Better Living through Exploration


By Joe MacInnis, Images by Emory Kristof unless otherwise credited.

Some thoughts on deep leadership, Mother Ocean and climate change from a man who has seen the world from the bottom up

It is 1989. I’m on the Akademik Keldysh, the world’s biggest research ship, operated by the Russian Academy of Sciences. We’re on the Atlantic Ocean north of the Azores preparing to use two $20-million Mir research subs to recover geological samples from a narrow, steep-walled canyon. King’s Trough is 5,000m deep. Our descent will be five times deeper than the twin subs have dived before. My palms are sweating and my heart is racing. When it comes to these kinds of depths, I’m an alpha coward with a PhD in fear.

Our pilot is Anatoly Sagalevitch, a Russian marine engineer and co-designer of the Mirs. My crew mate is Emory Kristof, an acclaimed deep-sea photographer with National Geographic. Wearing fireproof jumpsuits, we climb into Mir 1 and settle into a small space surrounded by dials, gauges, switches and screens. A large, articulating crane picks the sub up and lowers us into the ocean on the starboard side of the ship.

Sagalevitch and Kristof inside Mir 1 during the 5,000m dive.

Sagalevitch and Kristof inside Mir 1 during the 5,000m dive. Image Courtesy of Anatoly Sagalevitch.

As we drop through the first one thousand metres and then the second, I glance out a small viewport into a universe of impossible blackness dotted with tiny, luminescent creatures. The temperature drops. The crew sphere groans from increasing pressure. Batwings of fear flutter inside my chest. As a diving physician who’s worked on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea, I’ve seen men killed by the forces of the ocean. Cold, currents, darkness and pressure. Decompression sickness. Gas embolism. Blunt-force trauma. Injuries that bring you to your knees.

We’re approaching 4,000 metres, descending through near-freezing water at 30m a minute, when a current sweeps the sub sideways. Our nearly-17-tonne craft, festooned with lights, thrusters, and manipulators, collides with the canyon wall. There’s the sound of steel on stone, the lights flicker and there is faint smell of something burning. My adrenaline.

For the first time in my life I discover that my heart can stop and I can still function.

My biggest fear is that the impact has torn away a thru-hull fitting and the full weight of the Atlantic Ocean will burst into the crew cabin and turn the three of us into pink slurry.

Sagalevitch is short and stocky and has muscles in places where I don’t have places. Slowly, carefully, he runs his laser beam eyes over the electrical system. He is silent, lost in a trance of intelligent instincts.

I push back my panic and examine the life support system. Oxygen okay. Carbon dioxide scrubbers okay. Kristof, breathing fast, checks the communication system. Kristof and I are old friends who’ve made dozens of dives together including some risky forays under the ice at the geographic North Pole. I know that if things go weird he’ll help save my life. And, he, bless him, believes the reciprocal is true. At one point he leans into my ear and whispers: “Don’t worry; if a fitting has sheared off and the ocean comes screaming in, the only thing you’re gonna feel is my footprint on your forehead trying to get out of here.”

It’s the best thing he could have said. My anxiety level is soaring into the stratosphere. I’m on the edge of a Category Five panic. The man with a coal-black beard and a big grin is telling me that he’s as hot-wired as I am and we have to focus on the one thing that matters. The sub’s integrity. The checklist.

State of the art (circa 1989) camera system and lighting rack for shooting for Mir to Mir

State of the art (circa 1989) camera system and lighting rack for shooting from Mir to Mir.

A few minutes later – the longest year-and-a-half of my life – Sagalevitch has run his diagnostic mind over the sub’s internal and external systems. He’s scanned dozens of critical screens and circuits. He looks at Kristof, then at me, and smiles. “Okay,” he says. “We go.”

We finish the dive. We touch down at 5,000m and rendezvous with the second sub. As we fly slowly over the seafloor, Sagalevitch stops and uses the bow-mounted manipulators to wrangle geologically significant rocks into the sample tray. Kristof records every step. It’s like watching two neurosurgeons in an operating theatre.

During the three-hour ascent back to the surface I reflect on what happened. The accident. The recovery. Our mission was successful because Sagalevitch and Kristof possess some strange kind of stress-proof leadership.

The dive took place just before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It took me twenty years to really understand the leadership principles that energise Sagalevitch and Kristof.

The Akademik Keldysh, Mirs' mothership

The Akademik Keldysh, Mirs’ mothership. Image Courtesy of Anatoly Sagalevitch.

The Explorer’s Mindset

In the 1960s we learned how to live and work inside the lethal depths of the sea. New technologies including saturation diving, undersea stations and research subs made it possible for me to study the emerging physiological and psychological relationships between humans and the ocean’s depths.

In 1964, I worked on the Man-In-Sea project directed by Edwin Link and supported by the US Navy and National Geographic. A rookie diving physician on a steep learning curve, I monitored the health and safety of two men living in an undersea station on the deep edge of the continental shelf at 130m. When they surfaced after 49 hours in the life-threatening cold, darkness, and pressure, I was elated. They had survived the longest, deepest dive in history.

In 2012, I was a medical advisor and expedition journalist for the James Cameron-National Geographic Deepsea Challenge project. This time we weren’t so fortunate. Two of our teammates were killed in a helicopter crash. For 60 days we fought heart-breaking grief, technical failures and oceanic forces. After nine test dives, in a brilliant fusion of deep leadership and team genius, James Cameron climbed into his radical new research sub and made the first solo science dive into the deepest, darkest place in the ocean, the Mariana Trench.

