The oceans cover nearly two-thirds of our planet and are its last great frontier for natural resources. The depths of the oceans and the ocean floor itself were of little interest until the middle of the last century when the first scientific deep-sea surveys were undertaken. The Challenger expedition nearly a hundred years ago discovered the existence of phosphorite and manganese dioxide concretions on the ocean floor, but these remained of purely scientific interest for many years. Although offshore mining of petroleum dates from 1899 and although undersea deposits of hard minerals, such as iron or coal, were mined even before the turn of the century by driving shafts and tunnels from the adjoining land, the seabed and its subsoil did not acquire much economic significance until after the Second World War. Even then, political, economic and legal interest was confined to the land underlying the shallow waters of the continental shelf; virtually the only practical use of the land underlying deeper waters was considered to be as a support for submarine pipes and cables. As late as 1956 it was possible for the International Law Commission to state with regard to the ocean floor that "apart from the case of the exploitation or exploration of the soil or subsoil of a continental shelf ... such exploitation had not yet assumed sufficient practical importance to justify special regulation."

The last few years, however, have witnessed a spectacular change in attitudes. On the one hand, there has been an increasing realization of the importance of ocean resources to man's future; and on the other, rapid technological progress has resulted in the discovery of vast mineral resources on and under the ocean floor and has made these resources accessible and exploitable for a variety of purposes. Until comparatively recently man relied on the weighted line and laborious dredging for his knowledge of the seabed. We now have underwater photography and television, the echo-sounder and a variety of sophisticated seismic and other devices, such as scanning sonar,

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