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XPRIZE Launches $7 Million Ocean Discovery Challenge

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Attention, ocean explorers: the latest XPRIZE is for you. The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is a competition designed to speed up the development of ocean exploration technology. The XPRIZE Foundation is offering a combined total of $7 million in prize money for teams that can successfully complete a number of tough challenges.

The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is the third event in XPRIZE’s 10-year Ocean Initiative, which aims to address critical ocean issues and make the oceans healthy, valued, and understood. Previous challenges focused on ocean health through oil-spill cleanup and measuring ocean acidification. This new challenge will tackle the understanding element of the mission. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is putting up $1 million of the prize. The remaining $6 million comes from Shell Oil, which, it should be noted, is on the hook for huge fines due to its role in multiple oil spills.  

Oceanographer Jyotika Virmani is the senior director of the Ocean Discovery XPRIZE. She’s hopeful that the competition will inspire public and scientific interest in the water that covers more than 70 percent of our planet. “Ninety-five percent of the ocean is unexplored,” she told mental_floss. “We’ve got better maps of the surface of Mars than we’ve got of our own seafloor.”

The competition runs a little longer than three years: nine months for team registration, a year for concept development, and 18 months for two rounds of testing and judging by a panel of experts.

“This is a very audacious but achievable XPRIZE,” Virmani says. Tasks will include making a map of the seafloor; spotting archeological, biological, or geological features; and creating high-resolution images of a specific submerged object. 

There will be two rounds of seafloor mapping: one at 2000 meters (about 1.2 miles down) and one at 4000 meters (about 2.5 miles). Virmani anticipates some technical difficulties. “The pressures that they will face at those depths are crushing,” she told us. “Down at 4000 meters, it’s 400 times our atmospheric pressure that we have on the surface here.”

NOAA's $1 million will go to any team that can prove their technology’s ability to “sniff out” objects via chemical or biological traces. 

“I’m really excited about the discovery aspect of [this competition],” Virmani said. “Every time we go down into the deep ocean we discover something. There are an estimated 3 million shipwrecks on the seafloor right now. There’s a Caribbean sponge that contains a compound used in AIDS treatments. There are treatments for cancers and Alzheimer’s disease. Who knows what else is down there?”

Interested? Get your team together and sign up at oceandiscovery.xprize.org

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Boris Horvat, AFP/Getty Images
15 Secrets of Commercial Divers
Boris Horvat, AFP/Getty Images
Boris Horvat, AFP/Getty Images

Imagine some of the most physically demanding jobs available—supply line installation, construction, welding—and then imagine doing them underwater. That’s the life of a commercial diver, a rigorously trained professional who undertakes everything from bridge repairs to oil line maintenance. To get a better sense of this often difficult and dangerous work, Mental Floss spoke to several commercial divers for their thoughts on everything from the perils of decompression to swimming in sewage. Here’s what they had to say about a life in flippers.

1. DIVING DEEP CAN PRODUCE EUPHORIA (AND A WEIRD VOICE).

Commercial divers receive specialized training—either in the military or at diving instructional schools—to learn how to function hundreds of feet below the surface. The lower a diver goes, the more water pressure increases, and the greater the challenges. Jeremy, a commercial diver out of Louisiana who repairs and installs equipment for oil companies, says that working in such conditions can lead to physical exhaustion, pulled muscles, and a feeling of pressure on the lungs.

Plunging to a depth in excess of 100 feet can also result in nitrogen narcosis, which some refer to as "raptures of the deep" or the "Martini effect." It's caused when divers receive a higher concentration of nitrogen from their air supply due to the effects of the water pressure on the gas. (The air systems that commercial divers use allow them to breathe normally by providing air at a pressure equal to that of the water, but the lower they go, the denser the gas gets, and thus the higher the concentration.)

“It makes you feel drunk or euphoric,” Jeremy says of the narcosis. “The solution is to switch from a nitrogen-oxygen supply to helium and oxygen.” That cures the over-inhalation of nitrogen, but when a diver comes back to the surface or to a decompression chamber, their voice will be altered. “It’s an Alvin and the Chipmunks thing,” Jeremy explains. Some diving teams will use voice augmentation to de-scramble the high-pitched squeals when divers are communicating with the surface.

