Recently, Brooke Jarvis’ byline has seemed to pop up everywhere. I opened “Love and Ruin,” a new anthology of stories from The Atavist, to find a piece on her year working with leprosy patients in Hawaii. In January, Harper’s ran one of her features, and a few months before that she had a cover story in Pacific Standard. She was a finalist this year for the Livingston Award for International Reporting and the PEN Center Literary Award in Journalism. She’s a regular contributor to The California Sunday Magazine.
Not bad for someone in her fourth year as a full-time freelance writer.
Like many of her stories, “The Deepest Dig” looks at how people parse difficult choices, often about health or the environment. First published in California Sunday and included in “The Best American Science and Nature Writing” in 2015, it explores the brand-new industry of deep-sea mining and how people respond to the unknowability of its fallout.
I talked to Jarvis about the story and the freelancing life.
Commercial deep-sea mining hadn’t gotten off the ground yet. How did you come up with the story idea?
I first pitched this to the Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism in May 2013. There’d been a bit of news coverage about the fact that more companies were getting exploration contracts. I knew that these small countries with limited bureaucracies were going to be faced with figuring out what to do with this industry, and nobody really knew what it meant. Initially it was very much a topic, not a story: There’s this new industry that highlights how little we know about the deep sea but we’re going to do it anyway. I like the stories that leave you with questions – there’s a blank you’re trying to fill in.
I’m always looking for interesting characters, by which I mean people who are in interesting situations and figuring out how they are going to respond to them. I tend to like stories where there’s an ethical debate, where there are two very different sides and I can relate to both.
The story had several obvious challenges – you were reporting on an industry that wasn’t operational in a place you couldn’t see yourself. What was the toughest part?
Reporting in Papua New Guinea was very challenging. It’s very expensive and hard to get to. It took my fixer and me three days to drive to the remote places I wanted to go because the road was so bad. It was a dangerous place—we had to put off the trip for a week because there were a series of murders. It was a difficult place to figure out without putting people in stereotypes. I spent a lot of time reporting there that didn’t get into the story to try and figure out how things worked.
The point of the story was that you’re on the fulcrum of change – it’s rare that there’s a brand-new industry. But it did make it difficult. It’s not like I could visit the mining site, and all the reporting on impacts had to be pretty hypothetical, because the scientists don’t know.
The piece moves back and forth between your main character (a scientist), Papua New Guinea, the research, the history, etc. Was it difficult to structure?
I tried out a number of different structures, taking it apart and putting it back together. I was trying to think about what the reader needed to know most urgently to get them invested in the piece. I liked the idea of the surprise halfway through the story of ending up in Papua New Guinea. I might’ve reported it differently now that I have more experience. At the time I was gathering string from all these different places that didn’t necessarily fit together. It is kind of two stories smashed together, but it does work. I liked the idea that you had these two very different groups of people – the scientists and the communities – who are both experiencing the same kind of feeling of powerlessness.
What common threads do you see among the stories that attract you?
I’m always looking for interesting characters, by which I mean people who are in interesting situations and figuring out how they are going to respond to them. I tend to like stories where there’s an ethical debate, where there are two very different sides and I can relate to both. When there are big societal issues I care about, I follow them for long periods of time looking for an “in” – an interesting story within the issue.
What was your transition into freelancing like, and how do you juggle your workflow?
After I left YES! Magazine in mid-2012, I worked on building my list of contacts and clips, mostly writing science and conservation stories. I had the fellowship at Middlebury a year in. My interest was always in writing long narrative features, so it was a process of building toward that. It is feast or famine, but I’m kind of OK with it. It goes in cycles of filling your plate with projects you’re excited about and working your way through them. It feels really great to have an empty plate and look around to see: What do I do next?
My questions are in red, her responses in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button.
The Deepest Dig
By Brooke Jarvis
Published in The California Sunday Magazine, Nov. 2, 2014
On the nights before a dive, Cindy Lee Van Dover likes to stand on the deck of her research ship, looking down into the water the way an astronaut might look up at the stars.
