National Geographic

Seamount Expedition Blogs

February 2012 - Blogs by Greg Stone, Larry Madin, Alan Dynner, & Brian Skerry
© copyright by Avi Klapfer

© copyright by Conservation International
© copyright by New England Aquarium
© copyright by Brian Skerry
© copyright by New England Aquarium

Greg Stone
Chief Scientist for Oceans at Conservation International
Alan Dynner
New England Aquarium Overseer
Brian Skerry
Contract photographer for National Geographic Magazine
Larry Madin
Executive Vice President and Director of Research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst.

March 9, 2012
Cocos Island Seamounts: The Final Dive - Greg Stone
Today the ocean is flat-calm, reflecting the towering cumulus clouds like a mirror. I don’t think I have ever seen it this calm in all my years at sea — not a breath of wind or ripple of swell. Far to the northeast, I can just make out one of the peaks of Cocos Island, some 30 miles [48 kilometers] away.

Beneath us is the seamount that we have made home this past week. Although it towers 3,000 feet [914 meters] from the seafloor, you would never know it from the surface — the ocean does not give up her secrets easily. To see it, we must use a submarine; I have just completed my fifth and final dive.

The ballast of the submarine was emptied and voluminous amounts of air poured out, racing for the surface as ship captain Avi Klapfer began our descent. Sinking down at 32 feet [10 meters] per second, the murky image of the seafloor gradually came into view. To my right I saw what looked like the boiler of an old ship, a ship similar in size to Titanic. We joked that perhaps we had discovered a new wreck, but in reality this magnificent structure is probably a volcanic remnant, perhaps dating back millions of years.

The thrusters whirred and Avi made the sub spin on a dime. “The current is strong,” he told me, making it doubtful we would be able to explore much further. But within minutes, Avi maneuvered Deep See into the lee of the conical lava tube, and we photographed spotted and olive groupers. Many rays glided by but were too swift for us to capture on film.

I never tire of seeing what the ocean has to offer. Each day is different and all days are good. It reminds me of what Teddy Tucker, a fellow ocean explorer and my great mentor and friend, once said: “All days on and under the water in the ocean are good, but some are better than others.”

It is estimated that the ocean contains between 10,000 and 100,000 seamounts on a similar scale to this one. If we include the smaller ridges, hills and banks, there are millions of undersea features, most of which have never been explored.

In just a 10-day trip, what we’ve seen has been nothing short of remarkable. Using the remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the submarine and bluewater diving, we have uncovered the animals that live on the summit of this seamount, the pelagic invertebrates that occupy the water column around it. And none of it would have been possible without our fantastic crew of scientists, photographers and sub pilots.

Our sub surfaced all too soon. We stored our gear and began the long haul back to Puntarenas — and our land-locked lives — where we will analyze our data and add one more puzzle piece to that fabulous mosaic that is our global ocean.
March 5, 2012
Documenting the Deep - Brian Skerry
Long before I head to the field on assignment, I spend many hours thinking of the pictures I hope to make. While my job can be described in many different ways, I ultimately see myself as, quite simply, a storyteller. I use images to bring readers into an undersea realm and introduce them to amazing places and extraordinary creatures.

I have dedicated most of my life to perfecting ways of doing this by producing visuals that will engage people and make them want to learn more, to care, and even to protect these realms. In my books and lectures, I often discuss the many challenges of underwater photography, from limited air supplies to the restrictions of making pictures with a camera locked inside a waterproof housing.

On my current assignment, a story about seamounts for National Geographic magazine, these challenges reached epic proportions. While working on Las Gemelas seamount, the majority of my work would be done using cameras that were out of my hands.

Working with the engineers at National Geographic, deep-sea camera systems were designed and built for both a submersible I would be diving in and for a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). For both systems I use a laptop connected to the camera housing, inside of which is a second computer that allows me to interface with the camera. I can see exactly what the camera sees and have the ability to access controls, but the process is painfully slow.

While inside the submersible, I am essentially using the sub as a 7-ton camera housing, working with the expert pilots to position and fine-tune adjustments to get the composition I need. With the ROV, I am inside a cabin on board the ship, staring intently at a computer screen and pressing the shutter release, while my camera is 700 feet [213 meters] below, whizzing around on an 800-pound vehicle.

