The frontiers of science and knowledge are driven by technology. New tools allow us to see further into subjects and areas, and give us new insight into how our universe works.
This has always been the case, like Galileo's telescopes ushering in the Copernican revolution. It’s especially true for ocean science and exploration. Staying beneath the surface for extended periods at extreme depths to observe these environments has been an ongoing challenge.
In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand...
– Baba Dioum
Most people don't realise how far we've come in the past hundred years, and that we're still at very the beginning of exploring and understanding our blue planet.
It was just 80 years ago that Jacques Cousteau invented the Aqualung and ushered in the era of modern scuba diving. Before Cousteau, diving bells and experimental atmospheric diving suits were state of the art for personal exploration. The first mechanical (as opposed to human powered) submarines didn't come about until the 1860s, and are still a rare and expensive pursuit for civilian and scientific purposes.
Underwater robots, commonly known as Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), have been the driving force for exploration and science in recent decades, especially through remote telepresence, for the past few decades. Only in the past few years have these ROVs gone from expensive, industry-specific pieces of equipment to powerful, portable, and connected devices that cost less than a laptop. I've witnessed this change first hand as we've built OpenROV, moving from DIY kits to the latest design, Trident. Beyond the hardware, mobile phones are creating an easy way for people to collect data, monitor changes, and share their findings with the scientific community and each other.
This technological evolution matters for the ocean. Because as much as it changes what we can discover, it also changes who can do the discovering. The new generation of tools means that we're putting everyone on the cutting edge. Anyone with an internet connection can become a citizen scientist, participating in important research projects regardless of location, educational background or experience. I've seen glimpses of this future in our own community, and it’s thrilling. Laura James become a citizen science folk hero when she rallied attention to the problem of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome in the Puget Sound. By using new tools, like underwater drones and 360 degree cameras, she's been able to change the narrative around the story.
Only in the past few years have these ROVs gone from expensive, industry-specific pieces of equipment to powerful, portable, and connected devices that cost less than a laptop
The citizen science component created specific ways for people to get involved as scientists worked to find out what was causing the mass die-off of sea stars. The data they helped collect was used by scientists, but their bigger impact was changing the way the media and government officials reacted. All of a sudden, the story was much bigger than a scientific paper or media headline, it was an issue affecting all of us.
Citizen science is here, and just in time. There's no shortage of challenges facing the world's oceans: marine plastic pollution, ocean acidification, illegal fishing. The problems are global in scale and daunting in complexity. But in despair, there is also hope. There are thousands of environmentalists, NGOs, government officials, companies and activists who are doing important work (and many of them on the tightest of budgets). There's a growing swell of solutions-oriented organisations and people taking on the important issues. And they could all use help.
Given the short window of time we have left for action, we need to mobilise a more engaged global citizenry. The challenges facing the ocean are everyone's problem and, across the board, the important question remains: how do we get more people to care? As it turns out, the formula for caring is quite simple. Jacques Cousteau summed it up succinctly: "people will only protect what they love."
Across time and geography, the greatest conservationists have all followed a similar journey: it started with a first-hand experience or relationship with the natural world - time spent exploring - which created in them a deep respect for the whole system.
Curiosity and questions drew them out, then love and appreciation brought them home. If we want more passionate ocean activists, we first need to encourage more curious citizen explorers. Now we've got the tools to do it.
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