More than 70% of our planet is ocean – and 90% of that ocean is deep sea

More than 70% of our planet is ocean – and 90% of that ocean is deep sea.

Those numbers alone offer an insight into the critical importance of understanding what is in these hidden environments. But they don’t even scratch the surface when it comes to the challenges scientists face in trying to achieve that.

Reaching regions more than 200 metres below the surface of the sea is anything but easy. And with such vast regions to cover, how do you know where to look and what technology to use, let alone what you are looking for?

But with industries such as fishing and mining beginning to plunge to these depths, the need to find solutions is uniting the global scientific community. And one of the key figures driving this deep sea science revolution is Kerry Howell, Professor of Deep-Sea Ecology at the University of Plymouth.

“In global terms, we have an incomplete understanding when it comes to the deep seas,” she says. “In fact, if you go back to the 1800s it was thought they contained no life at all. Various expeditions in the 19th century changed that. But the fact remains that most of our deep sea knowledge is only decades old and less. We have huge holes to fill, and very little time to do it.”

To try and plug those knowledge gaps, Kerry is spearheading an international call for a decade of concerted effort to enhance understanding of the deep seas.

Supported initially by scientists in 17 countries, the programme – named Challenger 150 – will coincide with the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which runs from 2021-2030.

It is hoped it will generate new geological, physical, biogeochemical, and biological data through a global cooperative of science and innovation. These data will be used to understand how changes in the deep sea impact the wider ocean and life on the planet.

The deep seas and seabed are increasingly being used by society, and they are seen as a potential future asset for the resources they possess,” Kerry says. “But with human use comes a greater degree of public interest. Managing these resources sustainably requires that we first understand deep-sea ecosystems and their role in our planet, its people and its atmosphere.

Read more: Kerry discusses how our existence depends on a healthy functioning deep-sea environment

Kerry’s personal journey to this point has, to some extent, been as challenging as the voyage of scientific discovery she is now advocating.

From an early age, she was fascinated by the sea and the first home she can remember was accompanied by the soundtrack of curlews in the estuary nearby. She learned that ‘marine biologist’ was an actual job from watching Jaws. But it was not something that seemed attainable until her biology teacher mentioned he had studied marine biology at degree level and encouraged Kerry to apply to university.

But becoming a practising marine biologist was difficult. After completing her degree on the South Wales coast, there was a brief spell working in a shampoo factory, before Kerry quit to take up a much lower paid position more in line with the career she wanted, as a taxonomist in a museum. 

And even after completing her PhD, despite longing for a research career, Kerry had a degree of disillusionment about working in academia.

That ironically all changed when she secured a role with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), which had just been tasked by government with providing advice on the conservation and management of the offshore marine environment.

“They wanted someone to identify where to locate Marine Protected Areas,” she said. “It was the perfect job for me at the perfect time and really rewarding. Suddenly, I had a picture of what needed doing and how it could be achieved. I realised the only way to make things happen was by returning to research. And so, I secured a five-year fellowship in Plymouth.”

It might be easy to categorise her early career using the idiom that “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again”. But since arriving in Plymouth, Kerry’s star has very much been on the rise with her full Professorship being awarded during 2020.

In her 15 years in the city, she led the multi-million pound Deep Links project, which investigated the connectivity of the UK’s deep-sea marine protected areas, and applied cutting-edge technology in the form of AI to identify deep-sea species. She has also worked on the development of novel camera systems that have made the hidden depths more accessible.

At the same time, she has played an integral role in international studies looking at the best ways to manage deep sea mining, and spoke in the Houses of Parliament in advance of a ban coming into force on bottom trawling.

This was just one example of her work to influence international policy, and she has provided the evidence for governments and other bodies, such as the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, upon which to base their decisions. In late 2020, this included helping the world’s most remote inhabited island – Tristan da Cunha, a small chain of islands in the South Atlantic – to become a sanctuary for wildlife, through the creation of a 687,247 km² Marine Protection Zone.

Kerry is also co-director of a £20 million programme, the UKRI GCRF One Ocean Hub, which aims to transform the global response to the threats facing our oceans. Within that, she is co-leading a £4 million research programme focussed on offshore (non-fisheries) marine resources.

And she is also co-leading exciting research in Plymouth, alongside Professor of Medical Microbiology Mathew Upton, exploring the potential of deep-sea sponges as a source of the next generation of antibiotics.

"I first started getting interested in the deep sea as it combines all the things I love,” she says. “There is of course the sea but also technology and exploration, and growing up I used to watch things like Tomorrow’s World and Star Trek. Captain Kirk’s vision of ‘boldly going where no-one had gone before’ is still apt, and the deep sea remains the least explored part of our planet. But what we do know is that it is a rich and amazing resource and we have seen already that it may hold the key to solving some of our most pressing medical challenges.” 

During her time in Plymouth, Kerry has passed on her passion for the deep seas to numerous undergraduates, masters and PhD students. And many of them have gone on to work in marine science all over the world, in Government, industry, charities, and academia. 

However, it could be argued that the aforementioned Challenger 150 programme is perhaps her most ambitious undertaking to date.

The work is being overseen by working groups of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI) and Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR), two groups which Kerry co-chairs. And its name has a particular poignancy for the deep sea science community.

The years 2022-2026 mark the 150th anniversary of the voyage of HMS Challenger. This ship left the UK in 1876 on four-year mission, circumnavigating the globe, mapping the seafloor, recording the global ocean temperature, and providing a first panoramic view of life in the deep seas.

The Challenger Deep – the deepest known point of the ocean – is named after it, as were a number of vessels in NASA’s space programmes.

However, whereas the original HMS Challenger crew was all-white and all-male, the Challenger 150 programme aims to harness its scientific sense of discovery through a modern-day, inclusive and representative spirit of collaboration. 

As things stand, deep sea science is led by a handful of countries who have the greatest resources at their disposal,” Kerry says. “But if we are to truly make a difference globally, we need the global science community on board. The Challenger 150 blueprint has been written with that in mind.

She adds: “As marine biologists, exploring the deep sea is the closest thing we have to going into space, and it is as technologically difficult. The UN Decade of Ocean Science – and, in particular, Challenger 150 – provides us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change that through a 10-year programme of science and discovery that is truly global in scale.