Over the last seven days, I have repeatedly climbed into the acrylic sphere on the Deep See submersible and descended to the seamount with my laptop to explore this netherworld of permanent darkness, straining my eyes to find subjects in the glow cast by the sub’s lights. When not in the sub, I have sat elbow-to-elbow with the ROV pilot Kevin Joy, working as one to fly the machine and make pictures. And yes, I have also actually gotten into the water at night, using a hand-held camera to photograph tiny, alien-like animals that live in the water column over this deep-water mountain.

While seven days is a very brief time, especially given the gauntlet of technical problems we all encountered, in the end I made a few very cool frames — images that exceeded my expectations, and which I believe will give readers a small glimpse — a window if you will — into the world of undersea mountains.
February 28, 2012
Summiting an Underwater Mountain - Greg Stone
Costa Rica’s equatorial sun streams through the clear dome of the submarine Deep See. A diver appears, smiles through the Plexiglas, and quickly puts a cover over the sphere so that we do not overheat as we are towed back to the ship after a successful dive to the seamount.

I’ve finally made it to Argo, the mother ship for Deep See, and I’m here with a terrific crew headed by the storied Avi Klapfer. We also have a team of accomplished scientists like Dr. Jorge Cortes from the Centro de Investigación en Ciencias del Mar y Limnología (CIMAR) and Dr. Larry Madin from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

I am also very happy to have two good friends on board: Alan Dynner and Mike Velings. Mike and I share a passion for chess; he has brought along a board, and we play during the few moments we can find in the days that are richly filled with submarines, ROVs and scuba diving — usually making quick moves as we run out the door to dive.

We are anchored above the Las Gemelas seamounts, 340 miles [547 kilometers] off the coast of Costa Rica. The water is still, there is no wind. Conditions are perfect. Down below, I feel like the scenes of underwater wilderness will never end. Deep-sea sharks, groupers, salps and jellyfish surround us.

So far we have made three bluewater scuba dives to study the animals near the surface. Bluewater diving is so called because once in the water, it is blue in all directions — except straight below us, where the seafloor is some 5,000 feet [1,524 meters] down. There, it fades to pitch black.

On this expedition, we have made five dives so far in our “one atmosphere” submarine. Once the hatch closes, it maintains the normal pressure of Earth at sea level. We can dive up to 1,500 feet [457 meters] without worrying about decompression sickness. During these dives, we are tethered together for safety in a rig called a trapeze.

Dr. Larry Madin is an expert on pelagic invertebrates; he and I have been diving together for over 20 years. On this trip, Larry and I have already identified a number of mid-water animals, including ctenophores, jellyfish and salps. These drifting, soft bodied, jelly-like animals are among the most common creatures on Earth, yet we know little about them. Today, Larry said with a laugh, “If a spaceship from another world landed here, their first impression might be that Earth is inhabited by salps.”

As the submarine dives, taking us to another world, we see an underwater mountain, a magnificent formation rising 3,000 feet [914 meters] from the seafloor. We dive down to its summit, about 600 feet [183 meters] from the surface.

It is amazing that a mere 600 feet can take you to such a different place, but that is how the ocean works. At this depth the pressure is 18 times greater than the surface. The light is a lovely green, blue, black tint; we call this region the twilight zone of the ocean. The peaks of the Las Gemelas seamount live perpetually in this zone, a wonderful place with prickly sharks; snowy, olive and sailfin groupers; calcareous hydroids; and several species of deep corals.

Tonight we have launched the ROV and saw lanternfish, a type of deep-sea fish with the ability to generate its own light. Occasionally they make excursions to shallower water at night. Which reminds me, it’s now midnight, and I need to get some sleep because photographer Brian Skerry and I will be diving first thing in the morning.
February 26, 2012
Jelly Animals Around the Seamount - by Dr. Larry Madin
While our sub and ROV are focusing attention on the biology of the seamount, others are looking at what lives in the waters above it. Here, 400 miles from shore, we are in open ocean waters, and the water column is home to many different kinds of jelly-like planktonic animals. Groups of divers venture into the upper waters, held by safety lines to keep them from drifting off, and look for the jellyfish and similar animals that float or swim in the clear warm waters.

In the first few days here the prevailing current was from the southwest and brought oceanic species that we would also see in the middle of the Pacific--comb jellies, Pelagia jellyfish, and salps.

