Living my dream: a deep dive in a submarine to explore the unknown

Post written on October 31, 2020 while onboard the OceanXplore Vessel

Today was the best day of my life. Growing up I have always had an interest in animals, spending countless hours in the coastal tidepools of Maine and seeing how many starfish and crabs my sister and I could manage to catch. In the summers we would go to my grandparents’ lake house and I would spend all day with a butterfly net catching fishes in the shallows. From an early age, my passion for environmental science has been strong, and in parallel with these interests was my yearning to explore and ask questions. This led to my travels around the world trying to see wildlife, studying cool animals, etc. So now here I am, on the most epic research vessel in the world, literally living out my dream. The boat itself is jaw-dropping, equipped with four smaller boats, one of which is dedicated to scuba diving operations, there’s a helicopter and landing deck, ROVs, crazy scientific equipment, and two incredible submarines. This leads to my crazy-epic-amazing Halloween adventure. I was notified at like 8 PM on the 30th asking if I would be free to go down in the submarine the following day. I had plans to help on shark tagging fieldwork but a chance in a submarine seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity that I absolutely had to join.

I was overcome with happiness and obviously could not sleep well at all during the night. I spent my night tossing and turning in bed, since I was so excited. The next morning I awoke extremely early- like an excited child on Christmas morning. I popped out of bed at around 5 AM and just sat up in bed ready to go. I ate breakfast at 7 AM (the food here is unbelievable!- muffins, pancakes, and vegetarian food!) and then got weighed in order to distribute the weight in the submarine and keep it level. At 8:00 we had a briefing meeting with the whole sub team, where they review the plans, coordinates, and the geologist explains what the terrain is likely to look out and the biologist explains what samples they plan on taking. There are two submarines on OceanX, one usually has the pilot, and one biologist and geologist, and the other has the pilot, a person from the media team, and then an extra space for people to rotate through to get a chance on the sub. I was going down with Dave, the pilot, and Ivan the camera man. By 8:30 AM I went to the bathroom one last time, then boarded the sub. As you can imagine, I was feeling all the emotions at this point and was on the verge of tears. Lucy Hawkes, an amazing scientist I have been working with, was extremely stoked for me to get this experience so she came to watch me board the sub and take photos. Dave gave me a quick intro to the sub and recapped what to do in an emergency (basically get the sub up and communicate with the team at the surface). To get into the sea, the boat is equipped with a mechanical device that “drives” the subs near the edge of the back of the boat, and then a crane is used to lift us into the sea. Interestingly for me, it was Halloween so the crew that was assisting in the water on the boat were all dressed in ridiculous costumes so I was getting a chuckle. Definitely a Halloween I will never ever forget.

A pretty incredible view, the sub team dressed up for halloween

Once we were placed into the sea, we were neutrally buoyant so half of the sub was under the sea and half was above, this gave me such a unique perspective. I loved the feeling so much. I love being under the sea, but with freediving you can only last as long as you can hold your breath- for me that is not very long. For scuba diving, you get about an hour underwater, but you can only go a maximum of around 30 meters deep (90 ft). This submarine is a whole new world for me, I stayed underwater for 8.5 hours at a maximum depth of over 500 meters (1500 ft). Within minutes of descending I was already the deepest I have ever been under the sea. And one of the highlights was that I saw, for the first time in my life, an oceanic white tip. It was cruising in about 50 m of water, surrounded by pilot fish. It was super cool! I had never seen an oceanic white tip- and they are many people’s favorite shark because of their unique and prominent fin shape and curiosity.

We descended slowly as the light from the sun above us started to dissipate. There was endless blue in all directions. And I was in awe how “easy” it was for us to get down there. No ear pain, no uncomfortable temperatures, just a slow drift to the depths. Once we arrived near the bottom, we found the science submarine and followed them and watched them collect coral and sediment samples. The topography of the landscape down there was unbelievable. The geologist explained that there are large crusts of salt which slide with time, and there were massive walls with many cracks in the crust- it was super cool! Dave taught me how the sonar works and how the vehicle can sense how far away things are. Then, he let me get control of the sub and explore some of the life on the walls.

Getting to drive the submarine!!!

 We saw amazing looking anemones, corals, and sea urchins. There are several bright lights placed around the sub, so we could shine them on the area in front of us to explore and see what was living there. In addition, we saw some bioluminescence. Bioluminescence is light made by marine animals, in the deep it is used to distract predators, attract prey, and even to attract mates. To my knowledge, bioluminescence is created with a chemical called luciferase which creates the light. Anyways, we turned off all the lights in the sub and slowly moved around so we could see the creatures light up. There were tons of small plankton, like jellyfish, which were lighting up as they hit the submarine window. It was beautiful. When we turned the lights back on we could see tiny particles in the water, and as we moved through the water I truly felt like we were moving through space and all the tiny particles were stars and planets. I just felt so tiny and insignificant at this moment and it was a very cool feeling. I actually felt like a little astronaut exploring space. It is crazy to think that these formations and sights have never been seen by human eyes, and this is like next-level ocean exploration and it was the coolest thing I have ever done and will likely ever do.

