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With all three legs firmly on the seabed

The current search for resources in the deep sea has a history:
At the DSM, a research device bears witness to plans from the 20th century and inspires reflection on the future of marine use.

What looks like a mixture of Lunar Module and Yellow Submarine is basically just that: a research device for taking soil samples in the deep sea. This "Actively Positioned Exploration Device", or APEX for short, was developed in the late 1980s to search for mineral deposits in the oceans. In the two decades before, it was mainly the so-called manganese nodules that had attracted the attention of politicians, the marine industry and the geosciences in several western countries. APEX was only one of several technical solutions to the problem that the metal-bearing nodules or other ore-bearing rocks can only be found in great depths of the sea.
However, it became a museum object faster than its developers might have thought: Due to the decline in commodity prices and the regulations of international maritime law, the costly plans for deep-sea mining disappeared for a long time in a drawer.

Grab, drill, collect - kilometers deep

APEX was connected to research vessel by cable and was able to penetrate to depths of 6,000 m. With its three movable legs, it could be positioned stably and horizontally on the seabed for drilling, dredging or prospecting - these were the tasks for which the deep-sea exploration device could be used with the aid of three tool modules. Initially, the raw materials researchers* had a drilling attachment at their disposal, with which cores several centimetres in diameter could be pulled out of hard ground. In addition, there was a multi-arm gripper for picking up individual boulders and other loose objects. Finally a sediment plumb bob was part of the "toolbox". This was a lockable box that could be pressed into the seabed at high pressure to recover as complete a section of the upper seabed layers as possible.
In order to enable the operators on board the mission ship, who were several kilometres away, to set down the three tonne apparatus in the right place with the support of the control propellers, underwater cameras, lamps and depth gauges were also part of the standard equipment of the basic unit.



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From Helgoland to Tahiti?

The APEX was developed and built by Preussag's Department of Marine Technology as part of a three-year research programme of the Federal Ministry of Research and Technology. As early as the late 1960s, the federal governments had regularly launched programmes to promote marine research and use of the sea.
One objective was always the development of new access to geological resources, since Germany itself did not have any major deposits. When the instrument was completed in January 1990, various tests followed: first in a test basin at GKSS in Geesthacht, where the pressure conditions in great water depths could be simulated, and then in front of the North Sea research platform near Helgoland at a depth of 50 m. A real deep-sea test with the research vessel SONNE in the Pacific was also planned, as the minutes of a corresponding mission briefing show. Whether it ever came this far - and this deep - is not revealed to us in the documents we have received. So the history of this object also has gaps that we want to fill.




How will we use the sea in the future?

Since 2000, visitors* to the DSM have been able to see the large yellow sphere up close. The APEX, on permanent loan from the Institute of Geotechnical Engineering at Clausthal University of Technology, is one of the most striking objects in the Bangert building and will remain so. In the future exhibition it will form a hub for various references to the extraction of marine resources: As a historical artefact, it gives a material impression of the marine mining euphoria of the 1970s and 1980s and at the same time refers to the current discussions about mining rights in the Pacific and the ecological consequences of the mining of geological raw materials in the deep sea. What is more, APEX will be a focal point for reflection on the opportunities that the sea could offer in the future to solve global crises and challenges. At this venue, the DSM will present, in constant rotation, alternative ideas and sustainable concepts for the use of the seas and oceans, as they already exist in many places today or are being considered for tomorrow.

Further reading

Gerold Wefer/Frank Schmieder/Stephanie Freifrau von Neuhoff (Hg.)
Tiefsee. Expeditionen zu den Quellen des Lebens. (Begleitbuch zur Sonderausstellung im Ausstellungszentrum Lokschuppen Rosenheim)
23. März bis 4. November 2012, Rosenheim 2012, S. 16–23


Sparenberg, Ole
Mining for Manganese Nodules. The Deep Sea as a Contested Space (1960s–1980s) 
in: Grzechnik, Marta und Hurskainen, Heta (eds.): Beyond the Sea. Reviewing the Manifold Dimensions of Water as Barrier and Bridge
Köln/Weimar/Wien 2015, S. 149–164



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Opening hours

Cog hall: daily from 10 am to 6 pm

Ships: daily 10 am to 5:45 pm

how to reach us

Deutsches Schifffahrtsmuseum
Hans-Scharoun-Platz 1
D-27568 Bremerhaven


T. +49 471 482 07 0

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