Monday, September 22, 2008

The Next Steps ...

The ARGO returned to La Paz, Mexico on September 18th. The sub is now covered in canvas and secure on ARGO's deck, the SCUBA gear is stored and our expedition members are all heading off, returning home, in different directions. Brian Skerry, Jamie Bechtel and I thank Jeff Gale for the ride home!

Jaime Bechtel and Brian Skerry

This was an enormously successful project and I thank everyone for their contributions. I want to extend a special thanks to the crew of ARGO from the Undersea Hunter Group who were absolutely fabulous is making this a successful project. Everyone on board was superlative in helping us with our every need and providing the highest level of professional service, collaboration and friendship. I would go anywhere with this team!

Shmulik, Wendy, Greg and Avi

We learned a great deal about the ocean life in the sea of Cortez. We were enchanted by pilot whales, intrigued by hydrothermal vents, and thrilled by the opportunity to explore deep within this sea. Sadly, we learned what has happened to the seamount El Bajo over the many years of over fishing.

We hope this work will inform and encourage restoration and conservation of seamounts globally. There is a proposal at the United Nations level aimed at protecting seamounts that are outside of the national boundaries of countries, on what is called the "high seas" from trawling. If these bans are put into place, it would go along way towards protecting remaining seamounts globally. And, then, of course, each country must protect, restore and conserve the seamounts in their waters, which in most cases extends 200 miles from the coastlines in what is called their Exclusive Economic Zones or EEZ.

We are now planning our next seamount expedition to follow up on from this exploration. We now want to find a seamount that is pristine to compare to El Bajo. Avi thinks he knows one about 40 miles from Cocos Island in Costa Rica. We may go there next year with Avi, his team, ARGO, DEEPSEE, and as many members of this expedition who may also be free next year.

Brian Skerry and Greg Stone plan their next move.

So stand by for the next installment ...

-Gregory Stone

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Wendy Benchley's Submarine Dive

span style="font-style: italic;">This post is contributed by expedition team member Wendy Benchley.

Elation! I have gone into the ocean depths in a submersible!

It was a terrific adrenaline rush to watch the clear blue water rise higher and higher on the plexiglass dome while sitting in a first class seat, with a 360 degree view. I'm hooked! No heavy tank, no jaw ache from clenching on a regulator, no clearing clogged ears! Only the lovely sensation of sinking slowly, so quietly down to a ledge on the seamount.

Avi Klapfer, the sub's designer and our pilot, maneuvered DEEPSEE with remarkable skill around the seamount until we were out of the strong current and resting peacefully on the bottom. We were surrounded by hundreds of beautiful pastel trigger fish. It was a special moment. On our way up we saw a school of tuna and some jacks. It was reassuring to finally see a few schools of larger fish in the Sea of Cortez.

There were no giant manta rays, but my trip into the deep was an incredible thrill and privilege. In fact, this whole trip has been an incredible thrill and privilege.

- Wendy Benchley

A Special Last Dive

Our last dive was special. Avi piloted Brian and me through the blue, down and down past a huge school of mackerel that followed us until we passed through 300 feet, when the faint glimmer of surface sun disappeared. From there on we were in the black perpetual night of the deep ocean. We slowed and finally stopped 10 feet above the bottom, with 1,000 feet of sea on top of us. If we were to step outside of our sub, there would be 1,617 pounds per square inch pressing on our bodies, and we would implode to the size of a pint of jello. Needless to say, we decided to stay inside the sub!

If I described SCUBA diving as flying on another planet, then looking out at the bottom at 1,000 feet was being in another galaxy. The bottom was granular sand punctuated by rocks. We saw a few red scorpion fish, and then, as Avi moved the sub toward a great wall of volcanic rock, an unworldly deep sea octopus slithered by, changing its color to a deep red of alarm.

Photographer Brian Skerry eerily lit in the DEEPSEE submarine at 1,000 feet below the surface.
(Top) Alan Dynner looks out on the deep sea ocean life of the Sea of Cortez.