She’s preparing herself to do an extraordinary thing: climb into a tiny bubble of light and air and sink to the bottom of the ocean, leaving the sparkling waters of the surface a mile and a half above her. Did you consider any other openings for the piece? Why did you ultimately land on leading with Van Dover’s dive? I originally wrote this from the perspective of Michael Collier, the poet who appears at the end of the story. The deep sea is a place that almost no one ever sees, and that we know very little about, so I figured readers would naturally require some orientation, and that would be most easily done through the experience of someone who had been down there and been wowed by it. Specifically, though, I was really amazed at the way people described these visits to me, as life-altering, full of awe and reverence, and I wanted to re-create that experience as much as possible for the reader…so I thought who’s better to do that than a poet? I also liked that an oceanographer, a scientist, brought the poet down in the first place because he believed that that was the kind of expertise the deep sea requires, that a perspective beyond science is called for. And then the fact that even Collier struggled for years to put his experience into words, that the deep sea stymied even poetry—that was all very moving to me, and I thought that it would be a good way to introduce readers to the place that’s the crux of the piece in a new and surprising way. Later, my editor pointed out, quite correctly, that it was confusing to start with one character when another, Cindy Van Dover, was more of a main character, and so I shifted the story to begin with her perspective, but still tried to keep that sense of wonder about the place and the whole enterprise of exploring it, which she felt as well.
She makes the trip in a three-person submersible called Alvin, famous for discovering the underwater hot springs known as hydrothermal vents and for exploring the wreckage of the Titanic. Alvin sinks for more than an hour. The view from its portholes moves through a spectrum of glowing greens and blues, eventually fading to pure black. The only break from the darkness comes when the sub drops through clusters of bioluminescence that look like stars in the Milky Way. I love the continued metaphor of outer space and the deep sea. Dreamy and poetic-existential. I’m guessing the people involved often make that comparison? They do, yes. Scientists often point out that we know more about other planets, in some ways, than we do about the deep sea. And like space the deep sea is incredibly expensive and difficult to get to, so we usually study it by proxy. But more than that, I think we relate to them in a similar way: For a long time these places symbolized the limits of what we could reach or accomplish, and though now we visit and impact them, we still think of them as sort of beyond us. They make us feel how small and fragile we are. They’re the only way for Van Dover to tell, in the complete darkness and absence of acceleration, that she’s sinking at all. Wonderful rhythm in that sentence, especially the end. I read it aloud. Do you do that as you write? Thanks. I do, sometimes, although usually after I’ve got a draft done, to see where there are obstructions to the flow.
At last, as Alvin approaches the seafloor, the pilot turns on the external light. Van Dover peers hard, eager for her first glimpse of a strange land of underwater volcanoes and mountain ranges, of vast plains and smoking basalt spires. It was impossible for you to see this environment for yourself. How did you build up the raw materials you needed to paint this scene so vividly? What questions did you ask, and did you have to go back multiple times to get what you needed? It actually wasn’t that hard to ask the right questions here, as I recall. People would have such trouble describing this place, because no description ever seemed quite right to them, that they tried a lot of different ways and became very eloquent, in that they tended to avoid clichés and say things in really surprising, evocative ways. It was important to them to describe it well, and specifically to describe how it made them feel. Of course they had had practice in their real lives, as they tried to explain their experiences to people who really couldn’t fully imagine what they were talking about. They’d run up against language limits and found creative ways around them, was my impression. So I’d just let them talk, and occasionally push for more details. I also looked at a lot of pictures and read general science books about the various zones of the deep sea and the history of people trying to access it.
It’s the spires — the teetering chimneys that top hydrothermal vents — and their inhabitants that Van Dover has come to see. The animals that live on vents fascinate biologists like her because we understand so little about them. Scientists call them “alien” with only slight exaggeration: Their most basic functions are unlike those of all other life on Earth, and astrobiologists study them to make better guesses about where to look for extraterrestrial life and what it might be like. “It allows us to see how life plays out on the next best thing to another planet,” says David Grinspoon, chair of astrobiology at the Library of Congress. You’re somewhat spare in your use of quotes throughout the piece. How did you decide which ones to put in and when? Ha! I love quotes. (And some of the people I interviewed for this story were unusually quotable.) I get attached to the phrasings other people use that I wouldn’t have thought of myself, but for that reason I try to keep myself in check. In this case I think I put in some darlings and took them out later, with my editor’s help, and winnowed down to the ones that were most useful to advancing the story or raising a reader’s eyebrows.
