Site icon Conservation news

‘We’ve got to help the oceans to help us’: Q&A with deep-sea explorer Dawn Wright

Dawn Wright giving a talk at an event.

Dawn Wright giving a talk at an event.

  • On July 12, oceanographer and geographer Dawn Wright descended 10,919 meters (35,823 feet) below the surface of the ocean to the deepest known part of the planet, Challenger Deep, alongside deep-sea explorer Victor Vescovo.
  • Wright was the first Black person to make the voyage to Challenger Deep, where she and Vescovo documented several findings, including the discovery of a beer bottle on the seabed.
  • The goal of the expedition was to test out a side-scan sonar designed to go down to 11,000 m (nearly 36,100 ft) that can take detailed images of the seafloor, which was successfully achieved.
  • Mongabay’s Elizabeth Claire Alberts spoke to Wright before and after her expedition to learn more about the voyage’s personal significance to Wright, the challenges in venturing this far down into the ocean, and the significance of understanding more about the deep-sea.

On July 12, oceanographer and geographer Dawn Wright was sealed inside a submersible, traveling to Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. Wright and her travel companion, explorer Victor Vescovo of Caladan Oceanic, managed to reach a depth of 10,919 meters (35,823 feet) below the surface of the ocean, which is nearly as deep as six Grand Canyons stacked on top of each other. Another way to imagine the vertical extent of Challenger Deep, the deepest known point on the seafloor, is to compare it to the ​​Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building in Dubai: you would need to stack 13 Burj Khalifas on top of each other to match the depth of this part of the ocean.

“Challenger Deep is the most difficult place to go to because it is so deep,” Wright, the chief scientist of California-based mapping outfit Esri, told Mongabay. “If you send a signal down to the bottom of Challenger Deep, it is going to take seven seconds to get there. There have been robots that have tried to go down there, but one in particular was lost.”

Vescovo, the owner and pilot of the two-person submersible, Limiting Factor, invited Wright on this expedition so they could work together to test out a new piece of technology: a side-scan sonar designed to go down to 11,000 m (nearly 36,100 ft) that will help researchers map the seafloor at any depth. Wright was also the first Black person to visit Challenger Deep.

“I’m hoping that this will inspire and encourage little children, young people, certainly for young people who are Black and who are not seeing ocean exploration and ocean science as something that they can do or something that is welcoming to them,” Wright said. “I want to turn that idea completely on its head and to say, please consider doing this, we need as many different kinds of people exploring the ocean.”

Oceanographer and geographer Dawn Wright and explorer Victor Vescovo, the owner and pilot of the submersible. Image courtesy of Victor Vescovo.

Prior to Wright’s voyage, astronaut Kathy Sullivan became the first woman to travel to Challenger Deep, again with Vescovo, in 2020. And in 2021, Nicole Yamase became the first Pacific Islander to take the dive, also with Vescovo.

Wright said this recent expedition was a “success.”

“Our goal was to operate a prototype side-scan sonar that has never been used below 6,000 meters [nearly 19,700 ft], and it worked perfectly,” she said. “I collected some side-scan sonar data, which gives you an aerial photograph of the ocean floor.”

But some parts of the journey yielded unexpected results. Right after they touched down, Wright and Vescovo spotted a beer bottle lying on the seabed.

“We both could not believe that that was the first thing that we saw,” Wright said. “At the most hostile, remote, deepest place on the entire planet, there was evidence of human beings of that nature, a beer bottle … it was terribly discouraging to us.”

Beer bottle aside, Wright and Vescovo also saw deep-sea anemones, hydroids, bacteria, and large fields of angular boulders.

“There’s one place I even called Flintstones Quarry because there were these big, angular blocky square and rectangular chunks of the seafloor,” she said. “That was really fascinating to me.”

The deep-sea white-stalked anemones that Wright and Vescovo spotted during their dive. Image courtesy of Caladan Oceanic.

Wright said that voyages like the one she recently took with Vescovo will help to broaden our understanding of the deep sea and its role in regulating the global climate — and that this knowledge is critical at this time of escalating planetary crisis.

“The ocean right now is absorbing about 90% of the heat of this planet, the overheating of the planet, mainly because of greenhouse gas emissions,” Wright said. “The ocean is not going to be able to keep absorbing all of this heat, and absorbing all of these greenhouse gases, buying time for us to have a habitable life. So in order to understand this full system, and how much longer we have, so to speak, we need to understand the deepest parts of the ocean.”

While Wright said the information gathered on this voyage provides just one piece of a larger puzzle, she stressed the importance of ongoing exploration and research.

“Explore outer space? Yes. Explore other planets? Yes. But it’s quite remarkable that we have not been able to achieve nearly the full amount of exploration of our own planet that we live on,” she said.

(Left to right) Victor Vescovo; former President of the Republic of Palau Tommy Remengesau, Jr.; current President of the Republic of Palau Surangel S. Whipps, Jr.; and Dawn Wright at a reception in Palau at the end of the deep-sea expedition. Image courtesy of Dawn Wright.