After a few days the current shifted, coming instead from the east and coastal waters of Central America. Now there was murky water with few animals but bits of floating plastic and other trash. After another couple of days it shifted again, restoring the community of floating and swimming plankton. Diving in this infinite blue environment is a reminder that we are seeing what 99% of the ocean is like--clear water that is home to diverse, unusual and rarely seen animals that are some of the most abundant creatures on Earth. We get a brief glimpse into the heart of our ocean planet.
February 24, 2012
First Dive in the Submarine - by Alan Dynner
Dr. Larry Madin and I arrived in Costa Rica, a lovely, progressive, stable Central American paradise, on a sunny, mild February 17. At our hotel in San Jose, we met Mike Velings, a Dutch businessman and conservationist, and the next morning, after a beautiful 1 1/2 hour drive to Puntareanas on the Pacific coast, boarded the M/V Argo and left on the noon tide for Cocos Island, 300 miles to the southwest.

On board are Brian Skerry, National Geographic underwater photojournalist and Explorer in Residence and Overseer at the New England Aquarium; Larry Madin, Executive Vice President and Director of Research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and an Overseer at the Aquarium; Dr. Peter Auster, research professor of marine science at the University of Connecticut; Dr. Jorge Cortes, professor of marine science at the Center for Marine Science and Limnology at the University of Costa Rica; Luis Lamar, Brian Skerry’s assistant; Kevin Joy and Lance Horn, pilots and technologists for the remotely operated vehicle (ROV); and Mike Velings. Dr. Greg Stone, Senior Vice President, Marine Conservation, and Chief Ocean Scientist at Conservation International, and Senior Vice President for Exploration and Conservation and an Overseer at the Aquarium, will join us in a few days. I’m on board as a lifetime diver and conservationist, and former Chairman of the Board of Overseers and Trustee, currently an Overseer, at the Aquarium.

Our primary mission on the expedition is for Brian to photograph the Las Gemelas seamounts, 40 miles further southwest from Cocos Island, and for Greg to gather information, for an upcoming article on seamounts they will author for National Geographic magazine. Brian, Greg, and I have participated in two prior expeditions, to the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, in 2008 and to Raja Ampat, West Papua, New Guinea, Indonesia, last year, to collect material for the article. In addition, Larry Madin, one of the world’s foremost experts on pelagic invertebrates (like jellyfish) will collect and study specimens on site. Jorge Cortes, an expert on coral reefs and marine animals of Cocos Island and the surrounding areas, and Peter Auster, known for his work on seamounts (underwater mountains, usually of volcanic origin), will gather data and provide information.

We arrive at Las Gemelas after 40 hours of smooth sailing on unusually calm seas and prepare for the first dive in the submarine, which has been specially rigged with cameras. Brian and I descend in the sub with pilot Shmulik Blum, to the seamount floor. At a depth of 140 feet a hammerhead shark approaches cautiously, then disappears in the gloom with a flick of its tail. The light grows dim as we reach the seamount summit. Our floodlights show a floor of gently sloping basalt rock, punctuated by tall rock ridges and peaks. The rocks are covered with deep water corals, brittle sea stars, sea urchins, and large schools of red basslets. Around the base of the ridges and peaks swim huge groupers, hunting for prey. I’m blown away by the amount of sea life, which is much more dense and various than life on the sea mount in the Sea of Cortez that has suffered from overfishing and other man-made stresses. The only disappointment is that all over the bottom and on many rocks are old fishing lines and ropes, a real threat to our submarine; the biggest danger for a sub is getting snagged by fishing tackle. Then a huge mobula, a type of ray, appears in front of our dome. I almost fall out of my seat in surprise, but luckily grab my point and shoot digital camera and take an HD video of the visit. Shmulik maneuvers the sub under Brian’s direction as he takes images of the world of the seamounts. I’m thrilled and too soon we depart for the surface.
February 20, 2012
A Dolphin Escort to Cocos Island - by Greg Stone
I awake to the bright morning sun streaming through my cabin’s porthole, wishing that I’d taken a cabin on the starboard side of the ship, pointing west. After pulling on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, I am out the door and up the companionway, finding myself in the galley where several crew members are watching television.

The cook indicates he can make me some food, but he speaks little English. Soon I have ordered an omelet — or at least I think I have — and leaving him to cook it, I open the heavy watertight door, step over the bulkhead and walk out on the deck.