2. ABOUT HALF A DOZEN OF THEM DIE EACH YEAR.

A diver works with a cable on an underwater construction job
Boris Horvat, AFP/Getty Images

Most commercial diving is centered around underwater construction—often repairing or replacing infrastructure that facilitates water, oil, or electrical supplies. Divers are frequently charged with digging trenches to bury electrical lines using high-pressure water blasts to excavate the ocean floor. If these trenches collapse, it can result in a catastrophic situation; the cave-in can trap and bury a diver, clogging their regulator or causing them to take off their helmet in a panic, which eliminates their air supply. Jeremy says a number of divers die every year in such cave-ins.

If divers can avoid that fate, they still have to worry about a number of other ways they can meet an untimely end. “We use cranes and those can fall or drop their load on you,” Jeremy says. Cutting into “live” pipelines can also cause explosions, as can using tools that displace hydrogen from the water. In an enclosed space like a ship or supply pipe, that collected hydrogen could catch a spark and explode. “That could blow your helmet off or into pieces,” he says. All in all, 25 commercial divers died on the job between 2011 and 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; another 310 suffered nonfatal injuries or illnesses.

3. THE DEEPER THEY GO, THE MORE THEY EARN.

Diving jobs vary in pay according to risk, duration, and other variables, but generally, a diver’s base pay is usually supplemented with “depth pay.” The further down they go, the more they can make.

“It’s basically about a dollar a foot,” Jeremy says. “After 150 feet, the price can double to $2 a foot. Added on to regular pay, a 12-hour day can add up.” A diver working at 300 feet might net $1000 in a shift. Saturation divers, who can go 1000 feet down and are required to live off-shift in a chamber pressurized to the surrounding water in order to avoid decompression sickness, or the “bends,” can make even more.

4. SOMETIMES THEIR SUITS ARE HEATED.

Going deeper into the water means enduring more frigid conditions. To offset plummeting temperatures, divers need a way to keep their suits warm. “Below 80 feet, it gets cold,” Jeremy says. “We either pump water into a wet suit or wear a hot-water suit.” The former allows water to come in and make contact with the diver's body, typically from a heated source at the surface; the latter has water channels throughout the suit that branch out and keep divers from getting too cold. Because hot water suits can maintain a more consistent temperature than delivering warm water from above, they are most often used at 200 feet and lower depths.

5. THEY CAN WIELD FIRE UNDERWATER.

Most tools meant for underwater use are hydraulic (involving the use of water or other liquids), since they’re largely unaffected by water pressure. Fuel-powered or pneumatic tools (those that involve the use of gas) don’t really work, but divers can still make use of jackhammers, chainsaws, and other devices you’d find in an above-ground construction job. Others, however, need to be adapted.

“In my opinion, the most interesting adaptation is the BROCO torch,” says Brian, a diver based in New England. The BROCO torch uses direct current to ignite a magnesium rod and oxygen mixture that burns at approximately 10,000 degrees and can cut through metal like butter, even underwater. (A/C, or alternating current, is what we use in our homes—but because the direction of the current reverses many times a second, Brian explains, it can freeze the diver in place while electrocuting them, making it too dangerous for underwater use.)

6. THEY MIGHT FIND DEAD BODIES.

A human skull sits half-buried in sand
iStock

According to Jeremy, many recovery dives for people suspected of drowning fall under the purview of local law enforcement. Still, commercial divers can encounter someone who’s wound up in a watery grave. “I’ve done helicopter recovery jobs,” he says, referring to crashed aircraft that can harbor passengers. Once, while working on an oil rig, he stumbled upon a dead scuba diver. “It was more of a skeleton in a scuba suit,” he says. If a diver does find a corpse, they're unlikely to ever know the history of how the body got there; such discoveries are required to be passed on to the Coast Guard for investigation.

7. THEY CAN WIND UP FEEDING FISH.

A school of fish swim in the ocean
iStock

“We encounter marine life all the time,” says Mike, a commercial diver who now works primarily in and around the Great Lakes. “When working the ocean, if we are cleaning off marine growth, sometimes you will get some fish that come up and eat what you are cleaning off.” Mike says that commercial divers frequently spot sharks, barracudas, and other potentially dangerous sea dwellers, but the animals generally don't care much about humans. They’re even less likely to approach if the workers are using torches.

8. THEY SOMETIMES SWIM IN UTTER FILTH …

A common component of commercial diving, HAZMAT (hazardous material) diving involves working in contaminated water. That could mean anything from a lake affected by nearby lawn chemicals to checking equipment at a nuclear reactor. If it could kill or poison you, a diver has probably swum in it.

