Saving the Sea

Based in Alameda, DOER Marine Operations creates cutting-edge machines for deep-sea exploration. The challenge is keeping the equipment in the right hands.


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Sylvia Earle and Liz Taylor, left to right, of DOER Marine Operations.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

 

In the autumn of 2015, Liz Taylor was at a trade show in Florida devoted to sea exploration when she saw a camera with an ISO rating of four million — which far exceeds the light-gathering capacity of ordinary cameras.

“That camera,” Taylor said excitedly, “could capture bioluminescence in bamboo coral!”

Bamboo coral live at the bottom of the sea and emit pulses of blue light, eerie and insistent, like a sea god sending a distress signal. No one had ever photographed the light for a variety of technical reasons, including the lack of cameras with a high-enough ISO to penetrate the seafloor darkness, and the fact that camera lights cause the blue pulses to wash out.

But Taylor, who runs a sea exploration company, believed the camera could successfully capture the bioluminescence, thereby expanding humanity’s toolkit for exploring the deep ocean.

When she asked about purchasing one, however, a Canon representative said it wouldn’t be possible — only two of the experimental ME20F-SH devices were in existence, both of them worth a great deal of money. Taylor started making phone calls. She worked through the Canon hierarchy, reached near the top, and six months later, in the spring of 2016, near Hawaii, two of her marine explorers climbed into a little submersible vessel while carrying an ME20F-SH. They dived to a depth of 1,000 feet and photographed the blue light. Scientists cheered.

Around that time, the BBC was filming Blue Planet II, the second installment of its award-winning documentary series on the ocean. The producers, impressed by the bamboo coral project, hired Taylor’s team for several key tasks, including encasing an ME20F-SH in an elaborate underwater housing. The filmmakers shipped the unit to Chile, mounted it on a two-person submersible, and dived 2,500 feet deep into the Pacific Ocean, where they captured beautiful shots of Humboldt squid, a shy, rarely photographed creature that’s normally scared by bright lights.

Since its first airing last year, Blue Planet II has been watched and loved by millions of people, expanding the public’s awareness of the ocean and the urgent need to keep it healthy. A share of the credit for the program’s success goes to Taylor and her Alameda company, DOER Marine. (DOER stands for Deep Ocean Exploration and Research.)

Founded in the ’90s by Sylvia A. Earle, one of the leading oceanographers of her generation who is also Taylor’s mother, DOER Marine is at the leading edge of developing technology for deep-sea exploration, including remotely operated underwater vehicles, or ROVs. Until a couple decades ago, most of the deep ocean was unexplored. DOER Marine is helping to uncover the ocean’s murky secrets.

Building custom projects for select clients, DOER Marine divides its time between really cool jobs that might help save the sea and jobs that don’t necessarily save the sea but don’t harm it either, like a system for inspecting underwater pipes, said Taylor.

The company says “no” to projects that don’t fit with the company’s values. Several years ago, Taylor got an inquiry from a firm that wanted an underwater rig to help it deal with potential oil spills. In the event of a spill, the device would automatically spew a dispersant called Corexit into the sea. According to the Government Accountability Project, a global nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting whistleblowers, “dispersants like Corexit contain chemicals that are harmful to human health and to sea life.”

“That project could have been very lucrative for us,” said Taylor. “But really, we would rather fold the company than build such a thing. Someone else built it, and they’re obviously happy with the big check, no matter the potential cost to the environment.” 

Beyond the simple ethical rightness of preserving life, Taylor said, humans have a selfish motivation for expanding their knowledge of the ocean. It’s quite possible, perhaps likely, that major breakthroughs in health and medicine will come from the deep sea in the form of sponges, corals, bryozoans (aquatic invertebrates), polychaetes (marine worms), microbes, and other lifeforms. Deep-water sponges are being used today in cancer research. The great naturalist Lyall Watson endorses the possibility that “the ocean holds secrets and succors resources of which we still know very little.”

Humanity’s challenge is keeping the lifeforms alive and thriving.


At 6:30 on a Monday morning in June, at the home in the Oakland hills that she shares with her husband, Ian, and two mostly grown children, Liz Taylor read emails.

An oceanographer in Monaco needs a custom-made robotic system for exploration of Arctic sea levels. Can DOER help?

“Yes,” she replied.

The owner of a big yacht in the Mediterranean wants to buy an instrument package that he can attach to the bottom of his ship so he can gather scientific data while he’s cruising the Greek Islands. He heard that DOER offers such a package and wants confirmation.

“We sell that,” she wrote.

An oil company in Houston wants a large robotic rig for underwater exploration of a section of the Gulf of Mexico. Is DOER interested?

“Tell me more,” she said.

She ate a quick breakfast of muesli, grabbed coffee, and headed out the door, bound for DOER’s office in a tan hangar building on West Tower Avenue, at Alameda Point, on the grounds of the former naval air station.

