Sun, Science and Submersibles
By Dave Abbott, Expedition videographer/photographer and fourth element Ambassador
This year I got to realise a lifelong diving ambition that I had begun to think might never eventuate; – to go to the bottom of the ocean in a submersible and with my own eyes see some of the alien deep- sea creatures that have fascinated me since I was a kid.
To explain how that opportunity finally came about I must backtrack a bit… It was always a toss-up for me which of two passions would become my career, marine science or underwater filmmaking, so to cover all bases I completed both a marine ecology degree and several documentary filmmaking courses with a particular focus on underwater filming.
While I was studying, I put off making any decisions, alternating underwater shoots with scientific diving and bio surveys, and enjoying both types of work equally. Now, twenty years and 3000 filming dives later, documentary filmmaking seems to be the path I have ended up following, but my interest in marine science has only grown alongside, fuelled by fascinating doco’ shoots with scientists studying creatures as diverse as Chambered Nautilus and Great White sharks.
Consequently, my favourite assignments are those that give me the opportunity to document marine science expeditions, and when I am onboard a research vessel with a bunch of marine biologists for a couple of weeks I feel like I have hit the jackpot.
In April this year I did exactly that, and joined an expedition vessel (well three, actually) in the Caribbean for a three-week assignment filming a variety of interesting marine research projects, from surveying coral reefs to measuring ocean currents and assessing ecosystem biodiversity.
The research trip was coordinated by Inkfish through a scientific partnership with the CARMABI Foundation, and the overall objective was to ‘characterize the physical environment, biodiversity and ecology of mesophotic reefs and their influence on the shallow reef systems’ around the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean.
To achieve this goal the expedition has assembled a multidisciplinary (and international) team of scientists and divers who were undertaking a wide range of research projects, from documenting fish and invertebrate biodiversity using DOV’s (Diver Operated Video), to mapping coral reefs on rebreathers, measuring water currents and ocean health using surface drifters and CTDs (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth) sensors, deploying BRUV’s (Baited Remote Underwater Video traps) and exploring rarely visited deep ecosystems using submersibles.
Some of this research employed well-established technologies (several pioneered by members of the team), but there were also experimental trials of technologies being developed for future research expeditions.
The scientists and crew involved on the expedition were an inspiring bunch, all experts in their fields, passionate about their work and more than happy to share their knowledge – which made the trip twice as interesting. With almost everyone involved in the expedition being keen and experienced divers with a common passion for the underwater world, I felt right at home!
Over the course of the expedition, I was able to join and film all the different dive projects underway and chat with each scientist about their specific area of research, an aspect of my job that I particularly appreciate, as I get to constantly learn about new developments across different areas of marine science.
As a ‘fly on the wall’ filmmaker I also have the privilege of getting a ‘big picture’ perspective of how different science disciplines overlap and interrelate.
Several of the scientists on the trip have had a long-standing relationship of collaborative work going back two decades in this part of the Caribbean, but for me Curaçao was a new location, and I was impressed with its healthy coral reefs, clear blue water, and abundant fish life.
Being more used to diving in temperate New Zealand waters (9- 20C) I found the 27C water temp a bit warm for my 5mm Proteus so ended up diving in a 3mm instead – not that I was complaining!
While I enjoyed all the research dives, the ones that I probably enjoyed most were accompanying the coral reef rebreather team on their photogrammetry dives. I would hover above them on open circuit filming them mapping the reef for as long as I could, then two or three hours later, jump in again to film the end of their dives. Night dives to deploy and retrieve camera quadpods were also special, exploring the reef with UV lights and seeing which corals and creatures fluoresced under our ‘blue’ lights, but the absolute highlight of the trip for me was getting to do my first submersible dive, an unexpected bonus and something I had dreamt about since I was six-years old!
This was a mind-blowing experience – every bit as incredible as I had imagined. Descending for nearly an hour through liquid blackness before reaching the sea floor at nearly 2700ft (824m) was a jolting reminder of how inconceivably vast the ocean is, although in the rarefied world of deep sea exploration this wasn’t even a particularly deep dive! For me though, to be cruising slowly across the bottom of the sea, safe in our own little habitat despite the crushing pressure surrounding us was surreal, like visiting another planet, and was definitely one of the highlights of my diving life.
Within the limited pool of light from the sub’, a new and alien world unfolded as we drifted across a lunar landscape where light had never penetrated, giving us the privilege of seeing firsthand deep sea creatures that I had only seen in books and on documentaries up until now. From Tripodfish perched on the silt on elongated fin rays waiting for prey to swim past, to strange deepwater squid, Lanternfish, and Dumbo octopus (of which there are 17 different species), there was a lot more life than I expected down there – including some species which even the scientists couldn’t immediately identify.
That, to me, was one of the most exciting things about these deep dives, that there is a real possibility of seeing something completely new on any dive. The less exciting and more sobering aspect was the jarring sight of an occasional tyre, coke can, or plastic bag marring this remote and unique environment, a place you would expect to be far beyond the reach of human impacts.
All too soon the 3-week expedition drew to an end, and it was time to pack away the dive gear, help the science team to pack up all their equipment, and head back home to our respective countries around the world.
For the scientists there would be months of work ahead analyzing the mountain of data collected, and for Inkfish another mountain of media to sort through and edit.
Our final expedition debrief before leaving the Inkfish vessels brought home just how much data had been gathered over the past three-weeks of intensive diving and sampling; over a hundred hours of underwater surveying and 65,000 images collected by the photogrammetry team across 10,000m2 of coral reef, and more than 500 coral samples collected for analysis. The BRUV team had made 145 BRUV deployments and captured 290 hours of footage; the reef survey team had captured 100 hours of Quadpod footage and 24 hours of Diver Operated stereo Video footage, while the oceanography team had completed 57 hours of CTD profiling and logged 83 hours of drifter data – an impressive total for the trip!
For me it was also a reminder that marine research is always a team effort, and the vast amount of scientific data collected during the expedition couldn’t have been achieved without the tireless work of the Inkfish vessel crew, from engineers to dive specialists, sub pilots, deck and internal crew, they made the whole complicated logistics of scheduling diverse scientific dives and deploying equipment across a dozen different tenders and multiple locations not only possible, but a safe and enjoyable experience for all involved.
At a time when the oceans are facing widespread impacts from overfishing, plastic pollution and climate change, it was a breath of fresh air to be working with people who cared and had some optimism, focused on extending our knowledge of the marine environment and doing something positive for the ocean.
Diving is always a magic experience, but when it is also for a ‘purpose’ – whether it be for research, advocacy, education, or exploration – it adds another dimension that leaves you feeling fulfilled and looking forward to the next opportunity!