This kind of work requires a special approach. Brian says that those who venture into higher-risk HAZMAT diving usually wear a positive pressure diving helmet; since the pressure inside the helmet is greater than the pressure in the water outside, the helmet helps keep hazardous material from entering. HAZMAT divers also wear a rubber dry suit that fully seals the diver's entire body, unlike normal wet suits, which allow water to make contact with the wearer. Support staff will also decontaminate the HAZMAT diver after the job, scrubbing their suit free of harmful materials before the diver undresses.

9. … INCLUDING SEWAGE.

An overhead shot of a sewage treatment plant
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Those stories you may have heard about people diving into sewage treatment plants to repair equipment? Those would be commercial divers, who occasionally brave the psychological challenge of being submerged in poop. Because it's usually impossible to see in a sea of feces, divers will study reference photos of empty tanks before going in. They'll suit up in sealed dry suits and typically will weigh themselves down in order to sink through the dense liquid; once they're in position, they work by feel. “Both the sewage jobs I dove on, it was repairing a masticator blade,” Mike says. “Picture a giant blender that makes solids less solid. I don't do it anymore because of the health risks.” A rip or tear in a diver's suit can introduce a litany of dangerous bacteria into their body: In addition to your standard Salmonella and Cryptosporidium parasites, such vile muck can also harbor hepatitis, Norwalk virus, E. coli, and assorted fungi [PDF].

10. DAWN SOAP IS A LIFESAVER.

Dawn dishwashing liquid is a must-have on diving expeditions. It can get diving suits and skin free of oil, and can even help divers cope with parasitic pests. When Jeremy was working on a mile-long pipeline near New Orleans, the shallow water resulted in workers getting infested with parasites carried by nutria, a semiaquatic rodent. “The hookworms will dig into your skin, die, and leave a big red mark,” he says. Splashing Dawn soap gets rid of the itch immediately. (If irritation persists, divers might need to seek anti-inflammatory treatment from a dermatologist.)

11. THEY WORRY ABOUT BEING SUCKED INTO A VACUUM OF DEATH.

Divers are frequently in violation of the laws of nature. Humans, after all, were never meant to thrive (or survive) underwater, particularly at more pressurized depths. Many divers fear encountering Delta P, or differential pressure—a vacuum that’s far higher in pressure than their current environment, and is created by intersecting water bodies as a result of opening a channel like a pipe. “Delta P is vacuum-like suction much like you would imagine from when the cabin of an airplane ruptures, but at a much greater magnitude,” Brian says. “It can be very difficult to detect until you are already too close, and can trap the diver at depth or even kill them instantly.” The unfortunate crab in the video above is an example of how differential pressure can ruin your day.

12. THEY SOMETIMES GO DIVING INSIDE WATER TOWERS.

Those water towers you see in populated areas that stand on stilts hundreds of feet up in the air? Townships need to periodically check them for sediment levels to maintain water quality. That’s when they call in a commercial diver, who needs to add "not afraid of heights" to their skill set. “You have to climb all the way up, get into your wet suit, measure the sediment with a ruler, and clear it out with a [suctioning device called an] airlift." Jeremy says. And that's not the only lofty prospect for a diver: Jeremy notes that some oil rigs stretch 100 feet in the air. Divers without seniority may be expected to carry out repairs or work at or near the top, instead of actually diving.

13. THEY CARRY KNIVES.

A diver straps on a knife
iStock

No, it’s not to duel with sharks. “While diving, I carry a razor-sharp knife for emergency purposes only,” Brian says. In an urgent situation, it could be used for "cutting anything from old fishing line to my own dive umbilical—the air hose and lifeline.” The latter rarely happens, unless the diver gets it snagged or it becomes compressed. In the event of a hose failure, divers have a "bailout bottle," a supplemental tank they can switch to in case of emergency.

14. THEY CAN BE UNDERWATER BUT NOT ACTUALLY IN THE WATER.

A diver works with a torch underwater
iStock

Not every dive requires divers to swim while working. For jobs that require meticulous attention to detail for repair or where welding is required, diving teams can set up positive pressure habitats that isolate the problem area and allow the diver to work out of water. “You use air pressure to push water out of the habitat, which is in two pieces,” Jeremy says. Inside, a diver would trade their helmet for a welding mask. Because it can take a day or more to set up the habitat for a job that might take only one or two hours, habitat work is used only in cases where there aren't any other options.

15. THEY STILL GO SWIMMING FOR FUN.

Like anything done recreationally, diving can begin to seem routine if it's performed on a daily basis. While some divers get their fill of water by working 12-hour days for weeks at a stretch, some still enjoy going under in their free time. “While my career has definitely diminished the novelty of being in such an alien environment, I still love to dive recreationally,” Brian says. “Commercial diving is exhausting work, typically in dark, low-visibility water with a particular task in mind, while recreational diving is often more about exploration and sight-seeing. I would argue that the difference is not unlike a professional runner going on a beautiful hike in their free time.”

