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Windows on the deep: Robot subs seem to be taking over, but direct human observation is essential

HONOLULU – Entering the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory hangar is akin to stepping onto the set of a Spielberg film. The dull metal shell, perched on the Makai pier in Oahu, is nondescript, but the inside bristles with Zodiac boats and a dizzying assortment of hoists and tools.

At the center of it all, two 20-foot-long Pisces submarines sit atop skids like alien spacecraft, their robotic arms outstretched, beckoning for another mission.

The laboratory, part of the University of Hawaii and better known as HURL, has been the sole submersible-based U.S. deep-sea research outpost in the mid-Pacific since the 1980s.

At its helm is Terry Kerby, perhaps the most experienced submersible pilot alive. With a crew of five, Kerby and the Pisces subs have discovered over 140 wrecks and artifacts, recovered tens of millions of dollars in lost scientific equipment and surveyed atolls and seamounts whose hydrothermal vents and volcanoes were unknown.

But today, Kerby faces the possible mothballing of his fleet. The forces at play are the same as in many other realms of science – dwindling budgets, of course. And robots.

Robotic subs can stay down for days and reach extraordinary depths, instantly relaying their finds to scientists and an Internet-connected global audience. But they cannot go everywhere, and many scientists argue that studying the deep without direct human observation yields at best an incomplete understanding.

“You can’t replace a Terry Kerby with a robot,” said Andy Bowen, principal engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “It’s not possible.”

At 65, Kerby is tanned and fit, thanks to daily 2-mile ocean swims. He has been piloting submersibles at Makai for better than three decades, starting in the mid-1970s harvesting corals. He shifted to the University of Hawaii and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which had bought the Makai facility to expand the nation’s deep-sea capabilities.

In 1985, Kerby found the Pisces V submersible idled in Edinburgh and persuaded the university to spend $500,000 for it. Relatively big, it could dive to 6,500 feet. Kerby found it was highly maneuverable and could hover motionless, even in strong currents. It also operated untethered from a mother ship, allowing exploration of caves and overhangs.

Coupling Pisces with the University of Hawaii’s research ship, the Ka’imikai-O-Kanaloa, and a home-built submersible platform enabled Kerby to carry out missions from 60 feet down, during surface conditions too rough for any other submersible.

Kerby racked up discoveries, beginning with exploration of the Loihi seamount off Kona. Eighteen years of return missions have revealed that an area once thought dead is a vibrant world of myriad ecosystems and volcanism still shaping the Hawaiian Islands. Along Loihi and other slopes, the team discovered living corals that predate even California’s bristlecone pines.

In 2000, Kerby acquired a sister sub, the Pisces IV, from Canada for $80,000. Exploring in tandem made diving safer and enabled film crews to show discoveries in the context of the submersibles. The subs have appeared in more than 20 documentaries, including National Geographic’s “Fires of Creation,” in which the oceanographer Robert Ballard, whose discoveries included the wreckage of the Titanic, descended with Kerby to the caldera of Loihi.

“What the Pisces program has done, mostly underfunded and unappreciated, over the years is unmatched,” said Sylvia Earle, former chief science officer for NOAA. “It’s baffling to me that more understanding and funding hasn’t been heaped upon them.”

Five years ago, piloted deep-sea exploration appeared on the verge of a boom, funded by wealthy explorer/entrepreneurs. What changed? To hear Ballard tell it, the shift began during a 1977 dive aboard Alvin off the Galápagos Islands. About 8,000 feet down, he noticed a colleague paying more attention to the camera monitor than to Alvin’s tiny windows. “He turned his back on me to look at the screen,” Ballard said. “I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I can get closer.’ I said, ‘Then why the hell are you here?’ ”

Afterward, Ballard said he realized fundamental truths of piloted deep-sea exploration: It’s cold and scary, time in the deep is limited and robotic vehicles might do the same work for less money. He persuaded the Navy to fund two remote exploration vehicles, Argo and Jason, for use by Woods Hole.

On Sept. 1, 1985, Argo first filmed the wreckage of the Titanic. Since then, remote deep-sea vehicles have proliferated in exploration, mining and drilling. Typically, Ballard’s ships carry just one or two senior oceanographers; engineers and technical staff deploy and monitor the submersibles, which, via satellite link, deliver real-time images across the world via the Internet.

Ballard described a recent Nautilus expedition that sent its submersibles 2½ miles down into the Cayman Trough. In a piloted dive, the descent and ascent would take six hours each, leaving mere minutes for sea floor exploration. “Now we’re going down to 20,000 feet and spending days,” he said.

To most marine scientists, including Kerby, robots have clearly won the deep-sea war. It’s now a question of whether lingering advantages to piloted exploration should be discarded. Bowen says piloted exploration still has plenty of benefit. Taking in all the undersea factors – currents, sounds, land forms, interactions between animals and their environment – humans are still far better at synthesizing what’s going on in the deep sea, he said.