Of all the things one expects moments before making a debut submersible dive to 300 metres in the Sargasso Sea off Bermuda, I confess that being asked whether I am taking mescaline is not one of them. It’s part of the high-spirited safety briefing from Oliver Steeds, mission director of Nekton, a scientific expedition to survey the unexplored deep ocean and establish a baseline for its health.
Steeds is a charismatic, television journalist-turned-explorer and a fellow, like me, of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society, where we both engaged in a campaign to encourage the institution to tear itself away from the geography books and get back into the field. Like all good explorers, Steeds understands that if you want to get something done you may as well do it yourself.
Seven years later, we're aboard Baseline Explorer, a 45-metre private research vessel with two submersibles – yours for US$2.2 million (Dh8.08m) a pop – looking for all the world like playthings from a 21st-century version of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
For those of a nautical bent the word Nekton will strike a chord. Used to describe animals able to swim against currents, unlike the aimless, drifting plankton, Nekton was also the codename for the descent by Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and United States Navy lieutenant Don Walsh in the bathyscaphe Trieste to 11,000 metres – the bottom of Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world's oceans, in the Pacific – in 1960.
Steeds has put together a blue-chip consortium to make Mission Nekton happen. The scientific research is led by Alex Rogers, a marine biologist and professor of conservation biology at Oxford University. Funding comes from the insurer and reinsurer XL Catlin, whose Deep Ocean Survey will make use of the scientific data generated by Nekton. The subs Nomad and Nemo are manufactured by Triton, one of the world's leading civil submersible companies.
Project Baseline, a conservation initiative of Global Underwater Explorers, supplies the team of technical divers, who can spend up to six hours a day taking samples and conducting detailed video surveys of the seabed, 50 metres at a stretch.
In recent years, Baseline’s international network of volunteer divers – 70 projects in 27 countries – have been monitoring underwater conditions in oceans, lakes, rivers, springs and flooded caves. Digital Explorer, an innovator at bringing compelling exploration into the classroom, is the outreach and education partner.
Back on deck, the Canadian sub pilot Kelvin Magee, a veteran who has dived the Titanic, is making final preparations on Nomad. "Ready for your first dive into the deep?"
Having waited a lifetime for this, I don't need any encouragement. Our dive today is at Spittal, one of the sites where the pioneering underwater explorer and naturalist William Beebe, of the New York Zoological Society, dived with Otis Barton in his bathysphere in the 1930s. Half Mile Down, Beebe's account of those first forays into the deep ocean, was published in 1934. Reading it more than 80 years later, it is difficult not to get swept away by the romance of the expedition, for like so many of the greatest explorers, Beebe was a romantic at heart.
“In this Kingdom most of the plants are animals, the fish are friends, colours are unearthly in their shift and delicacy; here miracles become marvels, and marvels recurring wonders. There may be a host of terrible dangers, but in hundreds of dives we have never encountered them. One thing we cannot escape – forever afterward, throughout all our life, the memory of the magic of water and its life, of the home which was once our own – this will never leave us.”
Magee and I clamber through the hatch into Nomad. Beneath the tropical sun the seven centimetre-thick acrylic bubble does a passable imitation of a greenhouse and within seconds we are both sweating profusely. Under the watchful eye of captain Jeremy Addaway, a tattooed hulk of a man, a giant crane lifts us up carefully before depositing us serenely on the surface with the sort of reverence appropriate for a multi-million-dollar vessel.
Magee speaks into his radio set. “Topside, topside, my hatch is closed, life support is running, pre-dive safety briefing completed, looking for permission to open my vents and dive.”
Seconds later there is a swoosh of air rushing out of the ballast tanks as the vents are opened. We rock back, tilt forward, descend and then suddenly all the world is blue. Slipping down into these quiet depths is an experience unlike any other. Doing it suspended in a transparent bubble, that apart from being the only barrier between you and instant death is also a window into an unknown world, is a completely captivating sensory treat.
