mariners are somewhat wary of the ensuing “conquest” or “invasion” of the ocean frontier. Entranced by the innocent grace of marine life, these men prefer to feed fish than spear them with spring guns. They feel protective toward the ocean and the life that thrives there. Dr. Joseph Maclnnis is the medical director for a six-hundred-foot underwater habitation project being planned by Ocean Systems Inc., of New York. After discoursing recently on the physiological problems of deep diving before a technical audience, the young doctor said, “I now want to show you my love for the ocean.” He screened a film called Deep Androsia which he had produced and directed. The film was devoid of the presence of man; the sound track consisted of symphonic music. The film simply unveiled a stunning succession of undersea sights, from rainbow coral to fleeting fish schools, to lolling sharks. To the new mariner, the wonder of the ocean is still more inspiring than his ability to penetrate its heart. ★