By: Danielle Epifani, Mission Blue Communications Assistant
After months of reporting imagery and articles of undersea life, I had the unique opportunity to join a seven day liveaboard with the Aggressor III, as a Mission Blue Hope Spot reporter. Throughout my childhood, I alternated between swimming in the ocean of Southern California, my neighbor’s pool, and the crystal clear lagoons and reef passes of my ancestral islands, in French Polynesia. I thought I had experienced the sea: it’s wonder, beauty, and the urgent need for marine protection.
Learning to scuba dive in one of the world’s legendary dive sites had not quite registered with me. However, the unfathomable statistic that the ocean has lost 90 percent of its big fish, ignited a sense of urgency. In Dr. Earle’s words, I would learn everything I can, and do everything I can, for this is “The sweet spot in time.”
Having swum with sharks in the wild before, it was my dream to see hammerheads. The problem was, I didn’t know how to dive. Though it would be challenging, this could be the only opportunity to see some of the world’s most powerful and vulnerable wildlife on earth. With scientists suggesting that half of all plants and animals could be extinct within this century, my motivation was amplified.
Embarking on New Depths
Three weeks later, passport in hand, I boarded my flight to Galápagos. I was met by the naturalist, divemaster, patience, and kindness of Santiago Insuasti. A native of Santa Cruz island, Santiago was charged with the task of preparing me for four dives a day in a week’s worth of advanced, open water conditions. After a series of mishaps with previous crews, it was time to place trust in myself, and in my instructor.
Our first dive began at Cousins Rock. We were met by no less than thirty hammerhead sharks, followed by a swarm of sixty golden rays. There were green sea turtles, moray eels, schools of reef fish, nudibranchs, and a spotted eagle ray trailed by two parrot fish catching the remnants of its coral buffet. Experiencing the miracle of this wonderland, I could hear the words of Dr. Sylvia Earle, “The ocean deserves our respect and care, but you have to know something before you can care about it.”
Check out this video of my first dive below!
With less than five percent of the ocean explored, I understood Dr. Earle’s enthusiasm to keep going further. Her historic walk on the ocean floor took her to 1250 feet (381m). To put this in context, the limit for recreational diving is 120 feet (37m), leatherback turtles can dive to 3,900 feet (1,200m), and sperm whales and colossal squid battle it out in the dark at 7,381 feet (2,250m). But ocean depth is currently recorded at 36,000 feet (11,000m). “How far down does this go, and what else is there?”
Surprised by so many species, I paused to take in the sheer diversity of marine plants and corals swaying in the current– filter feeding on microscopic nutrients. The chartreuse green of the Galápagos endemic black coral, hues of pale lavender and the deepest reds, bright coral sun cups; all made for a veritable parade. “Great attention gets paid to the rainforests because of the diversity of life there. The diversity of life in the ocean is even greater,” says Dr. Earle.
There are approximately one million plants and animals currently identified in the ocean, with as many as nine million waiting to be discovered. Yet, it’s not only the sheer depth of the ocean that we know so little about but what’s contained within this volume that extends from the sea floor to the surface.
As my first dive came to a close, I found myself suspended in a sunlit universe of microscopic life. Surrounded by floating particles, these photosynthetic organisms of the sea provide 70 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere, and one out of every two breaths we take. They regulate climate, provide life, and are what holds our planet steady. Yet the oxygen that the sea readily offers is effortless, and comes naturally to us, often without the knowledge or any consciousness of it. To see and experience the interconnectedness of these biological systems, alongside my humbled place within, was emotional and lasting.
Protecting What’s Precious
Home to what’s considered the largest biomass of sharks in the world, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador expanded how marine protection grew from one percent to thirty percent in the Spring of 2016. This now includes all of Darwin and Wolf as a no-take zone. Despite the abundance of wildlife, some species such as groupers and sea cucumbers, have declined over time. The expectation is that with protection and conservation efforts, these precious resources will rebound for future health. Among the wildlife that visits these waters, many have ranges that extend beyond national borders. The trade in fins and gills from whale, hammerhead, and silky sharks, along with mobula, and manta rays, has become a global issue. Protecting these waters will help to build resilience for these migratory species as they journey through the Eastern Pacific Seascape.
Upon our return, I had the opportunity to interview both divemasters, Santiago and Walter Torres. Together they bring a combined experience of over 40 years underwater. Conservatively that might be 15,000 dives between them. These men were in a position to know these waters and their conditions intimately.
Walter shared how he believed the marine park could be sufficiently surveyed from illegal fishing with a steady and controlled number of alternating tour and research boats. However, he cautioned passengers upon disembarking to report offers of seahorses, now rarely if ever seen underwater– along with black coral trinkets, protected and endemic to the park. The once overfished sea cucumbers, as well as the grouper population, were being studied and nursed back to health.
I asked both men to share an impressionable moment with respect to their ocean experience. Santiago candidly spoke of a time in his youth when he had been hired to join a shark finning operation. The devastation and grim reality, particularly as discovered in subsequent dives along the ocean floor of scattered and mutilated sharks were enough that he never returned. I sensed a concern that this fragile paradise could be susceptible to change if ongoing education and vigilant efforts weren’t maintained.
Today both Santiago and Walter are part of an elite group of National Park guides. Regulations in the islands are strictly monitored with tight itineraries scheduled between land and ocean tours. Education and outreach include the local community, and tourist revenue indicates a single shark over the course of its lifetime can bring as much as $5 million dollars versus $200 finned. Under Santiago’s watchful eye, even litter and debris didn’t escape his vest pockets. Discarded wine bottles, lead weights, plastics thrown away on land, or at sea, all were collected.
Adventure of a Lifetime
Throughout this journey, some said they were terrified, while others said they were proud. Taking all into account, never underestimate the power of learning everything you can, doing everything you can, kindness, and patience in changing someone’s life and being passionate about making a change.
“Humans,” Dr. Earle shares, “are the only creatures with the ability to dive deep in the sea, fly high in the sky, send instant messages around the globe, reflect on the past, assess the present, and imagine the future.”
With gratitude to Dr. Sylvia Earle for her words of wisdom, and to Katherine Smith for offering this opportunity to Mission Blue. My thanks to Santiago Insuasti for shepherding me through, and to Mission Blue who inspires blue hope for the underwater world.
Learn more about Dr. Earle’s TED Wish, and Mission Blue’s Voyage 2010 to the Galápagos. Visit our partners work The Charles Darwin Foundation, Conservation International, WildAid, and National Geographic Pristine Seas.