The DOER decor is casual, high-tech, and pleasantly shabby: several old couches in the corner, four crowded desks, eight expensive computer systems, no partitions, and a shy dog named Kilo, a boxer. On a normal Monday morning, the office would be crowded with engineers, but they’re in Hawaii this week helping with a big project.

Taylor read more emails. She laughed now and then, a lovely pealing laugh that lightened the room and made Kilo look up and wag his tail. She shuffled paper for an hour. Then she got up, stretched, and finished her morning coffee.

At age 57, Taylor has a splendid tangle of auburn hair tinged with gray. She’s calm and centered, but underneath is an intensity, a vibe of “let’s not waste time, OK?” She clearly has an agenda.

She was born in Florida in 1960 and grew up on a farm on the state’s Gulf Coast. Her father was a zoologist and naturalist named John Taylor. Her mother, Sylvia Earle, would become the most famous and accomplished marine environmentalist of her generation, a worthy successor to Jacques Cousteau. Earle has been a star explorer for the National Geographic Society, the winner of a TED Prize, the subject of a major profile in The New Yorker, a senior official in the federal government, a Hero for the Planet for TIME magazine, and the subject of a documentary film, Mission Blue. She has published more than 100 scientific papers and has written many books, including the essential Sea Change.

She co-founded DOER Marine in 1992 with the goal of expanding and democratizing sea access. Taylor took over as president and CEO a couple years later.

Earle and Taylor are heirs to a noble tradition: U.S.-based women who increased global sea consciousness. The most prominent of these is Rachel Carson, whose best-selling 1951 book The Sea Around Us, was a central event in the history of environmental awareness. There was also Grace E. Pickford, a biologist who contributed knowledge to such topics as the pituitary gland of fishes; Marie Poland Fish, an oceanographer and marine biologist “whose research in underwater sound detection helped the United States Navy to distinguish schools of fish from submarines,” according to The New York Times; Ruth Turner, another pioneering marine biologist; and Eugenie Clark, a marine biologist whose groundbreaking work earned her the nickname “The Shark Lady.”

Over the last 50 years, Earle and Taylor have watched the sea change from an Eden to a sewer: acidified, filled with mercury and PCBs, and depleted of many of its inhabitants, including a large percentage of its top predators. Their agenda is nothing less than healing the sea.

“Knowledge of the world ocean is an essential component for the health of the planet and all its inhabitants,” said Taylor. “The sea produces more than half the planet’s oxygen, absorbs a huge amount of carbon, and generates protein for hundreds of millions of people. We need a healthy ocean if we ourselves are to be healthy.”


Photo courtesy of DOER marine

DOER Marine's remotely operated underwater vehicles are uncovering ocean secrets. 

The space where DOER builds its stuff is spectacular: It stretches 200 yards in one direction and 100 yards in the other. The ceiling is three stories high, the floor is polished concrete, and the windows admit lots of light. Fifty years ago, this room housed U.S. Navy seaplanes; today, it’s the home of DOER Marine and another cutting-edge company, Wrightspeed Powertrains, which makes innovative transportation equipment for trucks and buses.

Sitting on a table was a DOER-built device named Otis, a 700-pound ROV. Worth $200,000, it will be guided from a ship by technicians via cable and computer commands. (Sea exploration has many categories and acronyms, including HOVs — human-operated submersible vehicles — i.e., little submarines.)

Otis is the size of two steamer trunks stacked on top of one another. It consists of heavy-duty aluminum framing and a number of attachments, including six underwater cameras, lights, sensors, cables, a couple of thrusters for propulsion, and a mechanical arm — the “Sea Mantis 5,” the size of a large human arm, which is able to pick things up from the seafloor, hold them, and carry them to the surface. DOER will ship Otis to Tiburon Subsea in New York City, which conducts many kinds of undersea exploration, including searching for treasure ships. It recently helped find a Spanish galleon lost in 1708 that may hold more than $10 billion worth of gold, silver, and jewels.

The sea today is plied by thousands of underwater and surface robotic vehicles. For example, the oil and gas industry uses robotic devices for exploration, mapping, monitoring, and salvage. Governments use the vehicles in large numbers for navies, customs, and port security.

Explorers and scientific researchers continue to be major customers.

In July, a research ship named Kilo Moana, from the University of Hawaii, sailed a lonely stretch of the Pacific Ocean, west of Mexico and south of Hawaii. On board the 186-foot vessel were scientists using an array of equipment, including a DOER-built ROV named Lu’ukai (sea diver).

They were studying the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, or CCZ, a section of the seafloor covering 1.7 million square miles, as wide as the continental United States, featuring “remarkably high biodiversity,” according to The Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent nonprofit, nongovernmental organization. Scientists know very little about life there. “We need to know more,” said Taylor.

The CCZ is full of valuable minerals — nickel, copper, cobalt, and rare earth elements, embedded in nodules on the seafloor that are similar in size to potatoes. The minerals are coveted by companies that build computers and smartphones. Prices for the minerals are rising; deep-sea mining is apparently on the road to becoming economically viable half a century after it was first discussed.