Then we moved slowly up the wall, passing strange jelly fish. Suddenly we saw two long neon flashes from bioluminescent creatures. It happened too fast to identify them. As we ascended, there were more and more white deep sea sponges and yellow corals. At 500 feet the wall ended, and we sailed through the water column past jellies, a school of bait fish, and finally to the surface with the welcoming sun and bright blue sky. The deep is mysterious and wonderful, and I am thrilled to have visited this strange realm.

- Alan Dynner

Nitrox SCUBA Diving and seeing tuna, dolphins and whales

We are having a very productive series of dives on the El Bajo Seamount, conducting surveys and acquiring video and still images. I remain stunned at the number of old ghost fishing nets, but I have gone into that before.

The sub takes two passengers at a time with one pilot. Those not diving in the sub are usually SCUBA diving while the sub is in the water. I have started using a new SCUBA diving air mixture on this trip called nitrox. Nitrox is a mixture that has more oxygen in it than regular air. Our atmosphere has about 20 percent oxygen, while this mixture has 32 percent oxygen.

The reason we use this mixture is that it has less nitrogen in it and when SCUBA diving it is the accumulated nitrogen in our body tissues that can cause sickness and the bends. Nitrox reduced the risk of the bends and allows you longer time diving. So my New England Aquarium dive officer, John Hanzl, will be pleased to know that I became nitrox certified on this trip. Even though I am a SCUBA instructor I have been a little old fashioned in that I have not used nitrox until now, It is a great mixture though. So Larry Madin, Alan Dynner and I are all now nitrox certified.

Wendy Benchley and Greg Stone emerge from the submarine after a dive.

Wendy Benchley and I made a dive in the sub yesterday and found hundreds of trigger fish down deep and were happy to see a small school of what I think was yellow fin tuna, though I could not get close enough to be for sure what species of tuna it was.

We are working very hard now these last few days, regretting that we do not have more time. I have had an infection caused by an insect bite on the side of my head, which I have treated with antibiotics, but the swelling can easily be seen around my left eye.

As I am writing this, we all saw a school of dolphins and a large whale (probably a sperm whale) in the distance.

Another great day on the Sea Of Cortez.

-Gregory Stone

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Photographing the impacts of overfishing

Contributed by expedition photographer Brian Skerry

I have spent the last three days living a boyhood dream--exploring the ocean in a submersible. I have been SCUBA diving for over thirty years and taking pictures underwater for nearly as long, but I have never been inside a true submersible until now. It is everything I thought it would be and more!

This trip is the beginnin
g of the Seamounts story that Greg Stone and I are producing for National Geographic Magazine. My goal as the story photographer is to produce images of seamounts that illustrate the immense value these places have as biodiversity hotspots in the sea; some of the last remaining hotspots in our world's oceans.

The seamount we've been exploring here in the Sea of Cortez is El Bajo, once a lush and wild place, famous for massive schools of hammerhead sharks and a wealth of other marine life. Today however, it is a shadow of its former self due to decades of over fishing. I had hoped that with the deep submersible dives we would find that the devastation was limited to only shallow waters, but it does not appear to be the case.

While we have seen some beautiful animals, there are very few and the evidence of destruction is clearly present. I have shifted my photographic focus to using El Bajo as an example of what can go wrong without protection of these jewels of the sea. I have been photographing lost fishing gear, especially massive fishing nets that have been lost on the bottom here. These trawler and seiner nets are dr
aped over the reef and boulders of the seamount, a testimony to the severe pressure this site has received over the years.

I have been shooting with a newly designed deep-sea camera system developed by National Geographic Magazine for this project. With the superb maneuvering by the sub pilots I have been able to get very close to my subjects and make pictures. I've also made a few dives and made pictures the old fashioned way too--with a camera and underwater housing.

Brian Skerry (right) emerges from the DEEPSEE submarine after a dive.
In the photo above left Skerry photographs the ship for National Geographic story about the expedition.

Diving in the sub is fantastic! Just the sensation of slowly descending below the waves, then seeing the colors of blue morph into darker shades, then into shades of green is mesmerizing. I find that I have to shake myself out of a sleepy trance-like feeling and concentrate on the job at hand. It feels strange to me, seeing fish and gliding over rocks without being wet.

