Unfathomable: How Much We Don't Know About the Ocean

A brief reflection on our surprising ignorance, past and present, about the underwater world.

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Derek Keats/Flickr

Oceanographer David G. Gallo notes that we've explored less than 10 percent of this planet -- perhaps less than 5 percent -- and that astonishing things lurk down in the bottom most depths of the ocean:

  • Underwater waterfalls! There is, he says, an underwater waterfall that is 5 times higher than Angel Falls.
  • Lakes at the bottom of the sea -- some are 300 feet deep, with animals that live only in the lake, not in the ocean above.
  • On the sea floor, mountain ranges with thousands of valleys wider and deeper than the Grand Canyon.
  • 297 new species discovered living on a single column of volcanic rock.

It's strange talking to people who study the deep sea, because of the sudden realization that one knows very little about it -- to have explored the moon before the sea floor seems counterintuitive. There is, of course, the tremendous challenge of exploring at that depth, due to pressure and darkness. Perhaps that's why I am flummoxed not by how little we know about the deep sea, but by how recently we explored the shallows, and the creatures with which we're familiar today.

I've reflected on the subject while researching a biography of a Sea World founder. A WWII veteran, his generation is the one that got to know dolphins en masse for the first time in the guise of Flipper, began buying the first commercially available SCUBA equipment, and marveled at the films of Jacques Cousteau. When Sea World opened in 1964, there was no killer whale. Before the decade was over Shamu would be a nationally famous marine mammal, and Sea World would eventually build a park in Ohio, where many had never seen the ocean.

These days we've got high-definition underwater nature programs and ubiquitous snorkeling in coastal vacation destinations -- that is to say, when the average American goes to the beach and gazes out at the horizon, they have some idea what it looks like beneath the water. How strange that just a few generations ago, standing on the beach, almost no one had an accurate image in their mind of what it looked like beneath the surface, out in the relative shallows. And perhaps a generation or three in the future, they'll find it as strange that we were totally unaware of the creatures -- there are many we don't know about -- lurking down in the ocean deep.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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