HEADMASTER’S BLOG: Water, water, everywhere…

Adam Williams | 29 September 2023

In Greek mythology, Cerberus was the mythical creature that guarded Hades, aka the gates of Hell.   And that was the name given to the heatwave that reeked its fiery breath over Europe this summer, not to mention melting what snow and ice that clings on in this part of the world.  Now there’s some good symbolism for you…


The world recorded its hottest day globally this year, and some scientists are now reckoning that the UN 1.5 degrees target might just as well be 2.5 or 3 degrees as a minimum.  We’re at 1.1 degrees already and we’re still talking lots and acting just a little.  Who knows,  perhaps COP55 may be the one that finally gets some decisions over the line…


Sea levels are rising too, of course – great news for those with coastal properties set a little further back from weakening cliffs with increasing storm intensity, but not so good for the 500 million folk living on the coast currently…and as for those on low lying remote coastal islands. Ouch.  It would also appear that annual cricket match on Bramble Bank played at low spring tide by the Cowes and Lymington yacht clubs may well be Quoits on the boat deck soon enough.


Covering 70% of the world’s surface, knowing ever more about this warming and rising medium might well be advisable. The ocean is the lifeblood of Earth, driving weather, regulating temperature, and ultimately supporting all living organisms. Throughout history, the ocean has been a vital source of sustenance, transport, commerce, growth, and inspiration. It’s kind of a big deal… Yet for all of our reliance on the oceans, more than eighty percent of this vast, underwater realm remains unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored. We still know more about the moon than we do our depths.


But what do we know so far and when did people start studying the oceans?


Oceanography is a relatively young field of science, beginning with the H.M.S. Challenger Expedition (1872-1876), the first voyage to comprehensively collect data related to ocean temperatures, chemistry, currents, marine life, and seafloor geology.  It is an area more of our pupils at LWC are starting to look at for degrees and more broadly, roles within the green sector. Whisper it quietly, but the future is green…or should that be blue?


NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and research is leading efforts to explore the ocean by supporting expeditions to investigate and document its unknown and little-known regions. These expeditions are led by scientist/explorers equipped with the latest exploration tools. Much remains to be learned from exploring the mysteries of the deep, though we might leave The Meg and Nessy hunting for another day. Watching Waterworld, Nemo or Titanic doesn’t count either.


That said, given the high degree of difficulty and cost in exploring our oceans using underwater vehicles, researchers have long relied on technologies such as sonar to generate maps of the seafloor. Currently, less than ten percent of the global ocean is mapped using modern technology.  It was much cheaper with lead weights held from boats on lines back in the day, although not quite as effective.

Over the summer, many of us will have been transfixed by the evolving and subsequently tragic news of the Titan submersible, which most likely imploded whilst heading towards and being relatively close to The Titanic, lying some 3800m below the Western edge of the North Atlantic Ocean, bathed in the icy cold waters melting from Western Greenland.    The Titan, operated by the U.S. based company OceanGate Expeditions had been missing since it lost contact with its surface support ship about an hour and 45 minutes into what should have been a two-hour dive to the world’s most famous shipwreck.


State of the art sonar was used over several days and five major fragments of the 22 foot Titan were located in the debris field left from its disintegration, including the vessel’s tail cone and two sections of the pressure hull. That intended two-hour dive was one of many that have taken place since the Titanic wreck was discovered in 1985, a wreck site so huge that in the gloom of the deep, cameras can only ever show us tantalizing snapshots of the decaying ship – never the whole thing.


The new scans from the summer of 2022 capture the Titanic wreck in its entirety revealing a complete view of this iconic boat and story. It lies in two parts, with the bow and the stern separated by about 800m (2,600ft).  Submersibles, remotely controlled by a team on board a specialist ship, spent more than 200 hours surveying the length and breadth of the wreck and took more than 700,000 images from every angle, creating an exact 3D reconstruction.


The scan is made up from 700,000 images captured by submersibles (Atlantic productions / Magellan)

.With so much of the watery world unvisited, unknown and unmapped, it does beg the question as to what else is beyond our sight?   Our curiosity should be piqued for sure.  And what about the millions of lakes that lie in our world? Lake Baikal, Russia, is the deepest (by the way) at 1642m. The bottom was nearly reached for the first time in 2008, and not a lot since…Worth knowing, that none of the UK’s highest peaks would get anywhere near the surface if placed there.   It is also at the first stages of becoming a new ocean as the region rifts apart.  The Atlantic Ocean would have looked similar 200 million years ago.