Although this component is short, only four days, it has already been extremely valuable from several perspectives, especially in regards to the learning curve of such a complex project. The next trip for this project/story will show the other side, the magnificent wildlife that live around seamounts and will explore places never been seen. I simply cannot wait!

-Brian Skerry

Shocking Loss of Biodiversity

This post was written by expedition team member Wendy Benchley.

The devastating reality of a depleted sea rocked my soul yesterday. The El Bajo seamount still rises with majesty from the sea bed, but it is fundamentally changed.

Moon rise over the Sea of Cortez

Twenty five years ago, I remember the thrill of swimming off the edge of the seamount into the open blue water to cruise with schools of jacks, tuna, grouper, hammerheads and, with luck, a manta ray of two. Now the only schools of fish were tiny chromis and on the top of the mount were small numbers of angel, butterfly, trigger, puffer and scorpion fishes. My heart leapt when off in the distance I saw a grouper. Imagine that, one grouper is now a treat in this depleted sea!

The data and images we are recording will be important to move ocean conversation issues forward. I keep hope alive by focusing on the work Greg Stone, the New England Aquarium and Conservation International did to create the California-sized Phoenix Islands marine protected area in the Pacific ocean. If we could create more of these areas there is a chance the ocean could regain enough health to provide the fish protein needed to feed the world.

Perhaps this afternoon I will see a different ocean. I'm in high anticipation--it's my turn to ride in the DEEPSEE. Claustrophobia was worrying me a couple days ago, but now that I've seen the superbly trained pilots put the expertly crafted sub through its paces, I feel not a twinge of anxiety. I hope to see a deeper ocean filled with life and perhaps a manta or two to make my heart sing.

- Wendy Benchley

First Submarine Dive to the El Bajo Seamount

I had my first dive at El Bajo yesterday in DEEPSEE and what a dive it was. Brian Skerry, Avi Klapfer (the pilot) and I drifted down the south side of the seamount at 4:00 p.m., my favorite time of day in the ocean. Ocean life tends to come alive late in the day as the sun goes down. And DEEPSEE gives you a totally immersive view of the ocean through the plexiglas bubble.

Preparing for a submarine dive

First we drifted down to the summit of the seamount while filmmaker Adam Geiger SCUBA dived around the sub and filmed us. Then we headed into deeper water and saw schools of red fish, amber jacks, garden eels poking their serpent like necks from the sand and peering at us and finally we came upon a sad surprise. It was a giant "ghost net" wrapped around a rock, an old seine net. This was a reminder to us of why this seamount, while beautiful in its own way now, does not have the abundance of marine life that it once had.

Back in the 1980s, there was a time when hundreds of hammerhead sharks, dozens of manta rays and other large fishes swam and circled El Bajo. We spent a long time filming the net and Brian made photographs for our National Geographic magazine article. Avi expertly maneuvered the sub in away that amazed me. A six ton vehicle and he could slide it sideways, up and down to a tolerance of a 1/4 inch.

After leaving the net we continued on and were soon surrounded by spawning fish. Male and female fish swimming in tight circles and ejecting sperm and egg into the water column, hopefully a sign that this area is recovery from overfishing.

Brian Skerry, Avi Klapfer and Greg Stone

As we neared the end of our dive we saw one more encouraging sign that was a 12 foot hammerhead shark that swam by the bubble of our sub and off into the abyss.

This, for me, was a perfect, day.

-Gregory Stone

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sights from Shallow Hydrothermal Vents

This entry is contributed by expedition member Larry Madin.

Larry Madin and Alan Dynner on board the expedition vessel

When we awoke Sunday morning, the ARGO was arriving off Puerto Escondido, the "hidden port" south of the colonial town of Loreto, nestled in calm blue water in the shelter of Danzante and Carmen islands. Below us was the dive site with the recently discovered hot water vents, and over on the nearby shore was the site where my wife and I did our first field work, camping on the beach nearly 40 years before. A long way from those days of homemade boats and subsistence fishing to the luxurious and high tech ship we're operating from now!

