Rapt by the deep

As the race to mine the deep sea increasingly becomes a cause for concern, learning more about this elusive space could help to conserve it. Underwater photographer Henley Spiers joins the Nekton Maldives Mission to help uncover the secrets of the deep. 

Words and photographs by Henley Spiers

“Imagine having a house but only light on the first step of the stairway…” At a restaurant in Malé, I quiz marine scientist Paris Stefanoudis on the need for deep sea exploration. His analogy strikes a chord. Rather than the vastness of the ocean, I relate more easily to a home, one in my possession and yet one in which I only truly understand the smallest of areas. In such a scenario, how would you realise your home’s full potential? Moreover, working in the dark, how could you make the right decisions to safeguard the blind zones? It’s commonly cited that 71% of the Earth’s surface is made up of ocean, but this only paints a two-dimensional picture. With an average depth of 3.7km, it is even more impressive to appreciate that the ocean makes up 99% of our planet’s biosphere. Of this habitable, underwater space, we have only explored a tiny fraction of a percent. 

Aboard the RV Odyssey, the Nekton team, at the invitation of the Maldives government, delves into these unknowns, conducting the first systematic study in the waters of the world’s lowest-lying ocean nation. ‘Nekton’ means aquatic life which swims against the current, and the charity by the same name was founded by Oliver Steeds, present as mission director in the Maldives. As a successful investigative reporter, Steeds thrived on asking uncomfortable questions in dangerous places, and after an assignment brought him face to face with the destruction of the seabed by trawlers, the same probing line of questioning was turned internally. Kept awake by the challenges facing the ocean, the most important yet least protected part of our planet, Steeds resolved to dedicate the rest of his life to its preservation. It is this final step which marks him out as a tide-changer. For most of us, ecological anxiety is followed by a sense of helplessness, but Steeds’s unshakeable determination has led him to action – personally and in setting up some of the most ambitious ocean exploration and conservation missions operating around the world today. The current mission is no exception. Aboard the same vessel used to film Blue Planet 2, an international team of 25 scientists will spend 34 days at sea, forensically examining the Maldivian atolls. 

Even on a ship brimming with high-tech wizardry, sometimes simple is best, and at daybreak the ever-smiling team of South African researchers deploy landers into offshore waters. These baited remote underwater video systems are rudimentary in construction: red metal bars, cushioned by bright yellow foam blocks, with a small, circular bait box sticking out of the front end. A metal weight sinks the system down to between 300m and 900m, and many hours of solo diving later, an acoustic tag will release the landers rig back to the surface, ready for collection. Their cameras have the habit of returning with jaw-dropping footage from inaccessible depths, with visitor logs from the ‘landers cafe’ displaying for the first time the diversity of sharks in the Maldives’ deep sea, from enormous six-gilled sharks through to scalloped hammerheads and the very rare bramble shark.

In sharp contrast to the low-maintenance landers, a pair of acrylic domed submersibles are the stars of the Nekton Mission. Each day centres on these incredible, yet demanding machines, with a devoted team providing round-the-clock care. It turns out that to follow a career as a professional aquanaut you must not only be a cool-headed pilot, but an industrious mechanic. Offering a front row seat to the depths of our planet, these are not just scientific tools but vessels of inspiration, with the power to shock and awe passengers, carried in comfort to our biggest ocean blind zones. On this mission, the first Maldivian aquanauts, including Environment Minister Shauna Aminath, will boldly go where no other Maldivian has gone, returning as national heroes.

My first date with the Omega Seamaster 2, the mission’s lead submersible, occurs outside the bubble on the fringing reef of Addu, the Maldives’ southernmost atoll. The rendezvous requires unusual protocols, with the sub blowing bubbles from depth to allow us to find its location from the surface. Following the sound of whirring engines and crackling radio, the submersible displays impressive agility as I swim to meet it down at 40m. As a dive destination, the Maldives is famous for its plunging walls and pulsating currents. The submersible must contend with these too, skilfully plotting its way along the seascape. Nitrogen courses through my body and the dive computer warns that the dive must soon draw to a close. Whilst my physiology pays a steep price for time at depth, the team inside the submersible suffer no such constraints. For the first time in a long time, I feel the allure of going deeper, yearning for just a few more minutes, a few more metres… Pushing aside these dangerous urges, the scuba diving team waves goodbye and we head for the surface.

