Into the abyss
Deep-ocean researchers take the plunge in Bermuda
The radio crackles into life and the command is given from somewhere far away. “You’re clear to dive. Dive, dive, dive.” We tip forwards then slosh backwards, like an ungainly ice cube bobbing in a glass. There’s a hiss of bubbles as the ballast tanks vent and the sea swallows us whole, in one frothy burst.
All is suddenly quiet, apart from the gentle thrum of our engine as we begin our descent into the deep blue. At about 30m a jellyfish pulses somewhere in the distance and a small shoal of rainbow runners darts past, but we are otherwise alone, falling through an endless expanse of steadily darkening cerulean blue.
This should be a peaceful experience, but my heart is beating triple-time and the heat is almost unbearable. Neatly ensconced inside a $US2.2 million ($2.9m) piece of apparatus that wouldn’t look out of place on the moon, it is as hot as a greenhouse thanks to our time on the surface on a cloudless Bermudan day. The underwater pilot explains that at more than below 300m sea level — the depth at which this two-person submersible best oper- ates — the temperature is significantly cooler. But today we are only venturing to 60m in this electrically powered inverted human fishbowl.
The aquanaut in charge is Patrick Lahey, president of Triton Submarines and one of the most experienced sub pilots in the world, who has accrued more than 1000 dives in 30 years. Unlike with scuba, there is no need to decompress thanks to a pressurised transparent hull made from 90mm-thick acrylic, almost like a giant eyeball, that passengers sit inside, giving them a 360-degree view of the seascape around. It is what Lahey calls, in his Florida drawl, a “shirtsleeve environment”.
In 2015 David Attenborough explored the Great Barrier Reef in a similar model, and the giant squid, a creature that can grow to the length of a bus but is hardly ever seen because of the great depth at which it resides, was first filmed in its natural habitat from one in the north Pacific Ocean four years ago. But the reason for its deployment today is considerably more important than sightseeing or looking for deep-ocean monsters.
Nekton, a scientific-research charity, named after aquatic animals that swim against the current, aims to open our eyes and minds to the deep ocean. It has assembled 30 organisations from across the world to form an alliance of leading scientists, philanthropists, business leaders, divers and explorers in compiling the Nekton/XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey. The initiative will pioneer a standardised methodology for marine biologists to measure the function, health and resilience of the deep ocean.
The $US8m venture, backed by XL Catlin, is led by Oliver Steeds, one part Captain Nemo and one part Steve Zissou of The Life Aquatic, with a background in investigative journalism. He believes we know little about our
Launching the submarine, main; the view from 300m down, above