Hydrothermal systems are one of the most intriguing ecosystems in the ocean. Discovered only 30 years ago, they have revealed a biological world almost totally alien from our own, fueled by the heat and chemistry of the earth instead of the light of the sun and air of the atmosphere. Further north in the Gulf, there are extensive vents thousands of meters down in the Guaymas Basin, but here we were sitting only 450 feet above the newly discovered vents.

Orange fish crowd around a shallow hydrothermal vent

It didn't take long to find the vents in the sub. After taking some time to get portraits of an unfamiliar sting ray with bull's eye spots on its wings, we moved up to a rock face where the shimmering distortion revealed openings where hot water was rising out of the earth. These shallower vents do not give rise to the tubeworms and giant clams of deep-sea hydrothermal communities, but the growth of white bacterial mats around the vents suggests that the fluid is contributing nutrients as well as warmth. Dozens of orange fish clustered in cracks nearby, unfazed by the looming submersible just inches away.

With battery voltage getting low, it was time to leave, but we had seen another example of the intimate connection between earth and ocean, a reminder of the volcanic history of the Sea of Cortez.

-Larry Madin

Monday, September 15, 2008

Wendy Benchley Returns to the Sea of Cortez

This post was written by expedition team member Wendy Benchley, wife of the ocean conservationist and author Peter Benchley.

Wendy Benchley on board the ARGOS with the expedition crew

Greg Stone and Wendy Benchley with the DEEPSEE submarine

How thrilling it is to be back on the Sea of Cortez--it was a special place for Peter and me. When we were here on the El Bajo seamount in the '80s it was teeming with life and, although the congregation of thousands of hammerhead sharks was billed as the main attraction, it was a magnificent giant manta ray that stole the show, and Peter's heart.

For three remarkable days a willing manta gave Peter and others soaring flights through the depths of the blue ocean. It always returned them to the dive boat and, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, it seemed to relish the human interaction. Peter was so awed by the experience that he returned home and wrote The Girl of the Sea of Cortez in about four passionate months. Of all his novels, it's my favorite. It's a "great read," but it also shows Peter's deep understanding of the complexity and fragility of the ocean and its creatures.

We'll be diving El Bajo sea mount in a couple days and, sadly, I hear it has been decimated by overfishing. But today was a wonderful day to celebrate the beauty of the ocean! We thrilled to open water snorkeling with pods of pilot whales. Some were curious enough to come within arms length and I was cheered and awed by their power, speed and grace.

-Wendy Benchley

Wendy and Peter Benchley photographed on Capitol Hill during a meeting concerning anti-shark finning legislation

Diving in the DEEPSEE Submarine

This post is by expedition team member Alan Dynner.

Dawn quickly brightened into a cloudless sky over a flat Sea of Cortez after a 12-hour overnight trip north. We came to this spot because Avi Klapfer, our ship's owner, reported that there is a small seamount venting hot water and covered with sea life. For me, this day became one of sensory overload.

First was a SCUBA dive along the rough, rocky coast, starting in 25 feet and dropping off to 80 feet. The volcanic rocky bottom was teaming with fish, albeit small ones. Schools of snapper, pairs of butterfly fish, gorgeous angel fish, small groupers, a trigger fish here and there and a lot of boxy, pouting, bristling porcupine fish. I spent the last 15 minutes of a 50 minute dive hanging at 15 feet by a cavern full of all kinds of fish, back lit by a large hole in the rear of the cave.

A mother and calf short-finned pilot whale pair.
Photo by the NMFS Southwest fisheries science center.

Upon surfacing we were picked up by our dive launch and sped away towards an amazing sight--several pods of pilot whales rolling across the surface of the sea. We all quickly put on masks, fins and snorkels and slid quietly into the water, moving slowly towards the advancing whales. Most of the whales avoided us, but three (a big male and two females came right towards me. I turned and tried vainly to swim beside them; while they were too fast for me, I had the thrill of the two females, perhaps 15 feet long, coming within a few feet of me. We climbed back into the launch, only to speed ahead of the pod for still another visit. This time the whales dived beneath us, but I dived to 20 feet and again had a close encounter with these graceful, powerful animals. What a thrill!

