December 12, 2022
Featured image: Clockwise from left: Ecuador’s Minister of Environment Gustavo Manrique, DeepSee submersible pilot Arik Amzaleg, Dr. Sylvia Earle © Taylor Griffith
By Courtney Mattison
Thousands of bubbles glitter upwards around the clear acrylic sphere as the DeepSee submersible descends into the turquoise abyss. Dark water below invites curiosity and anticipation as the pilot and two passengers perch quietly on their seats, gazing through the deepening shades of blue that surround them. Enveloped in darkness at 220 meters depth, Ecuador’s Minister of Environment, Gustavo Manrique, utters to his co-passenger, “Sylvia, this is like being in space!” to which Sylvia replies, “No, this is even better — because there’s life.”
Most of the ocean and life within it exist in darkness. Mission Blue founder and National Geographic Society Explorer-at-Large Dr. Sylvia Earle says, “The ocean is where most of life on Earth exists. Most of life on Earth lives in the dark, below where the sun shines.” And until we understand that, she continues, “until you see it, until you know it, you can’t be really cognizant about what you put into the ocean, or what you take out of the ocean.”
This conservation ethic is at the heart of Mission Blue’s latest Hope Spot Expedition to the Galápagos Islands that enabled Dr. Earle and Minister Manrique to venture into the deep ocean and marvel at its inhabitants. Onboard the Undersea Hunter Group’s MV Argo in July 2022, Dr. Earle joined forces with Galápagos Hope Spot Champions Professor Alex Hearn of Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) and MigraMar, and Manuel Yepez Revelo, a conservationist and Galapagueño ecotourism operator, alongside a team of researchers and filmmakers to study and document this haven for marine biodiversity. As the 25th anniversary of the Galápagos Marine Reserve approaches, this expedition also offered a special opportunity for scientific, conservation and policy stakeholders in Galápagos to celebrate while highlighting challenges on the horizon. “We are concerned in Ecuador about the future of the deep-sea,” says Professor Hearn, “and we felt that it was very important for the Minister to be part of that world — not just to watch it on a screen — actually to go down there.”
Human-caused threats such as deep-sea mining, commercial fishing and climate change threaten precious and under-explored marine habitats around the globe as in the Galápagos. The Galápagos Marine Reserve — established in 1998 and expanded this year through the Hermandad Reserve — provides vital protections for many species and habitats within its boundaries. Carl Gustaf Lundin, CEO and Managing Director of Mission Blue, says, “The Galápagos Hope Spot is a beacon of hope against the many challenges facing our oceans, like impacts from climate change, deep seabed mining and fishing. Without the Ecuador’s leadership in marine protection the world would have lost so much of what makes this planet so special.“
Highlighting overlooked species and habitats was a focus of this Mission Blue expedition, which was supported by grants from Rolex, National Geographic Society and private donors and planned in collaboration with Oceanic Society with professional cinematography courtesy of Deep Sea Productions and Proudfoot. Under the scientific permit of Professor Hearn, researchers from the Galápagos National Park, Galápagos Science Center, Galápagos Conservation Trust and Charles Darwin Foundation conducted surveys for a variety of elusive species, from the Galápagos bullhead shark (Heterodontus quoyi) to the endemic slipper lobster (Scyllarides astori) and Pacific seahorse (Hippocampus ingens), as well as plastic pollution. National Geographic Explorer Salomé Buglass, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia and Charles Darwin Foundation, located a rare kelp forest off the western coast of Fernandina. Dr. Earle, who first discovered cold-water kelp communities in the Galápagos 50 years ago, encouraged Ms. Buglass to pursue her PhD to study these giant algae, which are unusual for their proximity to the equator. “Kelps are traditionally thought of as temperate and cool water species,” explains Buglass. “However, here in the western part of the archipelago, we find these anomalous tropical kelp populations in waters that are just at the depth limit for SCUBA divers” she continues. The DeepSee submersible allowed Buglass and Earle the “unique opportunity to search for them for longer at greater depths,” says Buglass. Her kelp samples are now being preserved for genetic analysis and, quite possibly, describing a new kelp species.
Back down in the DeepSee with Minister Manrique and Dr. Earle, pilot Arik Amzaleg noticed a large, silvery disc emerging from the darkness and heading straight for them. An ocean sunfish (Mola mola) swam right up to the sub, grazing the acrylic dome next to the Minister’s head. It was “a kiss from a Mola mola!” Dr. Earle pronounced.
Video: Undersea Hunter Group
With time running short, the DeepSee began its ascent to the surface and left the enchanting darkness behind. Back at the MV Argo, the three voyagers emerged from the sphere and greeted a crowd of excited onlookers. “I am learning from the ocean,” Minister Manrique told CNN Chile’s Amaro Gomez Pablo onboard. “I have learned a lot today… We have only one ocean. We don’t have to talk about ‘oceans.’ We have to talk about the Ocean,” he said in Spanish.
Dr. Earle agreed, and made a plea for urgent action to protect and restore the Ocean:
“I am a witness to the greatest era of learning about the ocean in all human history and also the greatest era of loss. It’s taken a while for people, both for the land and for the sea, to understand that the economic, ecological, human factors, the whole thing — we have to take care of nature. Earth is a miracle. When you look up at night and see all of those other places in the Universe, none of them are hospitable for us. We have to make this planet work in a way that will ensure our existence. It’s just our prosperity.”
Special thanks to SCUBAPRO for outfitting the Mission Blue Galápagos research team.