Sat, 27 Aug 2022

I had never really believed that time travel was possible.  And yet, in a convoluted way, it happened to me just last month!  Here I was, encased in a state-of-the arts Perspex bubble attached to one of the most highly sophisticated deep-sea submersibles in existence today, operated by the Undersea Hunter’s prize vessel Argo.  Floating just at waterline near the base of the youngest Galápagos volcano (which incidentally is also my favorite island), Fernandina, our tender towed us out to sea, away from the familiarity of land.

— A time-warp journey.

Ready for the big dive: Tui with oceanography legend, Dr Sylvia Earle, Mission Blue’s renown sculptural artist and marine ecologist, Courtney Mattison, and skilled Costa Rican DeepSee submersible pilot, Federico. (Photo: © Mission Blue Team collection.)

At that moment I was about to undertake the most incredible journey of my life.  Not only that, but I was humbly sitting next to my charming host, none other than one of the world’s leading oceanographers, inventors, explorers, and communicators par excellence about the state of our planet, and its oceans in particular: Dr. Sylvia Earle, champion of Mission Blue and many other initiatives to protect the vast blue parts of the earth.

Petite, self-effacing and forever smiling, well into her eighties, Sylvia might not at that moment have looked like the hero that she is, but rather she reminded me of the prototypic kid-in-a-candy-store persona.  Her excitement as we were about to begin our deep plunge into the oceanic abyss — one of thousands for her, but the very first for me — was highly palpable.  And equally so for our grinning pilot, Federico, from Costa Rica.  

Down we went.  The horizon blurred and disappeared.  We waved farewell to the smiling face of our beflippered surface attendant as he followed us briefly, blowing perfect bubble rings in our faces, while making sure our propellers were clear of ropes or seaweed.  At once, we disconnected from one world and entered into another.  Imperceptibly at first, the light filtering into our spherical cabin gradually turned from vivid green to dark blue.  We seemed enveloped in a kind of cotton-wool silence, our tiny airbreathing bubble so alien in the vast unknown world.

Before long Federico announced cheerfully, “We’re going deep today, 300 metres” (1,000 feet), a big grin painted on his blue-hued face!  We were literally gliding down the slope of the volcano’s undersea skirts, the implosively crushing pressures on our little cocoon gradually increasing to the equivalent of 30 atmospheres (441 psi).

…then comes striding over for a closer look.

Time passed.  Federico studied the sonar screen.  Sylvia beamed knowingly.  Then, as if revealed in a dream, a pillowed lava ledge outlined itself in our headlights, embracing a flat patch of fine grey sand decorated by a constellation of tiny, delicate, long-spined sea urchins, as white and fragile as snowflakes.

And that is when my time travel began.  Not only were we in a garden of sea urchins neither Sylvia nor I had ever seen before, but suddenly I began to recognize numerous acquaintances from very long ago, when I was still a young girl.  Small, red scorpionfish sitting motionless, slender spineless crimson brittle stars squirming elegantly, cup corals the color of bright sulfur crystals, thin white sea cucumbers no bigger than a pinkie, painted with chocolate-brown streaks and dots.  Memories flooded back into my overloaded brain, for indeed I had seen them all before, more than half a century ago.

Peering through the thick yet almost invisible acrylic dome of the submersible at 300m depth turned into a startling revelation: Viewing these colorful arrays of deep sea creatures thriving in their twilight habitat suddenly became like a meeting of old acquaintances from my distant childhood! 

Back in 1964, when my pioneering family had been living in Galápagos for less than a decade, something rather momentous had happened, an event that would change the course of my parents’ life — and hence mine as well — forever.  Five years earlier the Galápagos Islands had been declared Ecuador’s first national park, and now a mega expedition of over 60 scientists descended on the hitherto little-known archipelago.  Under the aegis of the Galapagos International Scientific Project (GISP), armed with boat transport and even, for a short time, a helicopter, they came to study everything from lichens to fish, volcanoes to iguanas — and they also inaugurated the newly built Charles Darwin Research Station.  

For my parents, meeting so many enthusiastic scientists meant that, for the first time, their innate naturalist interests and self-acquired knowledge of biology could find an outlet that went beyond mere curiosity.  

One of the expedition members was a malacologist (an expert in gastropod snails) named Allyn G. Smith of the California Academy of Sciences.  A firm friendship was instantly formed, and for my parents came the discovery that being naturalists could actually lead to a new livelihood, collecting specimens for museums, and occasionally for private collectors.  Soon my mother, with Allyn’s help, had made contact with many specialists from far and wide on different families of seashells, and obtained identifications for them all, many of which were endemic to Galápagos — found nowhere else in the world.