But the thrills were only beginning. Greg Stone asked me to go on the first submarine dive on our expedition with Brian Skerry, Aquarium overseer and National Geographic star photographer, and our pilot, Schmulak. The sub is unique. It is a big bubble clam shell that can descend to 1,500 feet, maneuver on a dime, collect specimens, and take video. Most importantly for our mission, the sub is outfitted by National Geographic with a high resolution still camera that Brian operates to take photos for the coming article on seamounts.

I'll admit that I was unbelievably excited about my first dive in a sub. After donning a cotton jump suit and socks, Bryan and I gingerly entered the sub. As the sub descended, the water color changed from bright sunny blue to twilight blue to purple to black. Then ahead of us loomed a rock surface, like a small version of Everest covered with crevices and caves. In most of them swam foot long scarlet fish. Wow! A small, strange looking shark! An ugly giant frog fish! And then, a series of miniature volcanoes spewing boiling hot water that shimmered against the cold sea water. Many of the vents were surrounded by fields of white bacteria that feed off of the chemicals that are emitted. After Brian finished taking pictures, we surfaced with a feeling of awe and exhilaration.

-Alan Dynner


Surveying Hydrothermal Vents

We have had a very good day. Our plans changed a little in that we learned that there was a newly discovered seamount 120 miles north of La Paz, near Puerta Escondido, with hot water (hydrothermal) vents!

Hot water vents are a remarkable deep sea ecological community that we could not resist surveying. The crew of ARGO are great and willing to accommodate the last minute change to the plan, but this kind of flexibility is key to successful research and exploration.

View of hydrothermic vents from the DEEPSEE submarine

So we boarded ARGO early, cruised all night, and then dove this spectacular seamount all day today. The ARGO is a wonderful boat and the DEEPSEE is a unique and fantastic submarine. All is going well and the weather improves every day making our research possible.

Photographer Brian Skerry in the DEEPSEE submarine

I have been impressed by the rugged coastlines here in this part of the Sea of Cortez and the ancient volcanic lava flows that are clearly seen on the hillsides, dating back many tens of millions of years. The hot water vents on the seafloor here are evidence of hot magma is not far away, close below the surface, so that it heats the sea water to make unusual marine ecosystems. So now head back to El Bajo and conduct surveys there.

-Gregory Stone


Sunday, September 14, 2008

First Underwater Explorations

This post is by expedition team member Alan Dynner.

As the open boat zipped through the Sea of Cortez towards the El Bajo seamount, Greg Stone, Jeff Gale and I checked our dive gear with eager anticipation. Although I have made thousands of SCUBA dives all over the world since I started diving at age 16, each new dive is magical. When we dive we enter an alien world, with strange and beautiful (and sometimes dangerous) animals and plants, devoid of most sounds. And best of all, we are flying through the 3 dimensional space of the ocean. So as we splashed into the water and descended 80 feet to the summit of the seamount, we were again thrilled.

Inhabitants of the seamount.

The seamount is totally different from the colorful coral reefs that divers usually frequent. It is volcanic rock, but not totally bare because some corals and other flora make their homes here. El Bajo is also an apartment house for green moray eels, with their beady eyes and vicious-looking teeth. Actually they are not aggressive and can be easily approached, but don't try to grab one. At certain spots where plankton was upwelling from deep currents, clouds of little anthius fish were feeding along with a school of lovely surgeon fish (so called because of the scalpel-like spike hidden in their dorsal fin). But there were no large fish around and no sharks at all. Commercial fishermen have taken most of the large fish.

Divers once traveled to the Sea of Cortez primarily to see sharks, and especially huge schools of hammerhead sharks. Our dive master, Alfredo, lamented at how fleets of Asian boats seeking shark fins for Chinese shark fin soup had over the years nearly extinguished the species. As Alfredo put it, "they have murdered the soul of the ocean." [Interestingly, Alfredo, who did not know about the New England Aquarium's role in helping to create the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, said, "I've heard of a marine protected park in the Phoenix Islands in the Pacific. I wish we could establish such a park in the Sea of Cortez to save our marine life."]

