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Discovering the Secrets of the Deep Sea

Reviewed by Daniel A. Curran

“Bill Broad’s new book, The Universe Below, is a must read”, John Craven remarked as we sat down for a recent meeting in Honolulu. Craven, the first chief scientist for the Polaris Program and the program manager for both the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle and the NR-1, is right (as usual). William J. Broad, the New York Times technology reporter, has compiled a captivating account of the world’s oceans. With more than a reporter’s recap, he adds several insights that focus the reader on this frontier, one we submariners presumably know. We don’t know the half of it, as I found out.

Those who read Broad’s articles, usually in the Technology Section of the Tuesday Times, are familiar with his grasp of maritime matters. He also has interviewed many of the principals involved in the exploration and exploitation of the sea and the sea bottom. His research on undersea warfare, particularly on submarine intelligence operations in the ’60s and ’70s, has brought him close to secrets still under wraps in the Navy archives. Broad’s treatment of the sinking of both THRESHER and SCORPION reflect the information from the fairly recent declassification of the inquiry reports. John Craven, involved in the SCORPION incident reconstruction, provided Broad with a background on the accident.

The Universe Below is divided into seven chapters covering most aspects of the seas. The lead chapter on the dimensions of the ocean reminds the reader of the fact that most of the mid-Ocean ridge and the ocean bottom, some parts deeper than the highest mountains on land, are largely unexplored. Perhaps one percent of the ocean floor has been visited. People like Beebe, the Piccards, and Don Walsh pushed the edge of the deep ocean exploration envelope every bit as much as the early astronauts in space travel.

Submarine operations, particularly the intelligence operations of HALIBUT (see the novel, Spy Sub, reviewed in the April 1997 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW) are highlighted, probably as much as Broad can write using unclassified sources. I suspect, however, he has worked out more details than he reveals. One source is the unclassified congressional testimony given by John Craven on these operations, including the differentiation of HALIBUT and Hughes’ GLOMAR EXPLORER missions. I will leave it up to the reader to reach his own conclusion on the matter.

Other chapters deal with the ocean as a food source and the resulting problems with over-fishing; the discovery of TITANIC and other historic sunken ships, (Bob Ballard, another Broad source I suspect, and the Woods Hole team were deeply involved in several of the discoveries); the use of small robotic submarines (ROVs) as well as manned vehicles for ocean exploration; and the mining of sea mineral nodules, among other subjects. Broad covers both the technical and the legal aspects of many of the subjects.

Parts of the book reflect Broad’s own experience. Broad has made dives in ALVIN, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution operated deep diving research vehicle, owned by the U.S. Navy. His observations of the newly discovered life forms and synthesis of life deep below the area of visible light is intriguing. Of particular interest to me was the discussion of the treasures of the deep. My first thought, reading the chapter, was sunken gold which Broad also covers in some detail, but the real treasure of the deep may prove to be the medical use of microbes from the deep volcanic chimney areas. These microbes survive at temperatures at which no land-based life can exist. The deep sea microbes are used in high temperature DNA splicing to avoid contamination by bacteria or other forms of life that thrive at normal temperatures.

The last chapter, Tides, examines some philosophical, legal, and practical problems of man’s use of the oceans. Broad has managed to present the sides of the particular issues without exposing his own beliefs or opinions. In some cases, one can discern which way he Jeans. The other sections, the Prologue, the Epilogue, the Chronology of Deep Exploration, the Glossary, and the Bibliograph y are also valuable for aficionados of the ocean. The Universe Below is recommended for all who want or need some understanding of the current issues affecting the world’s oceans.

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