Mongabay’s Elizabeth Claire Alberts spoke with Wright on two occasions: before she left on her expedition to Challenger Deep, and upon her return. Both interviews have been condensed here into a single text and lightly edited for clarity.

Mongabay: You said that visiting Challenger Deep has been a childhood dream. When did that dream begin?

Dawn Wright: I actually began thinking about being an oceanographer first when I was 8 years old. [I became interested in oceanography that looks] at how the seafloor is formed — how it’s structured, we’re concerned with earthquakes and volcanoes. This is now where our work is coming to the fore as we hear more about violent eruptions on the seafloor, certainly about these huge earthquakes that cause tsunamis. That’s the type of oceanography that I was trained in, and in order to do that type of science, oftentimes, it involves visiting the ocean floor … and there are certain places that are iconic in the minds of oceanographers because they are the deepest. And that’s what Challenger Deep is — Challenger Deep is the deepest spot in all the world’s oceans, and it is therefore the deepest spot on planet Earth.

For most of us, it’s a pipe dream to ever go to Challenger Deep, unless you have research that is specifically funded to study that part of the world, and my study areas have not been in this area. But because of our relationship with Caladan Oceanic and with the explorer Victor Vescovo, I got the call, so to speak, and I got the opportunity. I would say that this dream of Challenger Deep has probably been on my mind for the last 20 years, but I never thought it would ever come to pass.

The map of the dive plan. Image courtesy of Caladan Oceanic.

Mongabay: How did you feel when you found out that you would be going on this expedition?

Dawn Wright: I was actually quite numb. Victor Vescovo asked me to go on a Challenger Deep expedition in 2020. It was not to dive to Challenger Deep, but to support the dive of Kathy Sullivan. Kathy Sullivan, you may know, was the first American woman to walk in space, and most recently, she was the administrator of our National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. So she’s done it all now — she became the first person to walk in space and to go to the deepest spot on the planet — and she’s become known as the most vertical person in the world. But I was not able to go there because of COVID and the dangers at that time. So Victor came back last year and asked again, and this time, he asked if I would be willing to dive. So again, I was numb, but I was ecstatic.

I guess another part of why Victor asked me to make this dive is also because it’s a diversity issue as well. We had Kathy Sullivan going down as the first woman and the first astronaut. And Victor has asked me to do this dive in order to be the first Black person to ever visit Challenger Deep. So I’m taking that very seriously. I’m hoping that this will inspire and encourage little children, young people, certainly for young people who are Black and who are not seeing ocean exploration and ocean science as something that they can do or something that is welcoming to them. I want to turn that idea completely on its head and to say, please consider doing this, we need as many different kinds of people exploring the ocean. I’m so excited to meet Nicole Yamase, who just graduated from the University of Hawaii and got her Ph.D. in biology. And she went down to Challenger Deep last year, and she was the first person of Micronesian descent, and the first local person to make the dive to Challenger Deep. So all of these firsts are really important.

Deep-sea hydroids, which are creatures that attach themselves to rocks and look like worms coming out of the rocks. Image courtesy of Caladan Oceanic.

Mongabay: What can this kind of expedition teach us about the deep sea?

Dawn Wright: Challenger Deep is one of these places that we need to understand in order to really understand how the planet works, from top to bottom. If you have an automobile, for instance, and you’re trying to fix that automobile, you need to understand every part of that machine: the transmission, the brakes, every part of the engine. And I’m using the automobile as a metaphor for Planet Earth, given that we have so many crises that are besetting the planet right now. And one of the things that we’re finding out now is how much the deepest parts of the ocean actually can somehow influence our climate. And we’re all focused on climate change now. We’re understanding how crazy our climate is right now because of the human inputs of greenhouse gases to the environment. That actually is part of the whole planetary system. And the underwater currents carry heat throughout the ocean. The ocean right now is absorbing about 90% of the heat of this planet, the overheating of the planet, mainly because of greenhouse gas emissions. The ocean is not going to be able to keep absorbing all of this heat, and absorbing all of these greenhouse gases, buying time for us to have a habitable life. So in order to understand this full system, and how much longer we have, so to speak, we need to understand the deepest parts of the ocean.

I don’t want to give the impression that in one dive we’re going to solve all of these problems, but it’s a very important piece of the whole — it’s adding another piece to completing the puzzle.

Mongabay: Before you left, what were some of the challenges you anticipated about the journey?

Dawn Wright: Challenger Deep in is the most difficult place to go to because it is so deep. If you send a signal down to the bottom of Challenger Deep, it is going to take seven seconds to get there. There have been robots that have tried to go down there, but one in particular was lost. It’s a very dangerous place, because we don’t know all of the things that could happen, going 6 miles down, without instant communication. Challenger Deep is also in the Mariana Trench, which is part of the Ring of Fire, which is this ring of our deepest, most destructive earthquakes. Now, luckily, Challenger Deep is in a place that is not as seismically active as other parts of the Ring of Fire, but that is an active seismic zone. So many, many years, we had more people who walked on the moon than who had been to Challenger Deep.