Nautilus Minerals in Toronto proposes a method to extract the CCZ’s minerals that would be “remarkably destructive” to biodiversity, said Taylor, citing research by the Aspen Institute, the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative, the organization INDEEP, and the Deep Sea Mining Campaign of the Ocean Foundation. She said the company would use heavy equipment to break apart the seafloor, dredge the broken-up slurry to huge factory ships on the surface, extract minerals from the nodule-laden muck, and shoot the residue back into the water, creating a mud plume that might last months before settling.

Mike Johnston, president and CEO of Nautilus, disputed the notion that his company’s mining system is harmful to the environment. “We take environmental stewardship very seriously,” he said. “Our mining system has been designed with input from leading experts in deep-sea ecology and environmental science. We’ve come up with a very sustainable system with a very small footprint. For example, plume generation is minimal, well within the limits of the mining lease.”

Johnston added that the Nautilus system was reviewed by Earth Economics, a nonprofit organization in Tacoma, “which concluded that what we’re proposing, from an ecosystem management point of view, is better than land mining by several orders of magnitude.”

The report’s authors noted that copper “is vital to producing numerous forms of electrical power, clean water, and technology.” “Copper mining has been exclusively terrestrial for 7,000 years,” they stated, and “expanding metal mining to the deep seabed opens most of the earth’s solid surface to mining for the first time.”

But seabed mining of this kind would “basically wipe out large areas of deep-sea ecosystems,” said Craig R. Smith, a University of Hawaii oceanographer. The Pew Charitable Trusts, citing scholarly papers, reports that “scientific monitoring of experimental dredge sites in deep-sea sediment has shown that decades after a site is disturbed, few if any communities of organisms have recovered.”

In 2015, Smith and his Hawaii team got funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and the federal government to study the CCZ and provide data about the possible impact of mining. The Smith team put the $2 million Lu’ukai to work for science. It can dive to 21,000 feet, collect animal specimens, capture images, monitor the properties of water columns, and identify habitats. “The Lu’ukai is performing extremely well for us,” said Smith.

Smith hopes that at least one-third of the CCZ will remain protected from mining through the regulating body, the UN’s International Seabed Authority. But many scientists are concerned that the ISA isn’t doing enough. A recent article in the journal Science by Lisa Wedding and a group of researchers said the ISA regulatory framework “could be improved” to emphasize things like ecological caution. According to Craig Smith, “The ISA deserves credit for launching an environmental management plan before mining, but it needs to do more.”

Back at DOER Marine’s headquarters, Liz Taylor spent much of her Monday handling communications with engineers in Hawaii. She stepped outside for a breath of fresh air and hiked a hundred yards to where she could look out over Seaplane Lagoon and the southern rim of Alameda Point. In the distance were U.S. Navy ships.

She listed her priorities for the next few years: Her primary task is to guide DOER Marine to continued viability as a money-making entity doing good work. A second task, or dream, is to help DOER become an anchor for a thriving maritime community on Alameda Point, consisting of a dozen sea-oriented businesses (three exist there today) and easy access to the water for sailors, kayakers, dragon boaters, and scientific equipment. Also: restaurants, picnic areas, space for the nonprofit Wild Oyster Project, educational programs for kids conducted by the Alameda nonprofit Blue Endeavors, a history museum that examines Alameda’s long connection to the sea, and an Exploratorium-like complex devoted to the ocean and its denizens.

Whether Alameda Point will have space for such a community is a large question, given that 1,400 housing units are scheduled for construction in the vicinity and 500 acres are devoted to a bird sanctuary.

Meanwhile, within 10 years, Taylor wants to revolutionize ocean exploration. Her tool: a jewel of an HOV. DOER is designing and building a fleet of small HOVs under the aegis of the nonprofit Project Deep Hope, launched in 2017 by the Ocean Geographic Society (also a nonprofit) in collaboration with Sylvia Earle.

The Deep Hope vessels will be, essentially, well-built spheres made of acrylic and aluminum. They will have nearly 360-degree views. They’ll be piloted by professionals and will carry two scientists into the abyss for up to eight hours of research. Such access is hard to come by today, and expensive, because it relies on costly support ships. The Deep Hope vehicles won’t need such pricey support and will “significantly” reduce research costs, said Taylor.

If philanthropies get involved in the Deep Hope effort, the submersibles could be made available, at no cost, to presidents, prime ministers, poets, and ordinary people, for photography, consciousness expansion, and blissed-out observation. “Exposure to the sea of this kind,” said Taylor, “will change lives.”

Deep Hope submersibles will undergo sea trials over the next couple of years. The goal is for a handful of the craft to be active by 2028, and in 20 years, perhaps several dozen will ply the waves, each one making hundreds of dives annually, carrying thousands of passengers globally.

The vessels will be the culmination of a long quest by Taylor and Earle. They inherited it from Rachel Carson and Jacques Cousteau, and from Shakespeare, Byron, Melville, and Neruda — to find the ideal way for humans to connect with the sea, try to understand it, fall in love with it, and help it heal.

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