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11 Facts About Bull Sharks
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iStock

Compared to sharks like the hammerhead (with its oddly shaped skull) and the goblin (with its projectile mouth), the bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) looks rather generic—but this predator can swim thousands of miles upriver, hunt baby hippos, and take over the occasional golf course.

1. BULL SHARKS HAVE A VERY STRONG BITE.

In 2012, scientists compared the bite strengths of 13 different sharks and shark-like fish and found that an adult bull shark can theoretically close its jaws with just under 6000 newtons of force at the back of its mouth and over 2000 newtons at the front. (Humans chomp with a maximum force of around 900 to 1300 newtons.) So proportionately, the bull shark has the strongest bite of any shark whose jaw strength has been measured. Nobody knows exactly why the shark evolved such a powerful mouth, but it may have something to do with its diet: Bull sharks eat everything from oysters to turtles to other bull sharks, and their herculean jaws might make it easier to tear through a wide range of shells, scales, and skins.

2. THEY THRIVE IN FRESH WATER.

All organisms need a specific salt-to-water ratio within their bodies. This presents a challenge to aquatic life forms—when they absorb too much salt, their cells get dehydrated, but if they take in too much fresh water, the cells get bloated and some of the chemicals inside their bodies may become fatally diluted.

Fish have evolved a couple of tricks to cope with the problem, one of which involves pee. Excess salt is removed from the bloodstreams of oceangoing fish by the kidneys and then flushed out during the urination process. Freshwater fish do the opposite: Their pee contains very little salt and their bodies retain a higher concentration of the substance.

Most fish have no control over how much salt gets removed by their kidneys, which is one reason why many species can only survive in either fresh or salt water. But bull sharks can actually regulate the amount of salt that goes into their pee, which means they can live in both environments. When they swim in the ocean, their urine is highly saline. And as they venture into fresh water, the kidneys work hard to retain salt—thus producing watery, diluted urine. (Bull sharks also use their rectal glands and livers to maintain the proper balance between salt and water.)

3. A BULL SHARK WAS ONCE CAUGHT NEAR ALTON, ILLINOIS.

In 1937, two fishermen captured a 5-foot bull shark more than a thousand miles up the Mississippi River—as far north as this species is known to travel up that river. Given their high tolerance for fresh water, it’s no wonder that bull sharks do well in river systems. One specimen was found swimming in the Amazon River about 2485 miles away from the ocean; they also frequent Africa’s Zambezi River and the Ganges River in south Asia.

4. NOT EVEN HIPPOS ARE SAFE FROM BULL SHARK ATTACKS.

In their trips upriver, bull sharks encounter some of the fiercest predators on earth: In Australia, an 18-foot-long saltwater crocodile named Brutus was once photographed devouring a small bull shark, and in African waterways the sharks have run-ins with hippos. The mammals generate a lot of poop, which attracts small fish that bull sharks eat—so it’s not at all uncommon to see a bull shark or two creeping around a pod of hippos.

The two species don’t always get along. Bull sharks do prey on young hippos on occasion, and adults are sometimes bitten as well—though these attacks might be accidental (in murky, poop-filled water, bull sharks probably mistake hippo legs for fish). Whatever the case may be, large hippopotamuses are adept at fending off bull sharks.

5. UNLIKE GREAT WHITES, BULLS CAN DO WELL IN AQUARIUMS.

No one has been able to keep a great white in captivity for much longer than six months. Bull sharks, however, can live in captivity for 25 years or more. In North America, you can see them at the Oklahoma Aquarium, which houses 10 bull sharks in a nearly 500,000-gallon tank.

6. LAKE NICARAGUA’S RESIDENT BULL SHARKS WERE ONCE THOUGHT TO CONSTITUTE A NEW SPECIES.

Scientists used to think that the large-bodied sharks that periodically attack locals in Lake Nicaragua—the biggest lake in Central America—represented their own, distinct species. A popular hypothesis claimed that Lake Nicaragua must have started out as a bay in the Pacific Ocean that closed up as time went by, trapping some sharks inside that evolved into a brand new species—the so-called “Lake Nicaragua shark,” which ichthyologists called Carcharhinus nicaraguensis.

But Lake Nicaragua isn't cut off from the ocean at all, and scientists eventually determined that “Lake Nicaragua Sharks” are really just bull sharks that were entering the Rio San Juan from the Caribbean and making their way to the lake [PDF].