Our second dive was in the shallow waters surrounding a huge structure of rocks, looking like ruins of Classic Greece, but covered with birds up high and down low inhabited by dozens of sea lions. We entered their realm and were welcomed like old friends. The females and their pups soared playfully around us, up and down and staying just out of reach. They seemed intrigued by the red faceplate of my dive mask (a color correction device for diving, where the color red is lost first as one descends). They would come up within six inches and stare at me eye to eye. We moved over to a group of females in a rock cove, and suddenly out came the male "beachmaster," defending his harem. He swam up to us and grunted menacingly.

A playful sea lion

That evening we met with the owner of ARGOS, the ship that will be our home for the active expedition. With him were two of the pilots of the submarine that will take us down to 1,000 or more feet, well below the depth safe for SCUBA diving. Avi, the owner, has over 30 years experience with dive ship operations, and the two Israeli navy veterans who will pilot us to the depths inspired confidence. We are looking forward eagerly to our other expedition members joining us and to the ship getting under way.

-Alan Dynner


Saturday, September 13, 2008

The First Day of Exploration

The monsoon weather cleared magnificently on Friday, September 12, to open blue skies. Even though the wind was still up a bit we charted a small 24 foot "panga," which is an open skiff with an outboard and canvas cover, headed to sea for our first look at the marine life of the area and the El Bajo seamount. I went with expedition members Alan Dynner and Jeff Gale.

It took an hour and a half as we pounded our way on waves and wind 25 miles out to sea to the seamount and made our first SCUBA dives down to its submerged summit. Our guide was a Cuban born local expert diver named Alfredo Barroso. As the waves slapped against the side of our boat and the hot sun bore down from the sky, we hoisted our heavy SCUBA tanks on our backs, grabbed our cameras and splashed into the water.

The ocean was warm, 85 degrees, and I could see the rocky summit of El Bajo 90 feet below. We drifted down to the sea floor and saw patches of orange coral, several dozen green moray eels poking their open jaws from cracks in the rock and small schooling multicolored fish everywhere. I recommend this PDF report for more details about seamounts, corals and deep sea fishes.

The water was clear, I could easily see 70-80 feet, and above us the narrow outline of our boat. With SCUBA tanks, you can only dive safely to 100 feet or so. But the ocean is so much deeper. With the sun streaming down, I gently kicked and floated out over the sedge of the summit of El Bajo and looked down into the dark abyss, the area, up to 1500 feet down, that we would soon have access to with the DEEPSEE SUBMARINE.

As our tanks emptied of air, we had to surface all too soon. I wanted to stay underwater longer but at that depth, we could only stay about 40 minutes. Because this was a relatively deep dive, our next dive had to be shallow, so we zipped across the now calmer ocean to an island called Isla Espiritu Santo to study, film and photograph more of the marine life of the area.

On this dive we stayed shallower than 30 feet. We found lovely fishes here, but also a colony of sea lions. The large males kept their distance and I could hear the grunts underwater, which I took to mean stay away, which we did. But the smaller females and pups swam over to us, circling and blowing bubbles in what appeared to be a gesture of playful spirits and curiosity toward us divers.

ARGOS arrives today and we will begin submarine dives on Sunday. In the meantime, here's a slide show of what we've seen so far.

-Gregory Stone


Friday, September 12, 2008

La Paz Storms

This post is by expedition team member Alan Dynner.

Our flight to La Paz from LA was peaceful until we neared our destination. I had been anticipating bright sunshine and searing heat. Instead, a storm was raging and our little plane was bucking like a bronco. Greg Stone and I came down the stairs into a monsoon and were soaked during the walk-run to the arrival area.

The Sea of Cortez threw us a welcoming party.

We were met for the drive to our hotel by two representatives of our dive shop, one of whom was a Japanese woman. You should have seen her face when Greg started speaking to her in Japanese! And since the driver did not speak English, I got to practice my Spanish with him as we drove through the 6 inches of water flooding the streets.

Checking equipment for tomorrow's dive.