The previous day’s frustration has given way to anxiety as I slip feet first into the acrylic bubble. The safety video was comically reminiscent of an airline equivalent and, even if we will soon be subject to crushing pressure 51 times greater than at the surface, I recognise this anxiety is not driven by fear for my safety. Admittedly, there is some nervousness at an unfamiliar experience, and worry about biological needs striking during the five-hour submersion, but most of all I am overwhelmed at the opportunity to visit the otherwise inaccessible, the hidden parts of an environment around which my professional and personal life revolve. Today’s planned 500m dive is well within the sub’s 1,000m range, and whilst the 16.5cm-thick acrylic dome protects us from the pressure, the interior functions as a giant rebreather. Comfortably attired in shorts, t-shirt and socks, we are even permitted drinks and snacks on this deep-sea safari. Release valves open, bubbles escape, and the sub plunges beneath the waves. The world turns blue, colour draining from our faces and the sub’s red livery.

Our field of view is impressive through the sphere, so great you barely know where to look, fearful of missing out on an exceptional sighting. As the sub drops beneath 100m, light diminishes noticeably, as if we have crossed an invisible border between the bright blue overhead, and the gloomy depths beneath our feet. At 200m we enter the twilight zone, it feels like complete darkness and from here on we are entering virgin territory. Once the seabed comes into view at 500m, we are almost certainly the first humans to ever set sight on this patch of ocean. 

The thrill of exploration is a pleasant side-effect to our primary mission: scientific exploration and sampling. On this expedition, Nekflix has replaced Netflix, with stereoscopic cameras filming the entire dive as we perform transects at 500m, 250m and 120m. The resulting footage will be pored over by the scientific team, diligently noting each species on screen. Aside from driving the transects, the sub team are allocated a shopping list of samples to collect. At each depth, a target number will be set, and a shortlist of acceptable organisms. Once found, the mechanical arm is deployed, complete with metal claw, and a delicate two-person operation commences. To collect the specimens, the pilot must precisely manoeuvre the eight tonne sub into position, and then the real challenge begins. Even in the hands of a trained professional, utilising the claw comes with a dexterity reminiscent of a first-time chopstick user. You feel like cheering every time a sample is successfully picked, except there remains one last tricky step: placing it successfully in the tray at the front of the sub, a practical problem compounded by the thick acrylic which makes things appear smaller than in reality. Somehow, most of the time, the operatives succeed and by the end of the mission an impressive 554 samples were collected.

Certain denizens of the deep, like the dumbo octopus, gain such notoriety that they become poster-children for the ocean depths. Naively, I imagined that simply by travelling down to 500m we would be surrounded by these weird and wonderful creatures, but the ocean does not lay bare her secrets so easily. The density of life, compared to the shallow coral reefs of the Maldives, is far less apparent at 500m. Nevertheless, the conversation in our three-person sub is excitedly centred on marine life observations. A flesh-coloured shape on the seabed draws our attention, revealing itself upon closer investigation as a coffinfish. Drawn from the toadfish family, it is reminiscent of the well camouflaged frogfish found in the shallows, but with features drawn from a horror film. It gazes back at us with blank eyes, suture-like lines running over its body. A Darwin’s slimehead cruises over the sand, its red colouring designed to vanish into the darkness. Life moves slower down here – a relative from the slimehead fish family, the orange roughy, is known to take 20 years or more to reach sexual maturity, with a possible life expectancy of up to 250 years. These astonishing facts of life become problematic once deep sea fish are targeted for fishing, a fate which has infamously befallen the orange roughy. Aggregating in enormous numbers around seamounts to spawn, they are easily found with modern technology. They have provided a short-lived boon for deep sea fisheries. Blinded by the pursuit of commercial gain, the fishery was exploited until it collapsed. At depth, time seems to vanish as fast as light and it comes as a brutal wake-up to know five hours have passed and we must return to the mothership. Upon ascent, my eyes struggle to adjust to the sun and, like a baby roused from the womb, I am not yet ready to process the outside world, yearning to return to the cocoon of the twilight zone.