But my father was also an explorer and inventor at heart.  “If all these shells that live only a stone’s throw from our house are unique, I wonder what lies hidden far under the deep ocean, where nobody has ever looked,” he mused.  Out came a few strips of long-since recouped iron, plus a bit of chicken wire, and before long a modest size dredge, about 60cm (2’) wide and twice as long, had been fashioned.  Nearly a kilometer (about 3,000 ft) of 3mm (1/8”) cable was mailed on request by his long-suffering parents in Belgium.  Finally, a home-made wooden winch, with manual handles at either end, was fitted to our small fishing boat.

I recall the long, back-breaking hours that my dad and I spent bent double, slowly cranking in the dredge, and the sense of absolute wonderment when its contents were revealed, many of them the very same species that, sitting next to Sylvia, I now recognized in real life on the ocean floor, down in what is known as the ‘twilight zone’!

Offshore from Santa Cruz Island, my mother is at the helm, while my father is hard at work reeling in the dredge that brought up numerous species of seashells new to science.

I realized with a jolt that, almost 60 years on, I had nearly forgotten about many of them.  Sadly, back then we had no knowledge nor the necessary chemicals to preserve any of the host of soft-bodied animals that emerged from the deep.  But of course I never forgot all the utterly incredible seashells, almost all of which proved to be new to science.  Despite my father’s insistence that naming species after people would become meaningless to future generations, many of them now bear my parents’ names. 

Although my father insisted that scientific names should be descriptive rather than honoring a person, several new species ended up named for the family, as well as for my dad’s mentor, Allyn G. Smith. Some of these deep-sea discoveries, clockwise from upper left: Cotonopsis deroyae, Pteropurpura deroyana, Fusinus allyni, Latiaxis santacruzensis.

As for the fish that we uncovered, since they were already dead by the time they reached the surface, we dropped them dutifully into a large jar of formalin solution, “In case an ichthyologist were to visit.”  And visit she did!

I vividly recall going aboard the oceanographic sailing vessel Te Vega during its expedition from Stanford University in 1968.  On board was a dynamic young scientist who was destined to become an iconic leader in deep sea exploration, named Sylvia Earle.  We handed her our pickled fish, and she gave us a fresh supply of formalin.  I was 13 then, and you could say that the rest was history!

What an experience!  None of us could stop smiling as we popped back to the surface, our cocooned world now bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun.

I truly had to pinch myself when, after a much too short three hours, our heads emerged into a golden sunset caressing the flanks of Fernandina Island, like gophers popping our heads out of the sea, smiling like little children, speechless, hearts pounding. Time had warped back to the present, leaving me to reflect on the unexpected, rare privilege of experiencing a real-life physical, yet totally otherworldly, journey into my own past.

Right: Ecuador’s minister of the environment emerges from a historic deep dive, celebrating the expansion of the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

This voyage was a multi-institutional collaboration of scientists to rediscover and evaluate some of the largely overlooked habitats and species in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, which is approaching its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2023. Galapagos holds a special meaning for Dr. Sylvia Earle: “It was here that I discovered cold water kelp communities on the equator fifty years ago, and it was Galapagos that, years later, inspired our Mission Blue Hope Spots initiative.”

Bristling with all manner of oceanographical paraphernalia, the 39 m (129 ft) long ARGO is an intentional  hybrid of a luxury liveaboard yacht and highly capable working ship.  Owned and operated by the Undersea Hunter Group she is normally based at Costa Rica’s Cocos Island.

The real yellow submarine: DEEPSEE is a 6 m (18 ft) long, highly sophisticated, pilot plus 2 person submersible capable of exploring to depths up to 457 m (1500 ft). The 10cm (4 in) thick acrylic dome gives virtually 360 degree visibility, while high definition cameras and lighting can record creatures in their natural habitat in stunning detail. (Both photos: © Mission Blue Team collection.)

A huge personal thank you to Drs. Sylvia Earle and Alex Hearn, and the whole magnificent team aboard the ARGO, for inviting me and providing the unique opportunity to partake in this momentous Mission Blue Hope Spot voyage of discovery.

Check out the links below to learn more about the
various programs and the institutions involved.

(Photo: © Mission Blue Team collection.)

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Photos and information appearing on this site are copyrighted. © Tui De Roy / Roving Tortoise Photos 

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Please contact me for any reuse licenses.  Thank you for your understanding.

All rights reserved. 

Photos and information appearing on this site are copyrighted. © Tui De Roy / Roving Tortoise Photos 

Its components cannot be shared, reproduced or reused in any way. 

Please contact me for any reuse licenses.  Thank you for your understanding.