Into the abyss

Deep-ocean re­searchers take the plunge in Ber­muda

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - IN­DIA STUR­GIS

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

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