Into the Deep: A Q&A with Nekton’s Oliver Steeds
Underwater explorer Oliver Steeds gave up the exciting life of an investigative journalist to explore the depths of the ocean. Here’s why.
As a critically acclaimed investigative journalist with a penchant for covering stories in hostile territory, Oliver Steeds is no stranger to going where others can’t or won’t. Fittingly, his latest endeavor is Nekton, a deep-sea science and exploration organization that aims to investigate the world’s oceans by submersible and capture data that can be transformed into sustainable policy. We reached him aboard the CCGS Hudson in the Indian Ocean, where he and his colleagues are currently exploring the Bathyal Zone, a region of rich biodiversity 656 feet to 9,842 feet (200 meters to 3,000 meters) beneath the surface.
Why do you explore the deep ocean?
We all need a healthy ocean to survive and thrive. Yet we’ve come to the point where the most critical part of our planet, the deep ocean (below 600 feet), is the least known. This can’t be sensible. We’re in a race to discover it before we destroy it. We need to understand how to sustainably manage it before it’s too late.
What is the one thing you couldn’t be without on an exploration?
A submersible. Deeper diving the better – a Triton with a transparent 360° pressure hull. It’s the perfect vehicle for observation. Triton has just created a partnership with Aston Martin to bring out a series of extraordinary new submersibles – 007 for the oceans!
What does it mean to be an explorer in 2017?
Being an explorer means many different things to many different people. It’s a personal thing. For me, exploration pushes back the frontiers of our knowledge and contributes to human progress – that can be for a family, a community, a nation or for the planet. In our own ways, we are all explorers – whenever we enter the unknown, we are learning. Traveling to new countries can be pure exploration – if we go to learn and experience something new, those journeys are motivated by the pure purpose of exploration – and I think that is why our partnership Kensington Tours and Nekton runs so deeply.
With so much of the world already discovered, how do you become a great explorer in this day and age?
Tough question – from my side, I look at the what the great explorers achieved in years gone by. They undertook extraordinary journeys into the unknown that had a profound effect on all humankind. To accomplish that today, you need to qualify with something of scientific purpose. Then be motivated by endless curiosity and relentless hard work and an incredibly supportive family and friends.
What is there left to explore?
Look out of the window of the plane. Chances are you might see the ocean that covers 71% of our planet. Average depth is almost 14,000 feet, and less than 0.0001% has been explored. We have better maps of Mars and the Moon than of our own seabed. We now have the technology available to us to discover more of our planet in the next ten years, than we have in the last 100,000.
Who do you look up to in your industry? Or are there any significant explorers that inspired you to do what you do?
Don Walsh. In 1960, he and Jacques Picard were the first people to descend to the nadir of the earth, full ocean depth, 6.8 miles (11,000 meters) down. It was codenamed “Project Nekton.” Today people have spent over 300 hours on the moon, but only three hours at the deepest point on Earth.
What is the most important exploration you have done? Why?
My current work with scientists to research how the Bathyal Zone – from 656 feet to 9,842 feet (200 meters to 3,000 meters) down – it’s the depth where there is the most significant biodiversity in our ocean, not on the surface where we have the highest biomass. Our research of this critical depth zone is focussed on how the ocean functions, it’s health and resilience. We’re gathering actionable data to inform and catalyze the legal, political and economic decisions to accelerate sustainable ocean stewardship.
Are there any that you tried that did not work? What happened?
Plenty. How long do we have? My first expedition tracing the Grass Silk Road across Mongolia to China didn’t entirely go to plan. Lots of things went wrong including ending up having to walk 1,200 miles across the Gobi desert. As the American paleologists Roy Chapman Andrews once said: “Adventures are the mark of incompetence.” Ironically he was one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones. But I think he’s right. The more things go wrong, the greater the adventurer. I’m all for making mistakes – unless of course you’re involved in nuclear fission for example.
What makes someone an explorer as opposed to an adventurer?
It depends on your definition of an explorer. For me, the differences are over the discovery of knowledge.
What have you discovered on your journeys?
On our last Mission, we discovered a host of new species, the deepest recorded evidence of invasive lionfish but the highlight for me was our discovery of an underwater oasis on top of a seamount in Bermuda. It was like discovering a rainforest that no one knew was there. There are over 130,000 seamounts across the ocean, and yet only roughly 40 have been biologically sampled. So there’s plenty more to discover”
Learn more about Oliver and Nekton’s current mission in the Indian Ocean at nektonmission.org.