Once, mapping had a noble goal. Two such international attempts to map the entire world as a single entity were launched around the turn of the last century. The one devoted to mapping the land surface became mired in nationalistic squabbles, and it petered to a halt in 1989. The sea’s mapmakers fared rather better, however, and the effort born in 1903 to create GEBCO, the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans, has long managed to survive.
But for our urgent modern requirements, mere survival is not sufficient. Thanks to the inconvenient presence of the water obscuring the seabed, GEBCO has remained something of a chimera, the seafloor still largely terra nullius, GEBCO’s few published sheets of little accuracy or practical use. The project’s long-established connection with the principality of Monaco — the Grimaldi family rulers being keen amateur oceanographers — is seen in today’s light as little more than dreamily charming. New blood, new energy, has long been badly needed.
Hence the commencement in 2017 of the Seabed 2030 project, intended to inject some ginger into what was initially a fine ideal, to wake everyone up — and hence the 2003 arrival, most interestingly, of a philanthropic body called the Nippon Foundation, which has started to fund much of it. I say interestingly, because Trethewey has dredged up some fascinating background on the Nippon Foundation, and it is none too pretty.
The Tokyo-based body was founded by one Ryoichi Sasakawa, an industrial and gambling magnate who long ago befriended Mussolini, had his own private air force, dubbed himself “the world’s wealthiest fascist” — and was after the war charged as a Class A war criminal. He managed to avoid execution, was eventually released, and founded a gambling empire based on — the story gets increasingly weird — the Japanese sport of motorboat racing.
His philanthropy, designed, presumably, to burnish his posthumous reputation, is now Japan’s largest, and it has given at least $18 million to help the Seabed 2030 project. Many groups, especially in France, have refused to accept money from Nippon, accusing it of promoting right-wing and nationalist views. But the undersea mapmakers take a more relaxed view, wishing only to complete their task, passing no judgment on their donor.