Squinting in the bright sunlight and feeling the intense warmth of the tropics, the smell of the ocean fills my senses. The air has a rich, full humidity, lightly spiced with sulfur — specifically the dimethyl sulfide that is produced by trillions of microscopic plants in the ocean that now surrounds me. These tiny plants produce most of the oxygen on Earth — creating the atmosphere on which we depend — and are the photosynthetic basis for the entire ocean food chain.

I see a white fleck in the distance: the hull of a fishing boat. The ocean is flat, like a mirror, as our vessel cuts a line through it, making a wake that stretches out on either side as far as the eye can see. A flying fish leaps from the water, and we make eye contact. A sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus) bobs in the water, looking up as we glide by. Not a cloud in the sky, the ocean is a silvery blue. I am home.

Early the next morning, Cocos Island is in view — the most spectacular island I have ever seen. Multiple peaks rising from the ocean, waterfalls stream into the sea, flocks of birds feed and bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) surround us. I can hear their high-pitched screeches as they jump, twist and play in the ship’s bow wake. I spend an hour with them as we pass Cocos; then as if to say “goodbye,” they leap, tail slap and head back to the island.

These dolphins are generally found along the coast and near islands. The seamount to which I am heading — some 30 miles [48 kilometers] beyond Cocos — is too far off shore. I look to the horizon, hoping to see the boat where I will meet my colleagues, but she is still too far away. The captain says we will rendezvous in some eight hours; I cannot wait.
Febraury 19, 2012
To Reach Seamount Expedition, the Ride of a Lifetime
by Greg Stone
As Continental’s Boeing 737 touches down late evening on the runway of San José’s airport, I realize I have finally made it to Costa Rica, but sadly 12 hours too late! I was delayed due to a missed flight from Los Angeles, and spent two frustrating days waiting for another one. The research vessel Argo, with the rest of our team and equipment, has departed without me; I have quite literally “missed the boat.”

As I explained in my last post, the expedition’s main goal is to explore a seamount located over 300 miles [483 kilometers] off shore. To do this we have chartered Argo which operates a submarine, named Deep See, that will take us down to a depth of 1,500 feet [460 meters] to survey the summit and sides of this underwater mountain. We also have a robot to help with this work, called a remotely operated vehicle (ROV).

The combined costs per day for these assets are significant, so the team was forced to head off shore on schedule, to achieve our objectives with the precious 10-day charter. Each day counts and is critical to success. In order to get me to the ship, we have chartered yet another vessel, the storied Undersea Hunter, which will provide me, the sole passenger, with the most luxurious oceanic taxi ride of a lifetime.

Outside the airport, a man named Marco holds a sign with my name; bleary-eyed from travel and many hours waiting in airports, I greet Marco with a smile and my few words of Spanish, which match his few words of English. Thus, the three-hour drive to the coast is pleasant, albeit silent, as we occasionally look and smile at each other, unable to share a common language. The nighttime world of rural Costa Rica — restaurants, bars, farms, small homes, dimly-lit stores, people walking — all of it flashes past my window, as I drift in and out of sleep. The air is acrid from fires.

A bump in the road jars me awake; it’s now just after 1 a.m. I see the lights of the dock shining on the white hull of the 90-foot [27-meter] Undersea Hunter, as she sits patiently upon the still waters of the estuary of Punta Arenas, which connects us to the Gulf of Nicoya, and the vast beautiful Pacific Ocean beyond. Undersea Hunter is a live-aboard dive vessel that I have long heard about; she pioneered diving around the spectacular Cocos Island. This boat was one of the very first vessels to take people from all walks of life to some of the most amazing undersea places on Earth — places that had only previously been visited and dived by scientists, explorers and the likes of Jacques Cousteau.

I feel like Jason Bourne, as I am the sole person boarding this large vessel at such a late hour under cover of darkness, off a remote side road in Costa Rica; it feels very clandestine. Since I am the only passenger, I have my pick of her 10 cabins. The captain jokes that I can move every two hours into a new cabin if I like. I can tell the crew has never taken only one person such a long distance — especially departing at this time of night, it all feels like something from a movie. But this is the only way for me to get out to our research site and join the team to accomplish our mission.

I drop my dive gear with a thump on the aft deck, the crew stores it, and they show me to Cabin 5. There I fall into a lovely double bed, and just before sleep overtakes me, I hear the engines rumble to a start, a few calls from the crew as they loosen dock lines, and we are underway.
Febraury 17, 2012
Seamount Expedition Kicks Off in Costa Rica
by Greg Stone
I’m briefly back home in Hawaii and am preparing to fly to Central America to begin a National Geographic expedition to explore seamounts off the coast of Costa Rica. With the large amount of travel I’m doing these days I’m very much beginning to feel like Jules Verne’s famous character Phileas Fogg from “Around the World in Eighty Days.”

