Why do we know less about the oceans than about space

This question has been bugging me for a while. I simply do not understand. Why do we know less about our oceans than we know about space? Is that claim real? What makes people say that? In this article, I will share some thoughts I have about the seas and space. More reading here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The call of Cthulu

American weird fiction author  Lovecraft mentions a race of telepathic aquatic aliens he calls Cthulu. The word sounds roughy like a cat in Hebrew, which is kind of ironic. Kourt Vonnegut used the term cat’s cradle empty without cat, where the etymology is cratches cradle – no cats in a cattle feeder, to symbolize useless human activity. In both cases, the final assault on mankind starts from the see – whether by dreaming monsters or by human negligence.

I would expect the humanity that builds nuclear submarines and carriers to feel more secure about the seas. This is not the case. Experts constantly claim that we know less about the seas than we know about space. More than eighty percent of our ocean is unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored. This is approximately similar to the percentage of dark matter and dark energy in the space. Yet oceans are here, and ready to be probed. What stops us?


To be honest, I do not trust the expert opinion. A lot of underwater activity is carried out by spies: be it submarines, ultrasound detectors, buoys, and imaging from planes and satellites. Quite honestly I think that less than 10% of what the US or Russian Navy knows leaks out to the press or scientists.

The deepest dives were performed by US Navy. The best water-piercing and soil-piercing sonars and cameras capable of detecting a whale 500 meters below the surface (secret?) owned by the US Navy. Titanium submarines with mindblowing capabilities belonged to the Russian navy. Trained marine animals with smart harnesses? There are all sorts of rumors which I tend to believe.

Together with communication cables, partially under the pretense of civilian works, US has installed huge underwater infrastructures with wonderful capabilities: piezo high-rate communication hubs, sonar detection, and mapping, ultra low-frequency RF transponders, magnetic sensors, and stuff I did not bother to check. More stuff was installed above the weather under the pretense of weather sensors: pressure, temperature, and … stuff.

Or maybe not… This is stuff that is supposed to be secret, and the public is not supposed to know about it.

Vast, blue, boring

To be honest, secrecy is definitely not the biggest limitation. The vastness of the oceans is. Except for narrow waterfronts near the beaches and semi-submerged oil platforms, we do not really care about the oceans. Fishermen also tend to stay in territorial waters. There are huge islands of human waste (comparable in size with UK), drifting slowly through certain oceans. I am not sure these islands are even mapped: they are a nuisance with no military or economic value.

Shipping routes are narrow and congested. They minimize the time and distance it takes to transfer the goods. Treasure hunters follow old trader roots. Military ships rarely need to be far from land for long periods of time: they guard shores, trading routes, and oil platforms. Coral reefs are kind of fun, but they are not the bulk of the world’s oceans. The furnaces where tectonic plates meet and underwater vulcanos erode are super-interesting, but they are just narrow strips. Everything else tends to be more of the same: boring blue water, not very shallow, not very deep, not rich with anything we know about.

Murky waters

Space is emptier than our oceans. Yet we can optically observe a lot of space with ease, due to its emptiness. We can see monstrous quasars and other supermassive events 13 billion light years away, maybe more. For closer distances within our own galaxy, we can see individual stars and with AI even individual planets.

Water is sort of murky. Even without sand and plankton, it absorbs most of the light frequencies, at least the frequencies we commonly use. The visual range at sea is limited, possibly to several hundreds of meters under the water with good equipment. This works even from space with a good (far IR?) lidar, up to some mud shifts and really murky places.

There are limitations to these techniques. The blue whale is as huge as it gets, yet the water he loves is full of plankton, so we basically know very little about blue whales.

Sharks can feel traces of blood kilometers away, but we do not have such sensors. We can probably hear a submarine or a ship under the water up to 60 kilometers away. But we definitely cannot see or hear 10 kilometers away. Maybe some long-range low-resolution mapping can be performed with underwater explosive charges (seismic methodology). And if you want to see a fish in the ocean’s depth, you probably need to dive.

Underwater drones

Trying to get under-the-surface measurements or even surface material samples in space is a huge headache. A dedicated space probe needs to be sent at a very high expense.  There is no seismic mapping at space, no ability to drop a bucket and get mud sample or to drop a drone from a ship everywhere you want and watch which lifeforms will come.

Underwater research has the luxury of miniature drones on a very long wire that can be sent from a small research ship anywhere in the world, collect samples of mud or water, and film the local life. Most of the deep underwater scenery is a wasteland. There are several exceptions: geothermal chimneys, whale carcasses, coral reefs, underwater valleys with salinity gradients. It is possible to find such places via mapping and then send in drones – basically without a delay.

These drones often find new lifeforms or deep water delicate lifeforms that cannot surface without exploding due to pressure variations. We do not know the majority of insect life forms, the majority of plant species, and we definitely do not know the majority of underwater species. Regular people hardly see the difference between lifeform subspecies.

Human presence

A man can walk on a moon in a specially designed suit. Diving with special equipment deep is much easier and really available to most of us without government backing. Submerging in certain trenches in tourist submarines can cost thousands of dollars per experience, comparable with renting a private jet. The experience allows seeing everything with your own eyes at your own pace. But is it better than watching the most interesting sequences captured by the underwater drone and edited by AI? I do not think so.

Sending a man to Mars and building a colony on another planet is an ambitious step. Approximately 50 years ago, the inventor of aqualung Jean Jacque Cousto tried to establish underwater colonies with dedicated underwater architecture. Tourists and researchers enjoyed the novelty, but the idea did not catch on.  Humans are overrated. Drones can do most of the things we can do, and they do not require air, drinking water, and food. Fuel cells are much more comfortable both underwater and in space.

So how much do we actually know?

There are “preliminary” barometric maps and underwater measurements which we will never see. Non-military agencies are catching up, and in 2030 the entire seafloor is likely to be mapped.

In space, our telescopes  powered with AI can hunt comets and asteroids as far as Pluto, maybe a bit further. Extraterrestial planets are examined all around our galaxy. And objects from far galaxies can be seen almost up to the big bang event. Yet we can hardly sample asteroids and comets unless they come really close. Oh, and most of the space we know is build of dark matter and dark energy we do not understand.

Under the water, we cannot pierce the time itself, but getting real samples anywhere in the ocean is not a big deal. Yet the underwater events and underwater life are so rich, that we have significantly more questions than answers.

Are science fiction events possible?

We could miss a city the size of the ancient Atlantis, especially if it partially collapsed and got covered in mud. Even finding sunk ships is very hard, and we know what to look for, where to look, and expect to find gold when looking for it.

In space, we could easily miss an extraterrestrial ship, even a large one in our solar system. How can we know that it is not an asteroid? We definitely cannot research every asteroid we want…

Mapping what we can see is actually the easy part. Sampling what is hidden – that’s tough. Finding rare events is even harder.

So I guess, several motherships the size of the empire state building can hide in plain sight – in space or under the water. The chances are strongly against that, but it is possible.

Underground seas are also huge, and we know very little for example about the sea under the Sahara desert or under the ice shield in Antarctica.  Probably we lack a real motivation to explore the huge underground reservoirs, as we are not likely to find there any advanced life forms or ancient treasures.

Underwater sculptures at Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park

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