Once we moved along our route, we decided to do some filming on one of the steep walls. We put the lights on full force and I spotted a tiny little squid. We tried to stabilize the submarine but the current from the propeller ended up pushing it away. But we did finally stabilize and used the super intense macro camera that was mounted on the submarine to take some footage of a coral/anemone.

A few hours later, we were hanging out at around 300 m when another shark appeared above us. A very cool thing about the sub was all of the views, we could see on top of us and to the sides. At first I was envisioning a cramped tiny submarine with a little porthole as a window, but that was far from what we got. Anyways, this shark was repeatedly coming down to check us out and swimming away. But after a few passes she came in front of us and headed directly towards us, which was super cool. This shark was identified as another oceanic white tip, which is pretty epic. I was helping the media guy Ivan take a video with his handheld camera, and I am hoping I took a nice shot of it. It came super close to us to check us out.

The next highlight was enjoying lunch and just taking in the view. Can you imagine eating lunch at the bottom of the sea? Exactly, it was that cool. When we are out doing science all day the ladies in the kitchen make us food, so life is really good. Not to go on too much of a tangent but the food on this ship is incredible which makes me very happy. Oh also lots of snacks and chocolates so I am thriving.

After I had my sandwich, and still was avoiding drinking liquids so I didn’t pee myself, we moved on to the coolest terrain of the whole trip, which was a deep crack in sea seafloor that led to a trench with super steep sides.  We spent a while taking videos and photos of the science sub navigating in this trench, which was wild because there was hardly any space on each side, these sub drivers are extremely talented at maneuvering in these tight spaces, I was in awe. There was also this amazing ledge that was reminiscent of pride rock from the Lion King, and it was just such a crazy landscape down there, and the visibility was so good that it just reminded me of a drive through Zion National Park, or something of the sort. I really wish I could put into words the feeling of seeing this, with the lights of the sub illuminating the walls and really getting to see the landscape revealing itself from the dark abyss. It truly was a surreal experience and I am feeling incredibly lucky that the stars aligned and I got this very unique opportunity. The logistics around this trip have been a nightmare but all of the stress was worth this very moment. Similar to the feeling of scuba diving, being in a submarine is a very calming and serene feeling. The sub even had a speaker system so we could listen to music and really just enjoy the views. I felt like a true explorer and it was just such a cool feeling.

At around 3 PM we made it to this little coral outcropping where the biologist on the other board was collecting his samples. As we watched them a massive school of amberjacks came around us, and stuck around for quite some time. I don’t think I have seen any schools of such big fish here in the Red Sea, and I was happy to see that life could thrive in the deep, a little ways away from human impact. Though saying that, as we were exploring the seafloor we came across smooth round rocks that were lying everywhere. We later found out that those rocks are used my fishermen who wrap there lines around the rock and throw it in the sea, the rock acts as a weight to pull the line down deep but then it is unattached so eventually the rock will just sink down to the floor. I was also deeply saddened to see plastic waste down there, like a pepsi can and pringles package, at around 350 meters depth. There really is no escape from human impact and I find that terrifying.

The schooling amberjack seemed to be attracted to the lasers on the subs, which are used to measure the size of objects on the seafloor. But like cats are attracted to lasers, the fish did the same thing and all were pouncing on the little green light, which was hilarious to watch.  Another highlight of the trip was seeing a small spotted guitarfish, Rhinobatos punctifer. It was hanging out near the sub so we could follow it for a while and take some videos. I am so lucky that I have seen multiple guitarfish on this trip- as they are very rare! But when I was scuba diving a turtle foraging ground we came across multiple halavi guitarfish (along with other amazing critters like seahorses, dolphins, pipefish, nudibranchs).  This research expedition has been so great, I have been able to do quite a bit of scuba diving, as well as deploying Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems (BRUVs) and doing some fishing to try to catch sharks, as well as turtle tagging and nesting surveys.

We finally began out ascent at around 4:30, and we went up with the other submarine, which was fabulous because we could see each other and wave enthusiastically. As we became shallower, we could see the sun lighting up the water column, and the submarines let out some bubbles and it was bizarre because we were ascending faster than the bubbles so they appeared as they were sinking instead of floating. Finally, we reached the surfaced and popped up so we had a great view of the OceanXplorer, and we were retrieved by the team on the zodiac boats and then lifted back onto the ship with the crane. I was still buzzing with excitement for the entire day, and found it hard to sleep that night. Ore than eight hours spent in the sea, truly my favorite place in the whole world. I feel so lucky that I had this experience and I can’t wait to see what other adventures I will embark on in the future as a marine biologist!

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