Mir lighting a wreck for filming

Mir lighting a wreck for filming

In the half century between these projects, my work took me on more than forty undersea science and engineering projects from under the ice of the Arctic Ocean to the haunted decks of the Titanic to the hydrothermal vents of the mid-Atlantic ridge. Along the way, I had the good fortune to work or spend time with sea captains, scientists, sub pilots, and ocean engineers – who shared their precious wisdom about leadership in high-risk environments.

They all had an explorer’s mindset. Passionate and curious about how the world works, they tackled tough, edge-of-knowledge challenges. They searched for hard evidence and came up with original solutions for difficult problems.

They taught me that deep leadership – what I’d seen in the performance of Sagalevitch and Kristof – has three primary principles: deep empathy, deep eloquence and deep endurance.

Deep empathy is a molecular feeling for your task, your team, your technology, and your terrain. Central to this is the emotional intelligence of understanding your own feelings and the feelings of your teammates.

Deep eloquence is articulating your vision and inspiring your team with words and actions that are accurate, brief, and clear. To command the moment, you must command the language.

Deep endurance is being true to your values and having the physical and mental resilience to succeed in the mission no matter how long or difficult. Setbacks and failures, and our responses to them, are fires that forge our future.

Confronted with a high-threat problem, Sagalevitch used his deep technical empathy to fast-map the sub’s mechanical status and come up with an accurate answer. A black belt humourist, Kristof used potent words to diminish the stress of a red-zone moment. The physical and mental resilience of deep endurance ran in their blood. Years of successfully confronting the physical forces of the ocean had enhanced these traits.

The Titanic, as she appears through the eyes of Mir

The Titanic, as she appears through the eyes of Mir

Our Blue Mother

If you spend the time deep inside Mother Ocean, you read her dark waters differently. You feel them pulse and move. A singular, interconnected organism, they’re home to countless forms of life. They breathe in and out. They have a liquid crystal face. They are alive.

Mother Ocean has much in common with a psychopath. (Ask any sailor who’s survived a hurricane.) She is superficially charming but lacks empathy. She has no sense of the consequences of her actions. She’s in the game purely for herself.

During the past 50 years, we’ve been using weapons of mass destruction against Mother Ocean. From her surface to her seafloor, from her tropical shores to her polar coasts, we’ve slaughtered her whales and killed off her coral reefs. We’ve poisoned her with oil, chemicals and nuclear waste. Driven by greed and a blind refusal to consider the future, we’re pushing the planet’s most vital ecosystem into a Darwinian death-spiral.

Sagalevitch with Mir 1 today

Sagalevitch with Mir 1 today. Image Courtesy of Anatoly Sagalevitch.

The blue heart of the planet is pissed off. She’s over-heated, storm-spawning and hyper-acidic. Think Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina. Think algae blooms, dead zones, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. Communicating in the brutal shorthand of a private language she’s telling us: 2015 was the hottest year in history. Record rainfalls in Washington State, Oregon, Norway, the Maldives and Chennai, India. More than a third of you – 2.4 billion people – live within 100km of an ocean shoreline, many in mega-cities like New York, Los Angeles and London. Lost in the gleaming seduction of your pocket screens, you think I’m an abstraction. You’ve forgotten a long geological past that includes rising and falling sea levels. You’re ignoring a geological future that takes you into the red zone.

If we want to dodge the worst of Mother Ocean’s vengeance, we need to think and act like science-driven explorers. We need millions of people networked together – a creative collaboration of earth and environmental sciences, arts, engineering and movements for social change.

This gathering of global activists is already under way. You see it in individuals and institutions like Bill McKibben, Jane Goodall, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Bill Gates, Naomi Klein, Bobby Kennedy Jr., World Wildlife Fund, Michael Bloomberg and Pope Francis. It’s unfolding in universities, corporations and governments. Recently, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Total called for a carbon tax and pledged to be part of the solution. Every major world leader says we need bold action to make the transition to renewable energy.

A crane recovers Mir after a deep dive

A crane recovers Mir after a deep dive

The Paris climate accord was a solid step, but we’ve a long way to go. Even if all nations keep their promises, the planet is going to get hotter. Mother Ocean’s fury is going to rise.

If we encourage and support them, agile and adaptive minds – oceanographers, urban planners, cognitive scientists, engineers and policy makers – can create big ideas on how best to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. They’ll define goals that matter and build teams that work. They’ll continue the long, hard struggle until the mission succeeds.

To make this happen, we need leadership. Personal and professional leadership doing small things for the planet with great love. At home, in the office and in the community. Leadership that explores new climate and energy frontiers with deep empathy, deep eloquence and deep endurance.

I’m encouraged by what I’ve learned from climbing into research subs and exploring the abyssal depths of the sea with wild characters like Sagalevitch and Kristof. They uncover and record information that increases our understanding of Mother Ocean. But they also confirm a fundamental truth. That exploration – evidence-based, action-driven, solution-seeking exploration – is one of the most important acts of any enduring society.

Exploration. A short, rhythmical word for an idea so powerful it changes the flow of history and inspires scientists, inventors, social activists and lawmakers. Exploration ennobles our minds, lifts up our hearts and makes us better than we are.

About the Author


Image Courtesy of Joe MacInnis.

Joe MacInnis is a medical doctor whose pioneering research on undersea science and engineering projects earned him his nation’s highest honour – the Order of Canada. Supported by the Canadian Government, he led ten research expeditions under the ice of the Arctic Ocean. Among his team’s achievements were the first science dives under the geographic North Pole, the construction of the first polar undersea station and the discovery of the northernmost known shipwreck. He currently studies red-zone leadership

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