The storm finally subsided but we learned last night that the ocean is too rough and our diving today was cancelled. We are busy fiddling with equipment and preparing for what we hope is our exploratory dive on the El Bajo seamount tomorrow.

-Alan Dynner


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Transit Adventures and Arrival in La Paz

We flew in from Los Angeles to La Paz, Mexico yesterday. I had a rather extraordinary experience before boarding the aircraft in Los Angeles, California. My undergraduate alma mater, College of the Atlantic (COA), asked that I make the convocation address this year. I explained that could not do that as I would be en route for this expedition. COA was not deterred and asked that I give it by telephone from the airport prior to boarding the flight yesterday. That I did, and it was interesting speaking to an auditorium full of eager students in a the coastal town of Bar Harbor, Maine, while cupping the telephone mouthpiece and covering my ears so that I would not hear all the flight announcements echoing through the LA terminal.

Anyhow, my remarks over the telephone were geared toward emphasizing the importance of the oceans for life on Earth and I placed a special emphasis on seamounts, which are the subject of this expedition. Good luck and best wishes to COA's 2008 entering class!

After months of planning, the team is now converging here in La Paz over the next few days before boarding ARGOS and diving in the submersible DEEPSEE. Alan Dynner and I have come a few days early in order to SCUBA dive in the surrounding area and get the lay of the "land" before the whole team arrives.

Greg Stone prepares for the expedition with Larry Madin, Director of Research at WHOI.

On the flight down to La Paz, the plane was full of sport fisherman, all wearing t-shirts with big game fish on them and expensive sunglasses pushed up on top of their heads. The attraction of La Paz to these sport fisherman, who hope to catch yellow fin tuna and marlin among other fish, is further testament to the ocean life that exists here and it makes me all the more eager to get into the water and see these fish alive and swimming around.

As the wheels on the Horizon Air plane skidded onto the wet runway in La Paz, I could see wind blowing and wonder what the diving conditions will be like. Soon after arriving at our hotel I was informed that a storm would cancel our dives for the first day. So Alan and I are working at the hotel going over underwater cameras and diving gear in preparation for diving tomorrow.

-Gregory Stone


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Seamounts: Hidden Mountains

On May 16, 2005, the 6,600-ton nuclear submarine U.S.S. San Francisco entered a poorly charted area 400 miles southwest of Guam in the Pacific Ocean. While traveling at 38 miles per hour at 500 feet the colossal submarine suddenly buckled into the side of an uncharted seamount, killing one sailor and injuring 75. Fortunately, the thick inner hull protecting the nuclear reactor and crew held. Amidst the pandemonium that ensued, the sub and all but the one crew member survived.

The San Francisco slammed into one of the estimated sixty thousand seamounts that rise from the seafloor in all oceans of the Earth. Most are uncharted, only a few hundred have ever been visited, less than 1000 have names and only a handful have been intensively studied.

Map of documented seamounts (pdf)

Seamounts are a combination of extinct and active underwater volcanoes. On July 3, 2005, a seamount erupted off the coast of Japan, spewing smoke into the air and clouds of mud into the water, first noticed by airline pilots flying in the region. In 1952, another seamount off the cost of Japan erupted, releasing city-sized clouds of CO2 gas that rose to the surface and enveloped a 200-foot ship, sinking the vessel in the foam that formed on the sea surface like a giant glass of beer.

Seamounts, the hidden mountains of the sea, rival the Rocky Mountains in size and challenge coral reefs for the high levels of biodiversity. Seamounts contain many new and endemic species and are now recognized as the last frontier in earth geography, ocean science and conservation.

Complex networks of deep and shallow currents swirling around, up and over these giant seamounts enriches the water, increasing ocean productivity and encouraging concentrations of ocean life. While it is very hard to save many areas of coastal ocean life, where over fishing is decades old, there is still time to save the biodiversity of seamounts, many of which are still pristine. International initiatives to save the unique life living on seamounts are critical for ocean conservation.

We are exploring the seamounts of the Sea of Cortez in the hope that understanding these underwater mountains will help build the awareness to protect them and seamounts everywhere.

-Gregory Stone