The deepest I had ever dived was 130 feet down into the famous Great Blue Hole in the crystal-blue warm waters of Belize. I remember how comforted I was by two dinner-plate sized French angelfish that came to swim with me once I had ascended back up from the cave’s eerie stalactite covered walls to the reef where more of the fish were.
Now, 15 years later, my deep love of the ocean has lead me to work as an Oceans Campaigner with Greenpeace, and to diving much deeper than I ever imagined I’d go. Picture the Grand Canyon, but under the sea, and what it might be like to descend down slowly for an hour until you are nearly two thousand feet below the air and sunlight at the surface. Bring along high-powered lights and cameras, and even a robotic collecting arm to gather samples of the deep-sea habitat to contribute the scientific record back on land.
In 2007 Greenpeace joined up with scientists and ocean explorers to find out more about two Bering Sea canyons, drivers in one of the most biologically rich and diverse ecosystems on the planet. Zhemchug, the largest underwater canyon in the world, at 60 miles wide and 9000 feet deep, is thought to be the ancient mouth of the Yukon River, formed during the last ice age.
While diving into these marine gems would have been exciting just for the fun of it, we had a purpose. Environmental groups had been asking fishery managers to make the highly productive canyons off limits to destructive fishing gear that destroys the valuable habitat along the canyon slopes and seafloor. But, since almost no studies had been done and no one knew for sure what the deep canyons held, fishery managers chose to continue business as usual until more was known.
Now the science from that expedition has been published in the peer-reviewed Public Library of Science journal proving that the canyons are filled with important life – including slow-growing, long-lived corals and sponges – that provide valuable habitat for fish and crabs and other members of the vibrant Bering Sea ecosystem. And last week Alaska’s fishery managers agreed to take a fresh look at the science on the canyons, and the fishing taking place in them, and to consider conservation measures.
Along with the release of that important science comes our chance, yours and mine, to dive into great Bering Sea canyons. Now, thanks to a cool YouTube interactive video, you and I can join the expedition first-hand, and navigate one of two tiny eight-foot Deepworker submarines down into the canyons to see what lives there and, more importantly, what might be destroyed if we don’t stop dragging massive fishing nets through the canyons.
With more than 200 videos from the canyons expedition every dive will be unique, depending on who is in the pilot seat. Do you want to dive deeper? Or maybe find out what an octopus eats? Perhaps you will discover a new species, previously unknown to science? I am thrilled that regular folks like me can experience these deep-sea wonders. We have a long way to go to convince fishery managers to protect the canyons and many voices will be needed to stand up to the powerful industry that profits from fishing in the canyons. When you see the fragile and beautiful life at risk, I hope you will help us get the word out about these “Grand Canyons of the Sea.” The more of us that know and care, the better our chances will be. So come on board, and Choose Your Submarine Adventure!
My Dive Log:
Drifting down, the water is filled with all kinds of tiny organisms glinting in the fluorescent beams of my lights, a smorgasborg of phytoplankton and zooplankton for the Bering Sea food web. Curious Dall’s porpoises come to investigate, weaving and darting past my little submarine dome window. As I sink down below 300 feet the porpoises take a last look at their strange visitor and shoot back to the surface for fresh air, but I go deeper.
I did not expect, so far from sunlight, to encounter so many animals dressed in vibrant oranges and tangerine hues. First, a pincushion starfish and then an orange and white tie-dyed anemone. There’s a whole variety of bright colored anemones down here, their plump tentacles waving in the current waiting for prey to drift within reach – aptly they are called the flowers of the sea.
Yes, there is mud, sand and gravel, but then into my submarine view comes little communities buzzing with diverse species. A rock crowded with six king crabs, a white barrel sponge swarming with lively carrot-colored brittle stars, and groves of white sea whip corals standing tall, some with curly basket stars hanging from them. Schools of bright orange rock fish float calmly just above the seafloor, and here and there a single Pacific Ocean Perch is taking refuge next to a sea fan coral or some other coral and sponge outcropping along the canyon slope. Oh no, I’m being attacked by squid! I hope they don’t disable the Deepworker’s thrusters…