Monday, February 27, 2012

Costa Rica: 700 Feet Deep in the Pacific Ocean

The Aquarium is sponsoring an expedition to explore seamounts, or underwater volcanos, in Costa Rica, along with several leading underwater exploration and research groups. Over the next couple weeks, look for stories and pictures about this expedition from Aquarium explorers. Learn about previous expeditions to study seamounts in the Sea of Cortez and Raja Ampat, Indonesia.

Today's post comes from Alan Dynner, New England Aquarium Overseer (and former Chairman of Board of Overseers and Trustee)

Fish swimming near Cocos Island in a marine protected area off the coast of Costa Rica. (© CI/ Photo by Sterling Zumbrunn via Conservation International Blog)

Come with me on my second dive in the three-person submarine, Deep See, at the Las Gemelas seamount 340 miles off the coast of Costa Rica in the deep Pacific Ocean. Brian Skerry and I don blue jump suits and black socks, then move to the aft deck of the M/V Argo, where the Deep See rests. The highly trained sub team has checked out every system on the sub and it’s ready to launch. They attach the sling to the huge A-frame crane and Deep See is moved off the deck and into the open U‐shaped well in the stern. The front of the sub is shaped like a big clam shell made of 3.3 inch acrylic, attached to a yellow body holding the engine, the air tanks and lots of other complex machinery.

Our pilot, Shmulik Blum, a former Israeli Navy Seal, climbs aboard and, after he checks the sub again, Brian and I crawl into the two seats in front of the pilot’s station. Brian has his big Nikon, while I hold his extra camera and my own point-and‐shoot Panasonic. The sub was supposed to have an external still camera mounted outside on the bow, but a camera dome failure that flooded the camera has put it out of action. Shmulik reviews once again the safety systems. If anything disables the pilot, one of us is to take his headset to enable communication topside. Then we can release a valve behind my seat that will cause the sub to automatically surface. If there is an electrical failure or fire that causes smoke in the cabin, we have a case by our seat with an oxygen re-breather that can last for three hours, and swim goggles to protect our eyes. While these risks are extremely remote, it is comforting to know that the team has considered all possibilities. We are also comforted in the knowledge that Deep See has made over 1,530 dives without incident.
Deep See prepares to descend

The dome is lowered, and we slowly back away from the Argo. A 25-foot boat, Top See, accompanies the sub. Manned by another sub pilot, Top See constantly will track and communicate with Shmulik during our dive. On board, there is an array of sophisticated instruments monitoring things like depth to bottom, depth of the sub, oxygen content, CO2 levels, and bunch of other things that I don’t understand. The on-board computers track our exact location at all times. Every system has a back-up, plus there are mechanical instruments in case of electrical or computer failure. A swimmer from Top See removes the front fenders and the canvas dome cover, and we start our descent.

What a strange feeling to watch the sea cover us, while we sit in comfort breathing air at surface pressure. On the way to the bottom, 700 feet below, we see very little. The light fades, but with our powerful LED floodlights we soon see the volcanic rock bottom. Brian’s mission on this dive is to capture the fantastic jutting peaks and deep crevices that illustrate the tops of these seamounts. As we approach a large canyon, I’m again impressed with the density of small red and orange Bassletts, gorgeous delicate white corals, yellow sponges, brittle sea stars, and crabs that populate the rock face and ledges. Again, we see many big groupers, but also a lot of old fishing lines that remind us that the fish we observe are but small percentage of the number that were here before the seamounts were over-fished.

Brian Skerry, camera in hand, sizes up the deep sea surroundings for pictures

First we visit an area where previous dives have seen the rare, deep-water Prickley shark. We search the area, but there are no sharks around. Then we survey the bottom for interesting rock formations characteristic of the seamount. Brian instructs Shmulik to position the sub near a particularly dramatic rock peak, then spends over 45 minutes working the shot, trying different lighting effects and positioning, while I serve as a foreground model looking out of the sub at the surrounding seascape. When Brian finishes that shoot, we move out and see the ROV approaching just above us—a potentially dangerous situation. If the ROV were to hit the acrylic dome, it might shatter and we would all leave this world in a hurry. Shmulik calls topside to warn off the ROV and we scoot out of danger.

A picture of Alan Dynner in the deep, dark depths during 2008's seamount expedition to the Sea of Cortez.

We are now three hours into the dive and are cleared to surface, as our CO2 level is rising. But as we move far from the ROV to avoid entanglement with its tether, we see a huge Prickly shark, then another with a pup, then a third and a fourth. We’ve unexpectedly hit pay dirt! We approach the largest of these slow-moving giants, and move with it in unison, as it swims within two feet of the sub. Brian is clicking away, taking so many shots that his camera sounds like a machine gun. I’ve been satisfied taking my amateur shots and HD video with my camera to preserve these priceless memories. Too soon, the sharks leave us and we hear the alarm whistle telling us that our CO2 level has exceeded 0.500, or a half percent. There is no real danger unless the level reaches 1 percent, but it’s clearly time to surface. Shumlik increases the oxygen flow into the cabin, and we happily rise through the water column, accompanied by an excited school of squid, shooting jets of ink at us.

A view of the Argo's stern and port side

When we reach the surface, Top See moves over, puts the dome cover on to keep us from heating up too much, and tows us to the Argo. We cruise into the stern well, and the crew raises the dome. We’re back after another thrilling trip to another world.

For more pictures and stories from this expedition to Costa Rica, follow Greg Stone on Conservation International's blog as he prepares for this expedition and finally sets foot in Costa Rica.

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