Written by Alan Barker, Freelance Writer, British Science Festival 

Less than 1% of our deep ocean has been explored. But, just as we’re discovering one of the planet’s richest and most pristine ecosystems, we’re already wreaking havoc, with much bigger changes on the horizon. Diva Amon is a marine biologist working to understand the deep ocean so that we might be able to manage it more effectively. Diva is delivering the Charles Lyell Award Lecture at this year’s British Science Festival. Alan Barker took the plunge and found out more.

Diva will present her research at the British Science Festival

What’s it like down there?

It’s amazing. For the first hundred years of deep-sea science, we thought the deep ocean – everything from two kilometres down to the deepest point at 11 kilometres – was a cold, barren place. Now we know that, just as on land, the deep ocean has a variety of habitats: mountains, rainforests made of coral and sponges, hydrothermal vents, lakes of brine… This is the largest ecosystem on the planet. We think there are about a million species in the deep ocean, two thirds of which are yet to be discovered and characterised.

So when you go down, you’re seeing new species?

All the time. But very few people go down there. Only four people have ever actually been to the very deepest part. That’s one of the problems: the deep sea is out of sight, out of mind.

And presumably this habitat is also rich in resources too?

Well, the deep sea helps to maintain the planet. For instance, it helps regulate the climate. But yes, it also has all sorts of species and resources that could be useful to us, especially as reserves on land dwindle.

You’re particularly interested in deep-sea mining. What are mining companies looking for in the deep sea?

Well, one of the major needs is for minerals to support is – wait for it – green tech. Batteries for cars, wind turbines…


Yes. Cobalt, lithium, nickel, gold, silver, manganese… these minerals are down there in really rich concentrations.

So who owns the deep ocean?

Good question. Most of the deep ocean is in international waters, so technically it’s designated ‘the common heritage of mankind.’

So we all own it?

Us and our descendants. Technically. But actually, we all own it – and nobody owns it. Classic ‘tragedy of the commons.’ 70% of countries also have deep ocean within their territory, and for many of them – I come from Trinidad and Tobago, which is a prime example – that deep ocean could hold vital resources, which falls under a different ownership scheme. So the question is: who will manage the deep ocean? And who’ll regulate the emerging industries that want to exploit it?

And what’s the answer?

Well, for deep-sea mining of minerals in international waters, it’s the International Seabed Authority (ISA), based in Kingston, Jamaica. So far they’ve granted 29 leases of seafloor for potential mineral extraction. These areas are big – most of them are about the size of Scotland – so any mining operations will have a huge impact. And all of this is happening without people really knowing about it. There’s a huge lack of awareness in the general public, and a huge lack of the critical baseline scientific knowledge we need if we’re going to manage the deep ocean properly.

Which is where your work comes in.

I study the megafauna. Anything over 1cm in size. Trying to work out how all these species fit together and how they might be impacted by mining. But that’s part of another problem – since we’re in the joyful conversation here –

That’s ok. Tell me more.

You need money to explore the deep ocean. Of the roughly 70% of countries with deep ocean in their territories, only about 16% have the technical capacity to explore. And of course they’re exploring international waters too. So deep-sea science is in the hands of very few countries. Rich or developed countries…

You’re from Trinidad and Tobago…

Yep: I’ve been on 16 research expeditions, and on nearly every one of them there’s never been anyone that looks or sounds like me – very few people of colour, very few women of colour. And people from developing countries – I could count them on the fingers of one hand. And this is supposed to be a global network of scientists. The same goes for the bodies seeking to regulate mining: it’s all happening at the ISA, but very few of those decision makers understand the deep ocean. We need much greater representation if we are dealing with the common heritage of humankind.

Diva Amon delivers The Dark Heart of the Ocean at the British Science Festival on Friday 13 September at 11:00. Read more about this event and book tickets here.