But scientists aren’t the only ones attracted to this strange world. The same vents that support colonies of undulating tubeworms, giant clams, eyeless shrimp, and hairy, tennis-ball-size snails are also conduits for valuable metals fresh from the Earth’s interior. Vents form where seawater seeps into fissures in the Earth’s crust and reacts with the heat of magma, emerging transformed: acidic, boiling hot, and laden with chemicals and minerals. As the water cools, those minerals precipitate out, leaving behind concentrations of metals — gold, copper, nickel, and silver, as well as more esoteric minerals used in electronics — that make the richest mines on dry land look meager. You’ve made some complicated geology supremely readable here. Part of that is, of course, your imagery (I love the “hairy, tennis-ball-size snails.”) What was your process for distilling this description from the science? Just making sure I actually understood the process that was happening, and then trying to say it as succinctly as possible.
And where there’s metal, there are miners, even at the bottom of the world.
As an industry, deep-sea mining is brand-new. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which oversees all mining in international waters, was formed in 1994, but by 2011, it had issued only seven exploratory licenses. By the end of this year, it believes that number will jump to 26, with the first license for commercial mining expected as soon as 2016. Only one country, Papua New Guinea, has issued a permit for commercial-scale deep-sea mining in its own waters, though India, Japan, China, and South Korea also have projects in the early stages, and more than a dozen Pacific island nations, whose tiny populations and bureaucracies are dwarfed by their massive marine territories, are scrambling to figure out how to manage mining. Did you explore any of these other projects and consider working them into the piece? Would it have been too much, or was access a problem? Well, there wasn’t really that much to access then. I focused on the Solwara project from the beginning because it was the closest to realization, and with already such a semi-hypothetical topic, I wanted to focus on the most concrete example possible. Also, it would have been somewhat confusing to add a focus on projects that are targeting very different parts of the ocean—seamounts and the abyssal plains, instead of vents. And I already had a lot of breadth to handle, with the story unfolding around Van Dover and in PNG. So it made sense to simplify and leave the detail of those projects out of this story. I wrote about some later, though. Even for an industry that’s seen plenty of false starts, says Michael Lodge, deputy to the secretary-general of the ISA, there is now “a hell of a lot of activity.”
It’s not news that we’re looking beyond the usual places to find the things that power modern society: oil from the Arctic and bitumen from the tar sands, coltan mined by hand in the heart of the Congo, and natural gas fracked from beneath suburban backyards. We’re even talking seriously about mining asteroids.
Still, there’s something pause-worthy about mining the deep ocean. Literally unfathomable, the deep sea is still the most remote and least understood environment on Earth and perhaps the closest thing to a final frontier our beleaguered planet can claim. Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo built the Nautilus, he declares, because the sea is the world’s last refuge from humankind: “At thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears.” Had you already read “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and had this quotation up your sleeve, or did you think it would be good to peruse it for the story? I read it for this story, though of course I was already aware of the general details. It just seemed to fit, since the company was called Nautilus, and the book deals, in part, with the wonder and mystery we feel around the ocean; I didn’t know if I’d find anything useful, but at least it was potentially productive procrastination! It turned out to be really interesting to read the book with deep-sea mining in mind, or really with broader questions about how we think about our relationships to the unknown and technology and “progress.” There’s a lot in there about the fairyland of wonders meeting “man’s instinct for destruction,” though the belief is that our capacity for destruction could never match nature’s capacity for renewal.
Or maybe not. The first company to receive permission to mine the deep sea is called Nautilus Minerals.