First, let me backtrack; we’ve been talking about a story on seamounts for many years and have made a number of trips: beginning in the Sea of Cortez, and more recently including a trip in early 2011 to Raja Ampat, Indonesia and later to the Cortes bank off the coast of California. Seamounts are underwater volcanoes — some extinct, some still active — whose size and expanse can rival the Rocky Mountains. They are unique for their biodiversity which rival that of any coral reef system. Many endemic species (species unique to a specific geography) — as well as species new to science — have been found around seamounts, so they provide a significant opportunity for study.

My good friend and world-renowned underwater photographer Brian Skerry will be co-leading this trip with me; together, we hope to paint a compelling picture of these unique systems. Our team will also include Dr. Larry Madin from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Dr. Peter Auster from the University of Connecticut; Alan Dynner from the New England Aquarium; and Mike Velings, a Dutch entrepreneur and founder of the Netherlands-based “A-Spark – Good Ventures,” a company focused on environmentally-friendly business models.

Our destination is Cocos Island, which is found 300 miles [483 kilometers] southwest of Cabo Blanco in Costa Rica. In 1994, Jacques Cousteau called it the “most beautiful island in the world.” In order to get there we will be travelling on the Argo, a 130-foot [40-meter] vessel that includes both deep-diving submersibles and ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicles), which we’ll use to help us explore the surrounding seamounts and to hopefully better understand these systems.

I’m very excited to reach Costa Rica and to begin this final chapter of our seamounts adventure. The final story will come to fruition later in 2012 in National Geographic Magazine. I look forward to providing another blog update during the expedition to let you know how things are going — stay tuned!
Febraury 16, 2012
Costa Rica Seamounts: Expedition Background - by Alan Dynner
The Aquarium is sponsoring an expedition to explore seamounts, or underwater volcanos, in Costa Rica, along with several leading underwater exploration and research groups. Over the next couple weeks, look for pictures and stories about this expedition from Aquarium explorers. Learn about previous expeditions to study seamounts in the Sea of Cortez and Raja Ampat, Indonesia.

Today's post comes from Alan Roy Dynner, New England Aquarium Overseer (and former Chairman of Board of Overseers and Trustee).

This is the third and final expedition to explore and photograph seamounts (underwater volcanos, usually dormant). There are an estimated 100,000 seamounts in the oceans. They attract large congregations of marine life, fed by the nutrient-rich deep water that upwells around the seamounts. Dr. Greg Stone, Senior Vice President for Exploration and Conservation and Overseer (and Senior Vice President, Chief Scientist for Oceans, Conservation International) and Brian Skerry, Overseer and Explorer in Residence (and National Geographic underwater photographer), are preparing an article for National Geographic based upon material gathered from the three expeditions (the first two were in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, and Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia).

The expedition team will use a three-person submarine to explore and photograph the Las Gemelas seamounts off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. In the words of Brian Skerry, his intention is to provide images of the:

"wildlife living around the Las Gemelas seamounts. The story we are producing for National Geographic magazine will show readers the unique ecosystems that seamounts represent in Earth's oceans; that they have tremendous biodiversity and as some of the last remaining "hot spots" in the sea, must be conserved. My plans are to photograph deeper water animals (primarily fish and corals) using the DeepSee submersible and the remotely operated vehicle owned by the University of Connecticut. Additionally, I hope to photograph zooplankton in the shallower depths that migrate up from deep water each night in search of food. "

The team will also use the ROV to explore the seamounts. Dr. Larry Madin, Aquarium Overseer (and Executive Vice President and Director of Research of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), will lead a team to scuba dive day and night at modest depths in very deep waters, in his words:

"to photograph and collect gelatinous zooplankton, organisms such as jellyfish, siphonophores, comb jellies and salps.

These specimens will be preserved for later study and analysis.
© copyright by New England Aquarium

This expedition is supported in part by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1114251. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

This expedition is sponsored by the New England Aquarium, Conservation International, National Geographic, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of Connecticut and the National Science Foundation. The New England Aquarium participants are Dr. Gregory Stone, Brian Skerry, Alan Roy Dynner and Dr. Larry Madin.