[The success of the voyage depended on] our sonar working properly and also on the battery power of the submersible. Everything is really important — our breathing rate as we use up the oxygen, any of the lights or equipment that are used on the submersible — that all draws on battery storage.

The two-person submersible, Limiting Factor, that Wright and Vescovo took to Challenger Deep. Image courtesy of Dawn Wright.

Mongabay: So how did the expedition go?

Dawn Wright: We had success on all three dives. Victor Vescovo and I got down to Challenger Deep and we reached a maximum depth of 10,919 meters in the western pool of the Challenger Deep. Our goal was to operate a prototype side-scan sonar that has never been used below 6,000 meters, and it worked perfectly. I collected some side-scan sonar data, which gives you an aerial photograph of the ocean floor. What the side-scan sonar does is it uses sound and records the strength of the sound pulses as they return from the seabed, and that can be turned into a gray shaded picture. So we were very successful in getting that done. We also wanted to use the side-scan sonar to see if we could find one of the landers that had been sent down before us — a lander is basically a cage with navigational instruments and water samplers and cameras — but unfortunately, we couldn’t do that because there are some strong currents down there, as there are throughout all of the world’s oceans, and the lander was caught by a strong current and drifted about 600 meters [nearly 2,000 ft] to the east. That was too far a distance for us to set off to try to find it. So we continued with the rest of our mission objective, which was to climb up the wall of the western pool with the side-scan sonar and to image part of the wall.

Mongabay: Did you find anything unexpected — any strange animals or plants?

Dawn Wright: We absolutely found something unexpected, which was a beer bottle. We touched bottom at over 10,900 meters, and we both could not believe that that was the first thing that we saw — at the most hostile, remote, deepest place on the entire planet, there was evidence of human beings of that nature, a beer bottle, and we have a picture of it from the sub’s camera. Unbelievable. So it was terribly discouraging to us. Thankfully, we didn’t see any other evidence of human trash down there. We do know that there are scientific cables that have been left behind by the Chinese submersible that has traversed near to where we were, but we landed in a place that no one had ever landed in before within the western pool — Victor knew not to go far enough to get near where the Chinese had landed because cables can be a hazard.

But other than that, we saw some beautiful, deep-sea anemones. They were like little white flowers on rocks, and we saw some very strange-looking hydroids, which are creatures that attach themselves to rocks and look like worms coming out of the rocks. And we saw some bacteria. We weren’t able to take samples of any of these because we didn’t have a sampling arm — we had to either choose the sonar or the sampling arm, and we were focused on the sonar.

In terms of geology, I was very fascinated by the large fields of angular boulders that we saw. There’s one place I even called Flintstones Quarry because there were these big, angular, blocky, square and rectangular chunks of the seafloor that likely had been pushed up on that. We were on the Pacific plate there, and as the Pacific plate dives under the Philippine plate, material gets scraped off that plate and piles up in these large areas of rubble on the seafloor. So that was really fascinating to me. And I’ve never seen anything like that on the seafloor.

Right after they touched down, Wright and Vescovo spotted a beer bottle lying on the seabed. Image courtesy of Caladan Oceanic.

Mongabay: Do you think enough is being done to protect the deep sea at this time?

Dawn Wright: Of course not. There is a lot that has been done, but when we think about how much of the deep sea is protected, we’re only looking at a single digit. Only 2% of the sea is protected through national marine protected areas or other types of areas. Our big problem is that before we can even start establishing these protected areas, we have to explore and find all of these places. And so from the standpoint of the ocean itself, we only have 20% of the global ocean floor mapped at a level of detail that is similar to the U.S. highway system or to the European highway system. We have far less of the waters above the ocean floor mapped and monitored. So our big first step is exploration. So that’s why there’s so much effort now to keep exploring the ocean.

Explore outer space? Yes. Explore other planets? Yes. But it’s quite remarkable that we have not been able to achieve nearly the full amount of exploration of our own planet that we live on.

Mongabay: If there’s one message you’d like to impart about your voyage to Challenger Deep, what would it be?

Dawn Wright: The message is that this is yet more evidence of what an amazing planet we live on, and more evidence of what we have yet to discover on this planet, even as we look up to the stars. It was a coincidence that our dive coincided with the release of the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, and everyone was rightfully fascinated with that. But we had some amazing images from our own planet, and from an area that no human beings had ever seen before. People have been to Challenger Deep, but we landed on a spot that no humans had before … so as we look outward, we need to keep looking inward at our own planet, especially to cherish it, to protect it.

That beer bottle was a shock. That’s evidence that there is no part of this planet now that is free of human influence, and our presence and our influence needs to be positive, not negative. We have run out of time. Now we’ve got to clean up the oceans, we’ve got to mitigate and find solutions to the warming of the planet that’s happening above the oceans. The oceans are doing their part in absorbing 25% of the carbon dioxide, 90% of the heat, 50% of the carbon. But we’ve got to help the oceans to help us.

The subduction collison zone, which Wright calls “Flintstones quarry.” Image courtesy of Caladan Oceanic.

Banner image: Oceanographer Dawn Wright. Image courtesy of Esri.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.