A few metres away as we descend, Professor Rogers is taking samples in the sister sub Nemo. There is precious little fish life in evidence here, apart from the occasional deep moray eel and aggressively patrolling lionfish, an invasive species. Nemo's mechanical arm stretches out regularly to grab pieces of black coral, red sponge, rhodolith and algae. As we sink ever deeper, blue becomes black and then the sunlight vanishes altogether so that darkness envelops us. We reach maximum depth at 300 metres. The sub lights are switched on, transforming the ocean into a marvel-filled science fiction film set. We float through slopes of whip coral sculpted into 10,000 shepherds' crooks and the surreally spiralling wire coral.
Such is the mesmerising, almost hallucinatory experience, that two hours underwater disappear in a flash. Suddenly, before I can say “Please can we stay here all day?” we are cresting onto the surface and back on the deck.
After the joy and wonder of the dive comes a more sobering encounter. Although Rogers is an engaging character rarely spotted without a smile, a few minutes spent discussing the state of our oceans with him is a depressing experience. All the positive features of the ocean, such as fish stocks, appear to be in decline, while everything negative, like pollution, acidification and ocean warming, are roaring ahead. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that per capita fish consumption has increased from 10 kilograms in the 1960s to more than 19kg in 2012. Global fish stocks are being hammered as a consequence, declining by 1.22m tonnes a year. Ocean acidification is rising and pH levels are “falling off a cliff”, says Rogers. “In terms of pollution, plastics were something we didn’t understand until recently but we’re now finding them absorbed into fish material. They may concentrate other pollutants and could therefore enter the human food chain.”
While homo sapiens continues to throw millions of dollars at space exploration, funding for ocean studies remains desperately tight. There is a sense that in the understandable and natural desire to explore planets beyond our own, we are nevertheless neglecting the most important environment on Earth, one which is likely critical for our own survival.
“Only 5 per cent of climate change science is focused on the ocean, 95 per cent on terrestrial,” says Chip Cunliffe, director of environmental science programmes and education at XL Catlin.
“We should be very worried about all this because the oceans form the basis of life on our planet,” says Rogers. “Apart from producing food and employing people, they absorb one third of the CO2 we produce and produce about half of the oxygen in the atmosphere.”
Apart from establishing a scientific baseline for ocean health in the Sargasso Sea through the work of the scientists, submersibles and divers, Nekton aims to raise ocean awareness as widely as possible. “We’re destabilising this environment, the beating heart of our planet, the home to 90 per cent of life on Earth, at the fastest rate in human history,” says Steeds. “I call it the osteoporosis of the oceans. We need to discover and understand it before we destroy it.” He points to the licensing of 1.2m square kilometres for mining operations as a dangerous new development that threatens to accelerate the damage to the marine environment.
For Nekton’s team of scientists, explorers and adventurers, the communications aspect of discovery is critical because science alone is unlikely to foster widespread behavioural change. “Scientific data by itself is not going to do it. You’ve got to get people to care,” says Todd Kincaid, the science and conservation director of Project Baseline. “If we pollute the water we need to drink and the air we need to breathe, it won’t just hurt the bunnies. It’s going to hurt us.”
Back in 1934, Beebe wrote about his fears for the afterlife. He pictured himself doomed to sit in the underworld among dreary, problem-solving professional biologists, “while the amateur entomologists, who have not been damned professors, are permitted to roam at will among the fragrant asphodels of the Elysian meadows, netting gorgeous, ghostly butterflies until the end of time”.
From the perspective of 2016, the innocence of that era less than a century ago already seems like another world. Were he able to observe the world’s oceans today, one suspects he may reverse his opinion about the biologists faster than it took the Canadian filmmaker James Cameron to dive to the gloom-filled bottom of the Mariana Trench in 2012 – that would be two-and-a-half hours.
Justin Marozzi is a freelance journalist, historian and fellow of the UK’s Royal Geographical Society.