Captain Nemo called the undersea world “the land of marvels.” That’s how Van Dover, growing up examining horseshoe crabs on the coast of New Jersey, saw it as well. From the moment she first read a scientific paper about hydrothermal vents, she became fascinated with the real-world denizens of the deep. She wrote to the paper’s author, a scientist at the Smithsonian Institution, and he agreed to send her a small vial of vent-crab eggs to dissect and analyze. It arrived in the mail “as valuable to me as a moon rock,” she says. Later, with the same scientist’s help, she talked her way onto one of the first biological expeditions to hydrothermal vents. She was too junior to get a spot on a dive, so she busied herself studying dead squat lobsters that the pilots removed from the sub’s exterior. Why did you choose Van Dover as your main character for the piece? Were there other contenders? It wasn’t obvious to me at first that she should be; I was interested in her as a scientific source. But her position—feeling so caught in the middle, wanting to protect this place she revered but feeling helpless to do so other than by collaborating with the mining company that was targeting her specific worksite—was so compelling. And it reflected the situation in PNG, her sense of inevitability. When I pitched this idea to the Middlebury fellowship, I think I wrote that it’s rare that we get to watch or consider how these big decisions, of doing something wholly new as a society, are made. And Van Dover’s personal experience of facing those hard questions seemed like a really good way in.
Van Dover eventually got her first dive in Alvin (she landed next to a bloom of crimson-plumed tubeworms known as the Rose Garden) and later earned her Ph.D. in biological oceanography, but she realized that she craved more time on the seafloor than academia could offer her. So she took on the long, grueling process of training to be an Alvin pilot, becoming the 25th person and the first Ph.D.-level scientist to do so. She was also the first — and is still the only — woman. You never describe Van Dover physically (how she looks, what she’s wearing, demeanor). Was that intentional? You caught me? I don’t usually describe what people look like unless an editor asks me to or I think it will really add to your sense of who the person is. Sometimes physical descriptions of people can feel like just a checklist item. Or maybe that’s a justification because it’s not something I’m very good at doing in a non-obvious way, and who wants to read that so-and-so has straight brown hair?
These days, Van Dover is the chair of Duke University’s Division of Marine Science and Conservation and the director of a lab that studies the population dynamics of organisms from hydrothermal-vent fields around the world. She’s also something she never expected: a scientific consultant to Nautilus Minerals.
A Canadian company, Nautilus has obtained the mining exploration rights to nearly 200,000 square miles of territory throughout the Pacific, including in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, a vast region of international waters southeast of Hawaii that’s known to be rich in polymetallic nodules. Nautilus’s first-in-the-world deep-sea-mining permit gives it permission to dismantle a hydrothermal-vent site known as Solwara 1, located nearly a mile deep in Manus Basin in Papua New Guinea’s Bismarck Sea.
Nautilus’s plan for Solwara 1, which the company intends to begin mining in 2017, is to use two large robot excavators to remove chimneys and the first 160 feet of the seafloor. Other specially designed machines will grind this material to slurry and pipe it to the surface. There, solids will be separated out, and excess fluid (acidic and full of chemicals not ordinarily found in the upper ocean) will be pumped back down to the deep sea. The remaining material will be shipped to China, where a company called Tongling will extract gold, silver, and copper. Within the mined area, the vent structures and the animals that once lived on them — examples of which fill jars in Van Dover’s lab — could disappear. A different way into this story would’ve been to talk to the businesspeople trying to create this industry. Did you try to interview Nautilus executives? Did the company respond to any of your questions? If not, where did the information in this paragraph come from? I did interview the company’s CEO, and others; I guess I had forgotten that their direct quotes got cut from the piece! But they were pretty straightforward, saying what you would expect the company to say. (Though, yes, their information certainly influenced this section and was a source of key details, it was important to interview them.) But I never considered making the business the protagonist. That’s just far less interesting to me; we know how that story goes. There aren’t the same kinds of ethical quandaries and analyses of your own motivations; it’s more of a process story.
For Van Dover, that’s a heartbreaking thought. “Because these are my babies, right?” she says. “This is stuff I’ve always held and revered.” For years she and her fellow deep-sea scientists believed that the world they studied was far beyond the reach of industry. But as the most accessible land-based minerals are exhausted, those on the bottom of the sea are looking more like low-hanging fruit. “You have to go to more remote places,” Lodge, of the ISA, says. “You have to go deeper.”
In Tok Pisin, the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea (the country is home to more than 800 languages), “solwara” means “ocean” — “sol” plus “wara” equals “saltwater.” As a reader I had no idea you’d be taking me to Papua New Guinea right now. Did you want that to be a surprise? Did you consider foreshadowing it or smoothing the jump in some way? I did like that it was a surprise. I considered foreshadowing it, I think, but there wasn’t an obvious spot that didn’t interrupt pacing, and then I decided the abrupt and surprising scene shift would keep people engaged: Who knows where else this story might go? Even though this particular reporting took a lot of time and effort to get, I liked introducing it as on a level with the other parts of the story. The ocean is integral to life in New Ireland, the island province in whose waters Solwara 1 lies. People here farm coconuts, bananas, sago, and taro, plus buai, or betel nut, to sell at the market. Many don’t use money for much beyond school fees, rides to town, and a few staple supplies. They raise pigs and hunt tree possums called cuscus. And they fish, sometimes far offshore.
Representatives from Nautilus have often visited New Ireland while developing plans for Solwara 1, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what the mining project will mean. In Kontu, a village known for its shark-calling festival, I asked a woman named Helen Joel what questions she’d asked the representatives. “We do not ask questions because we do not know,” she replied. During my three weeks in Papua New Guinea last winter, I repeatedly found people turning my own questions back on me: What should we think of the mine? What does it mean for the ocean? The one thing everyone seemed to know was that the mine would be the first, the very first, in the world. Why did you decide to bring in the first-person in this section? I think because so much of this section, just based on what happened during the reporting, needed to be story-based, and that meant my travel and questions as narrative. I don’t like to be in stories if I don’t need to be, but in this case I think it helped the flow.
January is the wet season in New Ireland, and the coastal road that edges the Bismarck Sea is unpaved. My rented Land Cruiser stalled repeatedly in deep water and was finally trapped between rain-swollen rivers in a tiny village whose name even my local companions didn’t know. “Ugana,” a man named Ray Wilfred told us. “Not Uganda. That’s in Africa.” Wilfred’s neighbor, Ambrose Barais — a thickset man with a close-trimmed mustache and a thin, dark line tattooed on his right cheek — invited us to dinner with his wife and six children. I asked one of their sons his age, and he looked at me blankly before I remembered the right way to ask. “How many Christmases?” “Seventeen.”
The rain poured without a break. Inside the house, by firelight, Barais’s wife fried whole reef fish and boiled rice. What was your goal in going into such detail about life on Papua New Guinea (on semi-dry land) in a piece about deep-sea mining? In part because I couldn’t visit the deep sea, I wanted to visit this project in the only way I could. And here was a whole different way of looking at our relationship to the ocean, and to extractive industries in general, that I think holds up a mirror to us in the developed world. One of the kids asked me what the metals from the seabed would be used for. It struck me how unlikely they were to end up back here, where a family’s only metal possessions might be a few cooking pots and utensils, roofing, and sometimes a cellphone they charge when they have access to a generator.
Barais had been to Messi, a large coastal village less than 20 miles from the mining site, to hear a geologist talk about the project. He remembered seeing an image of a volcano on a laptop screen. “They said seabed mining cannot cause any damage, but people are not believing in what they are saying,” he said. “We heard that, in the world, there is no mine like this.” How did he feel, I asked, about the mine being the first? “Scared,” he answered. “The sea might overflow and kill us.”
