“We have discovered a new mesophotic algal forest with almost total coverage of dense growth”, Nekton’s Science Director, Professor Alex Rogers’ voice came through on my headset.

We were 30 miles southwest of Bermuda, 200 feet down on the summit of Argus Seamount in two Triton submersibles, part of Nekton’s pioneering research programme delivering the XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey. Professor Rogers was in our surveying submersible, Nemo, whilst I piloted Nomad, the sampling sub.

The submersibles have transparent, acrylic pressure hulls giving Nekton’s marine scientists unprecedented access to observe and research the deep ocean. For Professor Rogers, observation is the first step in a scientific process to gather vital knowledge and understanding of this largely undiscovered ecosystem below the waves. Each two-person, 1000-foot depth-rated submersible is also equipped with scientific research and filming equipment to further investigate physical, chemical and biological indicators to assess the function, health and resilience of life in the waters around Bermuda.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Nekton, Aerial Sub Dive

In partnership with the Canadian Department for Fisheries and Oceans, and the joint deployment of the research ship, CCGS Hudson, equipped with a 6000-foot depth rated remotely operated vehicle, the research undertaken during the XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey ranged from Halifax, in Nova Scotia, across the Gulf Stream to Bermuda, a vast swathe of the North West Atlantic.

In Bermuda, Nekton partnered with the Bermuda Government’s Ministry of the Environment, the Bermuda Institute for Ocean Sciences and the Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo (BAMZ). “We think that Bermuda is a tiny dot of land but our territory extends outwards from the coast for 200 miles but it remains virtually unknown”, said Chris Flook, Head Collector at BAMZ.

“Words can’t describe seeing the ocean floor for the first time, it’s an incredible experience. I understand why people are excited by space, but really? We have this right here on earth!” Chris enthused having surfaced from his first submersible dive. Chris’s words captured the thoughts of all who experienced their first submersible dive during the mission. It was an emotional response that has resonated since people first witnessed the deep ocean.

Those pioneering explorers of the deep ocean, akin to the Russian Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, were William Beebe and Otis Barton. Their historic first journeys of human exploration into the deep ocean were achieved off Bermuda in the early 1930s in a steel bathysphere with three small portholes. As Beebe described: ‘‘If one dives and returns to the surface inarticulate with amazement and with a deep realisation of the marvel of what he has seen and where he has been, then he deserves to go again and again.”

Beebe and Barton’s dives are considered to be the first time that a marine biologist has observed deep sea animals in their natural environment. The Bermuda mission was a poignant reminder to the Nekton team of these submariners’ unprecedented achievements off the Bermudian coast all those years ago.

Words can’t describe seeing the ocean floor for the first time, it’s an incredible experience.

As we continued our exploration of the Argus Seamount, we found gardens of twisted wire corals and hydrocorals, hiding fast-moving sea urchins, green moray eels, yellow hermit crabs and a yet to be identified species of small pink and yellow fish. Leaving the summit and descending down the flanks of the seamount, we discovered unusual rock formations, with further dense coverage, gardens of black coral and communities of sea urchins, hermit crabs, many fishes and other mobile fauna, living within these forests, likely feeding off algae drifting off the summit and settling on the deep seabed.

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Using the submersible’s manipulator arms and camera arrays, we became the first to intensively document and sample the poorly explored Argus seamount. The Deep Submersible Alvin had worked on Argus in the mid-1960s, when the U.S. Navy’s Argus Island tower was installed there as part of a submarine detection system. All samples collected during the Mission are now housed and managed by the Natural History Museum at BAMZ and all scientific data will be open-sourced.

On returning to the surface and the laboratories on Nekton’s mothership, Baseline Explorer, Professor Rogers explained the significance. “There are more than 100,000 seamounts globally but less than 40 have been biologically sampled in detail, so the discovery of the mesophotic algal forest with a series of endemic species significantly adds to global understanding about seamounts and also for the management of the waters around Bermuda.

“The nutrient-rich algae are crucial as they feed the deep sea just like an ocean ‘pasture’. They create an abundance of healthy mesophotic corals which could provide a refugium for species found on shallower reefs closer to Bermuda, helping to repopulate shallow areas damaged by bleaching and acidification and building the resilience of the surrounding ocean”.

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Discoveries, like these on Argus Seamount, are evidence of how little we know about the waters surrounding Bermuda and the wider deep ocean, and how important it is to document this unknown frontier and gather scientific data to inform governments and policy makers to support improved ocean governance.

The ocean is the heart of our planet, providing food for billions and regulating our atmosphere and climate. Yet we invest a fraction of the trillions that are spent on space research. Today the ocean is suffering its most extreme disruption for at least 300 million years. Natural and human pressures are creating conditions that are putting the health of our ocean planet at severe risk. However if the world’s nations work as a collective to improve the governance and protection of the ocean, it can continue to provide the ecosystem services needed to sustain future generations.

Nekton believes that in order to safeguard the future of the deep ocean, it must be better understood. It remains the least explored part of our planet with only 0.0001 per cent of the deep pelagic biologically sampled. We have better maps of Mars and the moon than we do of our own seabed. Ocean governance is inextricably linked to ocean science. The ocean is one of the most critical and underappreciated issues of our time. It has to be on everyone’s mind, in laboratories, boardrooms, popular imagination and in the corridors of power. 

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The Apollo Missions, polar exploration, Jacques Cousteau’s undersea adventures, even Felix Baumgartner’s space jump, captivated the world with their human drama and battles against adversity, and above all, entering the unknown. In comparison, the transparent acrylic pressure hulls of the Triton submersibles enable us to witness the deep at firsthand and create the vital human link that will change our relationship with this last, great unknown frontier on planet earth.

The journey into the deep ocean began with William Beebe and Otis Barton in Bermuda and, following in their bubbles, Nekton has built on their legacy. The discovery on Argus Bank and other local sites is evidence that Bermuda has an extraordinary opportunity to become a global beacon in marine conservation and to lead the exploration of the deep ocean to drive human progress.

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.

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