Ocean Exploration and the Quest to Inspire the Public

Ocean Exploration and the Quest to Inspire the Public

Both space and ocean exploration can boast world firsts, extreme risks, unknown challenges, and mind-boggling discoveries that captivate our imagination and advance our understanding of our world and, fundamentally, of ourselves. So why does space exploration and research capture our collective attention and imagination more than ocean exploration and research?

The answer to this question has remained elusive for ocean professionals and enthusiasts alike. A case can be made that until the mid-20th century the oceans held an equal, if not a greater, fascination for the general public as compared to space. What changed? A frequently given reason for this shift in public interest is the 20th century space race, which triggered greater funding for space exploration and resulted in greater outreach. Added to this, space is generally considered to be more exciting and more visible; people need simply to look up into the night sky and see billions of stars and imagine the vast possibilities. Conversely, the oceans remain psychologically distant from the human mind (e.g. Schuldt et al., 2016), only directly visible to those who live along or visit a coast; even then, most people just see the sea surface – the wonders that lie beneath remain hidden. But are these the only reasons?

For decades, the ocean community has worked to engage the public in ocean issues by, for example: highlighting the potential solutions for food security or pharmaceutical discoveries; raising the alarm over the damage we are causing and the long-term consequences to our own livelihoods; and making it more relatable by emphasizing the human connection. Some progress has been made but the fact still remains that space, although inaccessible for the majority, is more appealing to the general public than the oceans. Consequently, given the magnitude of discoveries waiting to be made, ocean exploration and research are generally underfunded. This can clearly be seen through a number of metrics including social media, which can be used as a proxy for the level of interest by the public. For example, search engines show at least four times as many hits on space exploration versus ocean exploration (e.g. Schubel, 2016) at any given time.  

Let’s take a deeper look at how weaving the human element into a narrative makes the story more appealing and relatable for people. In November 2011, NASA launched the Mars Curiosity Rover, a mission that successfully landed a robot 54.6 million kilometers from Earth, on Mars, in August 2012. This phenomenal achievement made front-page news globally and, with each new finding, continued to generate massive global interest. At approximately the same time, in March 2012, Mr. James Cameron, one of the world’s best known movie directors, personally embarked on an extremely dangerous mission to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (~11 kilometers deep and ~300 kilometers from the nearest land). As the third person in human history to do this (Mr. Jacques Piccard and Capt. Don Walsh made this journey for the first time in 1960), it was an incredible testament to human achievement. In one example, we have a robot on a daring mission of exploration and discovery. In the other example, we have a very famous person on a daring mission of exploration and discovery. Both showcase the sense of adventure and human achievement. Yet the epic journey by Mr. Cameron is not as well-known (a Google search shows 251,000 hits for “James Cameron reached Mariana Trench”) compared to the Mars Curiosity journey (a Google search shows 446,000 hits for “Mars Curiosity Rover landed”). Clearly, the ingredients for a compelling and memorable story are more complex than the human element alone.

The $7 million Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is a three-year global competition challenging teams to develop deep-sea robots that will allow us to fully explore a new planet – our own planet. The Ocean Discovery XPRIZE has many goals in common with space exploration, and thus it provides us with an opportunity to look into and revisit how we talk about ocean exploration, discoveries, and research and adapt lessons learned from space communications. To begin to address this, a first step is to look at how space stories are portrayed in the general media versus how ocean stories are portrayed. There are a number of clearly identifiable differences:

  1. Space stories are generally positive; ocean stories are generally negative. For example, “we are looking for new life on other planets” versus “we are killing life in the oceans.” People preferentially select positively phrased options (Tversky and Kahneman, 1981). This is important when discussing uncertain outcomes as people are more likely to take action when the message is positively framed (e.g. Woodman, 2016).
  2. Space stories generally trigger the imagination; ocean stories are more mundane.  For example, “wouldn’t it be amazing to find out if life is out there?” versus “we are overfishing, so how will we feed 9 billion people by 2050?”
  3. Space narratives are mission based; oceans narratives are often idea based. For example, the Rosetta Mission or the Mission to Mars are focused so people can grasp the scope, versus the broader concepts of ocean conservation and protection which are large and all-encompassing.
  4. Space stories communicate danger to a mission; ocean stories avoid communicating risk to a mission, but convey the risk of a general idea. For example, a spacecraft may crash-land or explode on the rocket pad (and generally these are televised for everyone to see so there is no hiding failure in this case). Conversely, vessels are launched to sea daily with little fanfare or regard to the risks that they face – rough seas, people lost overboard, capsizing ships, fire on board; in 2016 alone, almost 150 shipwrecks resulted in almost 1,500 people losing their lives. However, the ocean risks that are communicated are generally too daunting for an individual to grasp; for example, by 2050, plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish.
  5. Space is about exceptionalism, patriotism, exploration, and the collective human achievement; oceans are often politicized with every entity pushing their own message or agenda. Ocean issues that directly impact people, such as pollution and coastal erosion, are often discussed in the context of environmental issues which become politicized as conflicts arise between different sectors (e.g. coastal erosion and land developers). Additionally, given the number of ocean issues there is very little universal messaging, with each group advocating for the issue of their greatest concern.
  6. Space stories do not have a call to action, so no segment of the population is alienated; ocean stories often have a call to action (conservation, protection, advocate for policy change), which may alienate or even bore a segment of the population. For the space community, if there are any calls to action they are often of a fun or imaginative nature – for example, an invitation to download a beautiful poster depicting an artist’s impression of life on Mars. For the ocean community, it may be a call on your time to clean up a beach, call your local legislators, etc.
  7. The global space community is generally unified and cross-promotes major discoveries or achievements; the global ocean community is generally fractured, with hundreds of government, non-government, advocacy, and educational organizations vying to promote their area of interest. Quite often each ocean entity has a different target audience and communication goals, with different impact measures to indicate a successful campaign. There are few messages that are broad enough to better unite ocean entities.
  8. Space stories are forward-looking and often about a brighter future; ocean stories are often the reverse. Although the imagination is awakened with stories of shipwrecks, lost treasures, and mysterious sea-creatures lurking out of sight, these are most frequently set in the past or in the present.
  9. Space research is also very effectively marketed into something of interest to the public; ocean research tends to remain scientific and is not as consistently marketed as of interest to the public. For example, photos of Pluto, a rocky planet 7.5 billion kilometers from Earth, generated great excitement in the research community but also generated great excitement in the general public with internet memes showing a heart, or connecting Pluto to popular culture (the Death Star from Star Wars; Mickey Mouse).
  10. Space in popular culture is often depicted with futuristic technology that incites the imagination; ocean in popular culture generally uses present-day technology or even historic technology. Space is more creatively depicted in our popular culture than the oceans. Space movies have “cool” technologies – a lot of which have spurred innovation, making fiction into fact. In contrast, modern ocean movies generally take place on sailing vessels or submarines, using instruments of old such as brass sextants. This mires the oceans in the past. But beyond this, numerous space movies involve brave acts of self-sacrifice for the greater good, which reveals “a common human belief that exploring space is bigger and more important than the lives of the individuals involved in it” (Weiss and Cochrane, 2010).

As an ocean community, we should continue to talk about the importance of issues such as conservation and protection, but to reach a broader audience there are lessons we can learn from the space community. We should take these to heart and turn the tide on ocean communication. And perhaps, as space becomes more commercialized and easier to access, the space community can take lessons from the recent experiences of the ocean community. By inspiring the public we shape public perception, which in turn influences policymakers and, more practically, changes funding levels. We need to embark on a Quest to Inspire the Public about the oceans for the sake of everyone.

This post originally appeared in Marine Technology News online.

Dr. Jyotika Virmani is Senior Director for Planet & Environment at XPRIZE and prize lead for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE. Dr. Virmani has over a decade of professional experience in oceanography. She has a Ph.D. in physical oceanography.


Schubel, J. R., 2016, Positioning Ocean Exploration in a Chaotic Sea of Changing Media. National Ocean Exploration Forum, October 20-21, 2016

Schuldt, J. P., K. A. McComas, and S. E. Byrne. 2016, Communicating about Ocean Health: Theoretical and Practical Considerations. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 371: 20150214. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2015.0214

Tversky, A., and D. Kahneman, 1981, The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice. Science, 211(4481): 453-458. doi: 10.1126/science.7455683

Weiss R. K., and A. Cochrane, 2010, Days of Future Past: Film Visions of Space Exploration, Commercialization and Tourism. IAC-10.E5.3

Woodman, J., 2016, Just Waiting to be Discovered: Finding Hope in Earthbound Mysteries, IEEE Earthzine

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