That concern may sound silly, but on New Ireland, it — and the other mining-related fears I heard, ranging from earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions to massive fish kills and fundamental changes to the ocean’s currents — makes a certain gloomy kind of sense. Here, the precautionary principle, summed up for me by one New Irelander as “better prevent than regret,” needs little explanation. The province has seen devastating landslides following logging; farmland rendered infertile by oil palm plantations; a steep decline in fish stocks after a land-based gold mine dumped toxic waste into the sea; and rising sea levels caused largely by the emissions of distant, difficult-to-imagine traffic jams and factories. New Irelanders also live in fear of the Earth’s tectonic power. The largest city on a neighboring island, New Britain, was nearly wiped out by a volcanic eruption in 1994, and the island was hit by another eruption this fall. How much more mysterious and forbidding than these disasters are the dark, silent depths of the sea? I parroted the line I’d heard from so many scientists: that the deep sea is like an alien world here on Earth. “Is it true?” Wilfred asked me. “There are aliens?” Were you concerned about how the local residents would come across in the piece? How did you approach that while interviewing and writing? Definitely. This paragraph in particular brought that up; I knew if I hit the wrong note Ambrose and Ray could have come off as unintelligent, or like I was making fun of them, which was definitely not the case. I was trying to express that they and the other people of New Ireland that I met had a wealth of reasons to be cautious. They had this long experience of dealing with rosy promises, or just compromises with something they couldn’t stop, and getting burned. So their caution is actually a sophisticated response.
When vents were first discovered, less than 40 years ago, the world hailed them as wonders. Here, in what was once thought to be a cold and featureless desert, were strange, smoking oases populated by bizarre creatures that somehow thrived without access to what was understood to be the most basic necessity of life. (Because there is no light in the deep sea, there is no photosynthesis. The energy at the base of the food web comes not from the sun, but from chemical reactions.) It was an astonishing reminder of how little we understood the sea: Here we were, uncovering an entirely unknown way of life on our own planet nearly a decade after sending astronauts to the moon.
Today, the deep sea remains a world of mystery and fantasy, less mapped — and perhaps less present in our collective thoughts — than the surface of Mars. By volume, the dark regions of the ocean comprise more than 98 percent of the planet’s habitat, yet we know exceptionally little about them: not the contours of their mountains and trenches, not the full life cycle of a single deep-sea species.
In Papua New Guinea, opponents of seabed mining make a point of using the word “experimental” when referring to it; they also emphasize the difficulty of tracking or containing the impacts of industry in a shifting and difficult-to-study marine environment. But Nautilus and other companies argue that there are ways in which deep-ocean mining might be less damaging than terrestrial mining. Because minerals are on, or fairly close to, the seabed’s surface, there won’t be massive, open-pit mines like you see on land, and therefore there will be less waste and perhaps less energy use. There won’t be roads and buildings and other infrastructure left behind; everything will be mobile, ready to move on to the next site. No human communities will be displaced. And even vent ecosystems, which are naturally dynamic, won’t face that much more change than they’re used to. Single vents are often active for considerably less than a century due to changes in geothermal activity, becoming clogged by their own deposits or getting destroyed by a volcanic eruption. Solwara 1 is located just over a mile away from an active volcano. This close proximity means the site may disappear soon enough on its own, making deliberate decimation of it somewhat less controversial. (Hydrothermal vents are not the only place to look for minerals: Mining companies are also targeting the cobalt-rich crusts of underwater mountains as well as fields of potato-size polymetallic nodules that form in the ocean’s deepest plains.)
Still, plenty of other concerns come with mining the deep ocean. Scientists worry about sediment, either kicked up off the seafloor or produced by cutting and grinding, mixing into the water and suffocating animals or disrupting filter feeders. If acidic vent fluid and metals aren’t handled carefully when they’re brought out of the deep, they could spill and kill reefs. Nodule mining will mean the destruction of formations that grow just a few millimeters every million years, and the mining of seamount crusts will be akin to underwater mountaintop removal on structures that serve as biological havens for fish and other animals in the open ocean. The four paragraphs above probably condense a lot of learning you had to do. How much research and interviewing went into writing them with authority? How did you decide what to keep in and what to leave out? Oh, a lot. I followed deep-sea mining for months before I ever went to PNG and learned all kinds of details that weren’t necessary for the piece, and then when I was there I was interviewing fisheries scientists and local politicians and everybody else. But then you sit down to write and it’s clear that most of that just isn’t relevant to the reader, and it slows things down, and it’s distracting, so you jettison everything you don’t need… waving a sad little wave to your favorite bits. Great description, the wave. Like you’re sending off a loved one on a doomed journey. So what was a favorite bit that fell to the cutting room floor? I had a section with Van Dover looking at a world map that showed the details of the ocean—great place names like the Porcupine Plateau and the Flemish Cap—but land mostly blank, the inverse of the maps we usually see. It’s so rare, for most people, and interesting to think of the planet that way. Van Dover was sweeping her hand around grandly to show big swaths where mining was going to happen and where scientists hadn’t even gotten the chance to explore yet, talking about how if you could get an expedition funded you could find an entirely unknown ecosystem and new species right away. Otherwise, there was lots of fascinating material from PNG. One part in particular was about the fact that villagers had put up a gorgor—which is a certain plant used as a symbol of protest, and usually if one is put up, even the airport or a major gold mine will close until the concern or dispute is dealt with—to stop the Solwara project. It was an interesting foil to the question of how our society decides whether to do something new.
