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A narrower passage to the sea bottom

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Ask Janet Voight about diving in a research sub, and her initial scientific detachment gives way to a tinge of awe at marine biology's light show.

"You're sitting in a bubble," she says of the plexiglass dive chamber. "The bioluminescence on the way up makes everything worthwhile. You just see the density of life in the water column."

This diversity of life, most of which remains undiscovered, has fascinated scientists like Dr. Voight, associate curator at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, for at least seven decades. Ever since 1934, when scientist William Beebe first peered into the deep ocean from a hollow ball of steel 923 meters below the surface, manned and unmanned deep-sea submersibles have been resurfacing with one stunning discovery after another.

But the underwater craft have proved so useful that these days there aren't enough to go around. Some researchers warn that today's deficit could become a dearth if scientists move ahead with plans for increased ocean exploration as well as the development of permanent undersea observatories.

It's a resource dilemma that has confronted many scientific disciplines as they have moved into the era of "big science."

Two major independent reports have proposed expanding ocean exploration and observatories in the past 18 months. Both objectives would require ready access to the deep ocean. Will the pace of discovery slow without more deep-sea research vehicles?

Some researchers are worried. The sub shortage is hitting just as nations are beginning to realize the oceans' importance and their role as global grocery store, potential pharmacy, and a storage "sink" for industrially produced carbon dioxide, widely seen as a key factor in global warming.

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