But talking of iconic stretches of water, Coniston Water is one of England’s iconic landscapes, a five-mile long, 50m deep former glaciated environment, carved out by powerful rivers of ice, rivers that finally receded 10,000 years ago.  Sat some 800m above, the old man of Coniston, often snow topped and with heather-clad lower slopes presides over this tourist-filled National Park and celebrated landscape.


It is somewhat ironic that for 51 weeks of year, a 10mph boating speed limit is enforced on this exquisite stretch of water and yet just over 50 years ago, Donald Campbell took his craft, the Bluebird K7 at the then unholy speed of 300mph as he endeavoured to break his own water speed record (276mph). Only months previously he had smashed the land speed record on the dried out landscape of Lake Dumbleyung, Western Australia. Now here was a man in a hurry, with courage at his core, as well as no brake pedal on life.


Donald Campbell and his Bluebird K7

After a successful first attempt on 4 January 1967, Campbell turned for home (the record is judged on the average speed over the two one-mile legs in opposite directions). What took place next in front of friends, colleagues, his wife and the world at large sent shock waves around the world, as the Bluebird’s nose-cone lost stability, lifted out of the water, flipped and split apart, killing Campbell instantly before sinking quickly to the depths of the glacial lake. He was just 183m from the end of the second leg of the attempt when this happened and ahead of time.

Within seconds, the roar of the engine and the shattering of metal and machine was replaced with a silence and a gentle, icy winter wind softly rippling over the water as all looked on in disbelief.  Fast forward to the turn of the century, and somewhat incredulously, as the years had passed people could not exactly place the location of this world-renowned crash site and watery grave.

And what of this?

5 years ago this summer, in July 2018, the Bluebird could be seen and heard once more, this time on Lake Fad, a sheltered loch on the Isle of Bute.

In a world that requires us to be curious, creative, collaborative, tech-savvy and emotionally intelligent, Bill Smith, an engineer and amateur diver from Tyneside combined all of these traits (as well as a great deal of time and money) to search the 40-50m icy depths of Lake Coniston over a four year period, diving to a depth deeper than the English channel. The moment, when, in the inky darkness but for a sole flashlight, he gently rubbed away half a century of sediment from the tailpiece to reveal the British flag on the craft was spine tingling. This, after responding to a faint suggestion from the sonar that a man-made structure lay on the lake bottom. The Bluebird was found, with Campbell’s body being located days later, some way from the crash site.


Bill Smith, with the salvaged vessel (BBC)

Smith then spent the next 15 years rebuilding this iconic craft to the exact and tiniest detail before taking her for testing in Bute in readiness for a return to Coniston and a run at speed, though not record-breaking levels, a level that today stands at 318mph – achieved by Australian Ken Warby in the Spirit of Australia in 1978. Bluebird: The Afterlife – YouTube


His desire to make this a reality required an ability to liaise with the family, the National Park authority, the National Trust and all the volunteers whilst at all times demonstrating a deep respect for the man’s final resting place and the family’s conflicting wishes. Alas, a few years down the line and legal challenges of ownership are in force.


But, Smith’s story up until recent times encapsulates all of those traits that we aspire and endeavour to embed in our pupils at LWC to thrive in the years ahead. As time marches on, I, for one, will be paying close attention to the progress of the testing as well as keeping a weather eye on the Bluebird’s return to Coniston for one more iconic run.


And so, as our summer holidays took us on adventures across the UK and beyond, no doubt at some point we gazed across a slowly rising, watery and rippled landscape.  Granted we won’t always be able to don our scuba gear, snorkling mask or whip out the latest in sonar technology, but we do have the right to be curious about what lies beneath and realise that the 70% of our world’s waterscapes provide us with many a future career and enhanced understanding of the world.   Perhaps we should dip a toe in…we might even tread on Atlantis. Or even better, blow our minds and imagine what the world would look like without any water on it… Hallelujah for H2O.