March 8, 2012

Ricardo Cisneros and I joined Hector Guzman’s science team over at the Sea Hunter ship just in time to see them pull up the collected specimens from the morning science exploration dive. Collected by a manipulator arm around 200 meters depth, Hector placed the specimens into white trays for further analysis. There were corals, tube worms, black coral, a sea pen, bryozoans, pink stylaster coral, a brittle star, and a black solitary cup coral. 

After sub dive training and a review of a 3-d terrain model of Hannibal Bank, where Hector pointed out what we’d next be first exploring ever, Ricardo and I donned our jumpsuits and prepared to get in the sub. Ricardo was filled with great enthusiasm, as it was his first sub dive ever and he never thought he’d get to be a real aquanaut! We took pictures as the sub descended into the water. Then we focused on our pilot Eric’s descriptions of emergency buttons, air, the line that you could send back to the surface if you got entangled, communications in case he passed out for some reason and more. We watched the sonar screen as we dropped through the thermocline and the surface light grew fainter, all the way until we were surrounded in pitch blackness. A steady stream of bubbles rose toward the surface, and we watched a school of little silvery fish swim by, along with siphonophores, jellies and a tiny squid, as we kept going deeper and deeper until we reached 258 meters down (or 860 feet)! 

DeepSee descending © Kip F. Evans – Mission Blue
What surrounded us was a almost moon like landscape but with life poking out here and there- several red scorpionfish, decagon wrasses, tube worms in spaghetti-like mats, black coral, stylaster pink hydrocoral, and white sponge looking material in patches on the ground. In rock outcroppings, there were solitary black cup coral and yellow coral fronds encrusting it. White sea stars, a purple sea pen, and the occasional threadfin bass were at home on the smooth sandy bottom. We saw a small conger eel and another bigger eel that kept opening it’s mouth.

We felt as if we were discovering a new planet, and we were, our own mysterious ocean. Back on the Sea Hunter mother ship, we shared our observations with Hector and his team and watched as Shmulik Blum and Eric pulled the sub back up on the deck for the night. As the sun set, Dave headed us back to our own ship, accompanied by dolphins leaping below a full moon. What a life changing experience!

Sylvia, Kip, Shannon, David and Shari spent the day nearer to Isla Coiba surveying the undersea life. The early morning dive was at Wash Rock. The group found themselves in swift surge and in a major thermocline, creating a kind of hot and cold washing machine feeling. It was 82 degrees F at the surface and at 20 meters, the temperature dropped 20 degrees to the coldest water so far. Sea fan paradise spread out along the rocks and a school of barracuda and jellies swam past. 

Shari Sant Plummer © Kip F. Evans – Mission Blue
The second dive took the team to Twin Peaks. There were two pinnacles around which the divers made a figure eight. Shari saw a beautiful white jellyfish and then a large gray and a green moray eel poked out to say hello. Shari watched the barber fish carrying out their pick off the parasites of other fish duty. Each wall was covered in gorgonian corals. Kip saw a half a dozen white tip reef sharks on the deepish side. Sylvia saw liagora algae sprouting in tufts along the walls, black tubes sponges and many flowery soft corals. Their third and final dive took them back to the Wash Rock, where it was green, murky and cold, and they surveyed further. Kip who lives in Monterey, California said it made him feel right at home, and he pulled out his daughter’s token doll for a quick pic for home. 

What magic in the deep!

Sylvia with Full Moon – Hope!
Jenifer Austin Foulkes, Oceans Program Manager, Google

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