With the subs back on deck, the Odyssey hums with activity as samples are quickly delivered to the wet lab. Although it’s cramped and painfully chilly, queues form to witness this daily ritual as sea offerings are carefully unveiled. One sample is often multiplied by the species it hosts, exemplified by a long-limbed squat lobster, gazing back at us with icy blue eyes from an octocoral. Carefully chronicled, each sample then travels to the dry lab where it is preserved for posterity, available in perpetuity for scientific study by institutions around the globe. Even so, the sacrifice of life yields conflicting emotions from the team and Sheena Talma, a marine scientist from the Seychelles, cannot help but apologise to each sample as she seals them up. 

Diving back in on scuba, I follow a lengthy tether to find the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) as it buzzes around a shallow reef with the enthusiasm of a toy car at Christmas. The exploration of the deep ocean is traditionally performed by ROVs, manned by a team at the surface, often working in shifts as they undertake long hours underwater. These ROVs can also be equipped with an arm for sample collection, and I am sagely informed that the difference in success between a more or less skilled operator can be up to ten fold. They are valuable tools, but I find the viewpoint from an ROV feed fails to evoke the usual sense of ocean wonder. For Dr Alex Rogers, a pre-eminent deep sea scientist, time spent in the acrylic domed submersibles, observing the scale and connectivity of undersea ecosystems, would lead to a major breakthrough in the Maldives…

As the Odyssey makes way, fine nets are deployed to study the plankton composition. Tenderly collected, the resulting soup of miniature creatures is turned into a riveting live show under the microscope. These finely crafted, natural wonders partake in the world’s largest migration, with hordes of plankton leaving the shelter of the deep sea by cover of nightfall to travel upwards. Operating on a vampire’s schedule, the plankton must return to the depths before sunrise or risk death. At times, having drifted far across the sea, the return passage is blocked by topographical features and the plankton is trapped by a seamount or the rising seabed. As day breaks, predators such as sharks, tuna, and the tastily-named spiky oreo, will be drawn in and an undersea buffet ensues. The Nekton Mission identified an unusually high propensity for these blockages in the Maldives, prompted by a formerly volcanic subsea landscape which plunges rapidly before shelving off into terraces. Having discovered the Rariphotic zone during the maiden Nekton mission to Bermuda, the evidence suggests they have now unearthed another, ‘The Trapping Zone’, an oasis of oceanic life observed at 500m.

Exploration of the deep seas, as well as eliciting wonder, can also prompt anger from those who wish we would cease meddling with nature and leave these ocean zones in peace. Unfortunately, whether humans are physically present at depth or not, our impacts are already being felt through waste, fishing, mining, and climate change. As human consumption increases and our known resources are exhausted, there is an even greater drive to utilise the resources from ocean blindspots. Without knowing what is down there to protect, the arguments for conservation are weaker. The Nekton Maldives Mission returns to port with an armoury of information which can be weaponised in arguments to conserve the natural world. In adamant opposition to the colonialist principles of ‘parachute science’, all data and specimens from the mission will be left as the property of the Maldives government. Offering a baseline study from the surface to 1,000m, these findings can inform national policy and environmental research moving forward. Behind the picture-perfect vision of a paradisiacal ocean nation, the Maldives finds itself at the frontline of a planetary crisis, with climate change posing an existential threat. For Dr Hussain Rasheed Hassan, Minister of Fisheries, Marine Resources and Agriculture, “The evolutionary history of this beautiful coral atoll nation is written as a record on the bedrock, deposits, and the fauna of the deep. This Mission is shedding light on how we may use the science to survive as a nation.”

Issue 27
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

This feature appears in ISSUE 27: Mission Deep of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 27
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain