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Oceanography: Secrets of the deep

Oceanography emerged as a modern science in the postwar years – and the British role was key. Rob Sharp hears about those heady days of improvisation and experimentation

In the first half of the 20th century, scientists misunderstood the ocean's currents, and had only a murky understanding of plate tectonics and the fauna of the briny deep. The experts squinted through homemade cameras at ocean bottoms, thinking they were as barren as the Moon.

But our empirical techniques have evolved. Modern oceanography – that is, the chemistry, zoology and geology of 71 per cent of the world's surface – is now a cutting-edge science. Today, scientists embarking on a research project can gird themselves with an arsenal of probes, microchips and electronic microscopes to model complex currents, for example (handy when investigating oil spills, as in the Gulf of Mexico recently), or to sniff out spawning whales.

It was Britain that kick-started this revolution. In 1949, the Government funded our sceptred isle's first National Institute of Ocean-ography (NIO), based in Surrey. The institute proceeded to push back the frontiers of the discipline, until its eventual dissolution in 1973.

Its work underpins many of today's oceanographic methods, such as employing "floats", buoy-like devices equipped with sensors that measure the ocean's properties, or using tags embedded in whale blubber which can be tracked by satellite. This month, some of the organisation's former members have published a book, Of Seas and Ships and Scientists, brimming with tales of halcyon days on – and under – the ocean waves. The institute certainly holds water with contemporary scientific players. "It was a very influential era," says Nick Owen, director of the British Antarctic Survey, and also a marine biogeochemist. "In many ways it was the end of the beginning, propelling us into the integrated science we see today. Before, there were many different specialists – geologists, chemists – pulled in to work in oceans. Now, one can be an "oceanographer", and talk the same language as everyone else working within your field."

The NIO's methods were unconventional. Its first director, George Deacon, would appoint staff without seeing their CVs or resorting to recruitment boards or interviews. "When I arrived, he asked me what I wanted to do, and I replied that the UK should investigate the ocean floor with photography," remembers Anthony Laughton, a retired geophysicist. "He replied, 'Go ahead.' This was Deacon's style of recruitment in those days." Laughton had been all set to become a nuclear physicist, but was told his low white-blood-cell count made him susceptible to radiation poisoning. So his career was launched as much by luck as by aptitude.

This gung-ho attitude was useful, given its context. After the Second World War, Britain's pursuit of sea science was sinking, which was surprising, since historically many of our most famous researchers have been sea lovers.

Isaac Newton is best known for his laws on thermodynamics; he also researched how the world's tides work. Edmond Halley, one of our nation's astronomical éminences grises, equally took an interest in South Atlantic geomagnetism. But despite their best efforts, from the mid-19th century it was the New World that led scientific forays into the deep.

Britain hit back. Motivated by nationalist notions, the postwar British Admirality asked Deacon to study sea waves, hoping to understand better how to coordinate amphibious landings. By the end of the organisation's 24-year reign it had cleared up mysteries in weather, water, health, energy, disasters, ecosystems and biodiversity; Blighty was back on top. To understand how far the science has come, you only need to read the gruesome prose of Howard Roe, a zoology graduate who researched the ages of baleen whales in Iceland during the Sixties (and is still a high-ranking oceanographer experimenting at sea).

"When working, the whole area was festooned with clouds of steam from the winches and saws," is his evocative account of an Icelandic whaling station. "Piles of blubber, bone, guts and meat were heaped up waiting their turn in the cookers; dozens of men hauled bits of whale, cut meat and bone, and pushed sheets of blubber."

This phantasmagoria was worth enduring. The Institute discovered nail-like earplugs emerging from baleen whales' ears. The appendages grew in distinctive layers, allowing easy estimation of the animals' ages. Roe is adamant that his grizzly toil helped understand whale populations, "which ultimately led to the regulation and restrictions on whaling that exist today".

So what was it like conducting experiments at sea for endless, sleepless nights? "We had the feeling we were a community," says John Gould, an expert in measuring ocean currents. "We went off to sea on small ships for months on end, and there was very little communication back to the lab in Britain. We communicated by radio or not at all. It produced a unique bond among those who went to sea, and cemented friendships with those technical people who stayed behind, on whom we were dependent."

Gould was on-call "24 hours a day", when he wasn't "sleeping, eating or washing". Thankfully he never suffered from sea sickness, and could focus on predicting oceanic weather instead. Some research was done on land. Roe remembers working out of a hut at the NIO's Whale Research Unit in the Natural History Museum. "To get to the hut involved walking through the mysterious basement of the museum, with stuffed animals, skeletons, lumps of rock at every turn, before emerging into daylight," he writes. "Alongside one side [of the hut] were rows of large cupboards, thousands of jars with preserved krill, whale bits, and squid beaks..."

Sometimes, the researchers' working lives collided with those of other countries. Gould recalls going to sea in the 1960s with a group of Russians, many of whom were obliged by their superiors to bunk down in conditions that were vastly inferior to those of their English counterparts. The Russians were prevented from publishing their findings for peer review until decades after Gould's conclusions appeared in print. In those Cold War days, "due to secrecy, we were not allowed to see the echo-sounder [a device that uses sonar technology to map the ocean floor] or to send messages about the work," he writes.

Periods of isolation and budgetary and political constraints stretched the researchers' powers of innovation. Working with the NIO's engineering department, Laughton designed and built the first camera capable of capturing pictures at colossally high pressure. It allowed his team to see burrows harbouring the benthos, the organisms that live on the deep seabed. These images provided the first evidence that sufficient nutrition was available to allow for life at such depths. Afloat on a different sea, Gould improvised by filling baby feeding bottles with jelly and oil and lowering them into the water to detect subtle changes in current direction and velocity. Many of these experiments with "floats" – used to measure temperature and salinity – are still in widespread use today.

Such experiments propelled oceanography into the 21st century. At the beginning of Laughton's career, scientists believed tectonic plates moved up and down – not sideways. By the time he retired, the study of the spreading and interlocking tectonics of the ocean-floor, like tessellations in a Roman bath, was appearing on university syllabuses around the world. Laughton personally proved that Arabia had rotated away from Africa to create the Gulf and the Red Sea.

The book's contributors are adamant that Deacon's methods, while unconventional, gave his workers greater freedom. "It was easier then to recruit bright people," says Laughton. "George could spot talent early on – students who didn't necessarily have a track record in oceanography. But they had aptitude."

It wasn't to last. Deacon retired with a knighthood in 1971. The NIS came under the aegis of a Government quango, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and began to drown in that body's bureaucracy. Faced with the looming Seventies recession, NERC merged the NIO with three other marine laboratories.

Those early days of budgetary autonomy – a common bugbear of modern academics – are past. But their legacy will live on. "George was given a sum of money and it was up to him how he spent it," concludes Gould. "There were not the checks and balances that maybe you would see today. But he spent those funds very well, very effectively and with fewer constraints ... Many of us realised that this was a unique era in history, and that if we didn't document it now many of the people wouldn't be around any more. It was a golden age. More importantly, it was an age of simplicity."

'Of Seas and Ships and Scientists', published by Lutterworth Press (£25), is out now