But the biggest worry is that we may not yet know what to worry about. How do you do a risk-benefit analysis of something that’s never been done before? How do you decide what’s safe and what’s not in a place whose workings are opaque to you? We know, for example, that the seafloor plays an important role in the way the ocean cycles heat, chemicals, and nutrients — including, crucially, carbon — but not how this process works. We’re not sure how mining may compound other stressors the ocean is facing, from acidification to overfishing. The only way to know how well the deep ocean will recover from disturbance, notes Andrew Thaler, a marine ecologist who used to work in Van Dover’s lab, is to disturb it.
Van Dover has publicly said that she’d prefer vent mining not to happen at all, but she is also convinced that it can’t be stopped. Her best option, she believes, is to help shape how the new industry will be regulated. Given its novelty, deep-sea mining has no bad practices grandfathered in. This seems to come a bit late, her motivation. Was it deliberate, or couldn’t find a right place higher, or…? I suppose I thought that the full context of the question needed to be established before she gave her answer. “It’s a green field,” Van Dover says. “It’s another frontier. We could do it right. But my sense right now is, it’s a free-for-all.” Some colleagues objected when she first started working with Nautilus, but Van Dover says she’s recently seen other scientists working more closely with industry to develop baseline data or best practices, or to identify priority areas for protection. That shift, she says, is the result of a simple calculation with the weight of history behind it. When humans can take something we want, we usually do. And we really want minerals.
We made it to Messi the next day, but only after being turned back twice more by seemingly impassable rivers. Each time, locals helped us find a way across, at one point helping us push the car out of deep mud.
Though the concerns I heard from New Irelanders were different from Van Dover’s, they exposed similarly uncomfortable contradictions. In Messi, a woman named Ruby William told me that the seafloor minerals are masalai — sacred “old things from before” — and should not be harmed. In nearly the next breath, she told me that the community could get behind mining if Nautilus agreed to build a processing plant in New Ireland, creating jobs and bringing money here instead of contracting with China. But aren’t the minerals sacred, I asked? She replied that Papua New Guinean workers would know which ones are sacred and which are not. (She also told me that development and money are the answer to the region’s recent problems with violence and drunkenness; a few houses down, another woman told me that development and money are the source of those problems.)
It eventually became clear that one of my basic questions — if you had a choice, would you want mining? — was confusingly hypothetical. Like Van Dover, William and her family didn’t see much choice. Were you surprised that both scientists and local residents saw mining as inevitable? Not really. Don’t we all, unfortunately, see these things as inevitable to a degree? I often talk about how hard it is to find compelling environmental narratives, because we usually think we know exactly how they’ll go. There might be a fight, principled activists versus developer, say, but we tend to think of it as sticks thrown into the river; maybe it will work for a while, but we all know where things are headed in the long term. I think that’s often a false narrative, but it’s a strong one; part of what this story gets at, I hope, is the way that narrative builds its own momentum and power and keeps people from throwing their sticks in the river in the first place, and what that means. In Papua New Guinea, where most land is communally owned by extended families, villagers have real power as landowners but also know that it’s not enough to stop government officials and foreigners from eventually getting what they want. And so, in the face of inevitability, they negotiate, sorting out who will get how much in royalties or necessary services.