7. AN AUSTRALIAN GOLF COURSE IS INFESTED WITH THEM.

At the Carbrook Golf Club, located near Brisbane, Australia, tee time sometimes comes with teeth. The course is next to the Logan River, which flooded several times in the 1990s. At some point, newborn bull sharks were probably swept into the brackish, landlocked lake that sits beside tees 12 through 15, and were trapped there when the Logan receded. The lake is spacious (about 50 acres, or the size of Grand Central Terminal) and stocked with fish—good news for the sharks.

The first shark fin sightings were quickly dismissed. “Our members have a tendency to drink a little bit while they play so we really just put that down to too much alcohol,” general manager Scott Wagstaff told National Geographic. But by 2003, there were photos, and a 2011 YouTube video taken by Wagstaff went viral. According to the club’s website, “there are between 6 and 12 sharks” in the lake; the biggest is roughly 9 feet long. It’s also likely that they are breeding.

Carbrook Golf Club celebrates their cartilaginous guests: “Shark Lake Challenge” tournaments are held on the last Wednesday of every month and a stylized shark fin adorns the club logo. For obvious reasons, ball retrieval has been prohibited.

8. BITING IS A PART OF MATING.

Male bull sharks become sexually active at 14 or 15, but females don’t start reproducing until they're 18. Female bull sharks of reproductive age have scars behind their skulls: A male bites his partner to hang on during coitus (a behavior that appears to be common), then uses one of his claspers—a pair of fin extensions located under the pelvic area—to insert sperm into her cloaca.

Following a 10- to 11-month gestation period, the female will give birth to a litter of pups. Newborns typically range between 22 and 32 inches long.

9. ONLY TWO OTHER SHARK SPECIES BITE HUMANS MORE OFTEN.

All types of shark-on-human attacks are ultra-rare—you’re more likely to get struck by lightning. But the three shark species that are most commonly implicated in attacks on people are, in order, the great white shark, the tiger shark, and the bull shark. Bull sharks have been involved in at least 100 documented cases, and there's an explanation for that: They frequent shallow, coastal waters in tropical regions and often stray into brackish and fresh water—all places where humans can be found. In areas where the sharks can’t see very well, they may mistake humans for other, meatier prey.

Since bull sharks lack eye-catching markings or facial features, it can be difficult to identify them. This is why some experts wonder if bull sharks might have been responsible for certain attacks that were blamed on great whites, Ganges river sharks (Glyphis gangeticus), or other species.

10. A BULL SHARK MAY HAVE PARTICIPATED IN THE FAMOUS NEW JERSEY SHARK ATTACKS OF 1916.

On July 1, 1916, a 25-year-old swimmer was bitten by a shark off the coast of New Jersey's Long Beach Island. Though a lifeguard managed to rescue him, the man died of blood loss. Five days later, a bell captain lost both legs in a shark attack near Spring Lake. He too died. Farther north, a boy and an adult man were killed by a shark in Matawan Creek on July 12. Within 30 minutes, a teenager was bitten less than a mile downstream, but he survived.

All five attacks have historically been pinned on a single 8-foot-long great white that was captured and killed on July 14 in Raritan Bay, just a few miles away from the Matawan attacks. Inside its stomach were human remains. No subsequent shark attacks were reported in New Jersey that summer.

But the situation might not be so clear-cut: The two Matawan Creek incidents occurred 11 miles from the ocean, and great whites don't travel to shallow inland waters. Bulls are also more abundant off the Jersey shore than great white sharks are. That leads some experts, including explorer Fabien Cousteau, to conclude that a bull shark was the real culprit. Shark attack expert George Burgess still thinks the evidence points to the great white with a bellyful of body parts. It’s also possible that more than one shark committed the 1916 attacks.

11. NO, BULL SHARKS DON’T HAVE THE ANIMAL KINGDOM’S HIGHEST TESTOSTERONE LEVELS.

According to the internet, some books, and Grand Theft Auto, bull sharks are extra-aggressive because they have more testosterone than any other animal. In reality, very little research has been done on the subject of bull shark hormones. One study compared the testosterone levels in three bull sharks: The female had a low testosterone level (0.1 nanograms per milliliter), one of the males had only 2.7 nanograms per milliliter, and the other male had a ludicrously high testosterone level of 358 nanograms per milliliter—so the results were inconclusive. Bonnethead sharks and rainbow trout both have extreme testosterone levels, so in that regard, bull sharks aren’t special. At least they can still brag about their jaws.

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