One of the justifications companies like Nautilus offers for seabed mining is that minerals are becoming increasingly more difficult to come by on land. But people began dreaming of mining the deep ocean almost as soon as minerals were discovered there. (During the Cold War, Howard Hughes claimed to be collecting seabed minerals while he teamed with the CIA to search for a sunken Russian nuclear sub; the misdirection was enough to kick off a wave of real commercial interest.) And it’s rarely mentioned that seabed mining will happen in addition to land-based mining, not instead of it, or that we could do a much better job of recycling metals and designing products to be less wasteful.
Deep-sea mining is just one version of a fairly ordinary decision: to weigh known benefits against unknown risks and choose to move ahead. This insight conceivably could’ve gone closer to the top, maybe near the end of your first section. Why did you leave it for this point in the story? Good question. I don’t know; maybe it would have worked better higher. I always saw this as sort of the purpose of the piece: this is one example of a choice we make all the time, and now we have the chance to take a look at the way we make it, so let’s do that. Maybe that could have been more clear? But I think this echoes the section in the lede about us going farther and farther for minerals and resources, but this truly new frontier being particularly worthy of taking a pause and looking around and asking ourselves some questions. Yet we squirm more than usual to learn that even the bottom of the ocean is no longer beyond the limits of human industry. This is the contradiction of the deep sea. However much it may seem to be a separate, alien world — however much we may like to think of it that way — it isn’t.
Years ago, Van Dover began inviting artists on dives in the hope that one of them would be able to translate the strangeness of the abyssal wilderness to those of us who will never directly witness it. She got the idea from an oceanographer named John Delaney, an early mentor. In 1991, when Van Dover was still working as an Alvin pilot, Delaney invited Michael Collier, a rare nonscientist, aboard a deep-sea research cruise off the Washington coast. Delaney believed the deep sea needed to be seen, and felt, by someone with Collier’s area of expertise. Collier is a poet. Talk about your decision to end the piece with Collier. Were you trying to get across how a non-scientist would respond to this unfathomable landscape? Was he a stand-in for the reader? When the piece originally started with Collier, it ended with him as well. After I changed the beginning I decided I still wanted to include his experience, because it had really stuck with me and influenced my thinking, and I thought it was the right note to end on: after all the details and discussion, I wanted to return people to the feeling they’d hopefully had at the beginning, of an almost emotional reaction to this alien place, of being really literally out of their depth and feeling that vulnerability. And his humility, his sense of inadequacy, echoed some of the themes I was most interested in.
On the day of his scheduled dive, rough weather forced the crew to cancel Alvin’s descent. There was a good chance of another opportunity later in the cruise, but Collier felt he had to go home. The semester had begun, and he had classes to teach. When he told Van Dover, he remembers, “She looked at me, and she said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re going to go back? You can’t go back. A week doesn’t matter; another week out of your life doesn’t matter. You have to stay and go see the bottom of the ocean.’”
So he stayed and made the dive, dropping through the vast darkness and the rafts of bioluminescence. When the pilot turned on the light, Collier recalls, he looked out his porthole at a field of hydrothermal vents that scientists had dubbed Krypto, Dante, and Hulk and thought to himself, “This is what the beginning of the world looks like.” He spotted giant clams, strange shrimp, and huge colonies of tubeworms, some beautiful and undulating, some scorched by the intensely hot vent water, looking “like wiring in your car that had melted.” He felt as though he were under a spell.
It’s been 23 years since that day on the seafloor, but Collier still feels the wonder of it. He’s followed the advent of mining with the luxury of less ambivalence than Van Dover. “I think it’s an awful idea,” he tells me.
For a while, Collier visited schools with a slideshow about the deep ocean, but it was years before he published a poem about his dive. The deep sea, he discovered, is as confounding for a poet as it is for a scientist — it is so bizarre, so other, so alien. “I felt this inadequacy, this essential inadequacy, about how to describe what I was seeing,” he says. “As if what you had to do was create the language for it.”