National Geographic

Seamount Expedition

© copyright by Brian Skerry

The Big Reveal – National Geographic Magazine
The Seamount Expedition is now a featured story in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The images captured during the week of diving in Las Gemelas was the result of a long and detailed preparation and a huge team effort by all participants. The DeepSee crew worked around the clock completing 13 dives in 7 days, spending more than 50 hours underwater, and the Argo crew operated the vessel - launching and recovering the ROV day and night, and supporting NatGeo photographer Brian Skerry with his persistence and vision in getting the shot he envisioned. The DeepSee submersible, MV Argo and the Undersea Hunter Group’s skilled crew were the reason National Geographic chose us for this challenging mission.
© copyright by Avi Klapfer
First Seamount Expedition to the Sea of Cortez
From The Beginning…
To fully understand the breadth and depth of this expedition I need to take you back to the very beginning. It all started 4 years ago when MV Argo and the DeepSee Submersible traveled to Mexico. This mission focused on exploring the Sea of Cortez and photographing the famous seamount El Bajo. National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry and the Senior Vice President of Conservation International Dr. Greg Stone were on an assignment for the magazine.

Their goal was to write a story about the importance of seamounts in the ocean as a center for biodiversity and a hot spot of life. El Bajo, once teaming with marine life, turned to be an underwater desert. Years of over fishing and bad management exhausted the ecosystem to a very alarming level. After a week of diving with the DeepSee around the seamount we all agreed that this sad discovery would have to be compared with a healthy and thriving seamount in order to illustrate their importance.

© copyright by AviKlapfer
Brian Skerry photographing Argo and DeepSee
Having What It Takes
An average story for National Geographic Magazine takes a full 2 years to complete. This story has been 4 years in the making due to the wide scope and complexity of photographing seamounts. The complexity stems from the location of seamounts, which often lay in remote locations beyond recreational diving depths and by definition rise-up from the bottom, with a peak that does not reach the surface.

Last year Dr. Greg Stone called our offices asking if we could dive the Las Gemelas Seamounts (located 40 miles southwest of Cocos Island). He said the mission would need MV Argo and the DeepSee Submersible as well as an ROV (remote operated vehicle) in order to complete the mission and capture the photos Brian had in mind for the article.

© copyright by Avi Klapfer
Loading Argo with the cameras and equipment for the expedition
© copyright by Avi Klapfer
Special rig designed specifically for the ROV
Pre-Trip Prep
MV Argo and the DeepSee crew started the long preparation for the challenging expedition. We would be working in the open ocean, 350 miles from the Costa Rican coast in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, diving where no one has ever dived before!!!

Special deep water cameras were built, and a technician from National Geographic flew in to install the equipment on DeepSee. We developed a custom launch and recovery system for the ROV that was custom fitted for Argo. After long days and countless hours spent going over the tiniest technical details we were ready for the expedition.

The night before the departure a truck carrying 2 tons of equipment arrived to our pier in Puntarenas. The team worked all night loading Argo and with first light we embarked on our journey to Las Gemelas.

© copyright by Avi Klapfer
3D image of the Seamount using special software installed on Argo.
© copyright by Avi Klapfer
Prickly shark found at the Seamount
Las Gemelas
The weather was very cooperative and we started to dive the DeepSee, looking for interesting features and topography for photographic opportunity. Every dive brought more photos and a better understanding of the biodiversity and structure of the seamount. During the week of diving we found a structure we dubbed “The Amphitheater”, a circular rock formation patched with a sandy bottom.

As we landed on the sandy bottom, the lights from the sub attracted a family of curious prickly sharks. The prickly shark is a deep-water shark that the DeepSee has observed at Cocos, and we were very excited to find them here as well. For Brian, it was an exciting photo opportunity; 12ft (3.5m) sharks circling & posing for the camera.

The most interesting discovery of the expedition came in the form of a Coliseum, composed of 15m (50ft) tall rocky walls creating a perfect crater just wide enough to fit DeepSee. This is exactly what Brian was looking for! The view of DeepSee in the Coliseum’s crater with its’ lights on created a frame of lights and shadows. It was the perfect image to convey to readers the sensation of a seamount.

© copyright by Avi Klapfer
NURTEC’s (ROV) Hela was operated by Kevin Joy of UCONN
© copyright by Avi Klapfer
Brian Skerry taking photos via the ROV
Getting the Shot
In order to capture the image of DeepSee at 200m (650ft) below the surface we had to use the ROV. Brought to the expedition by an expert team from the University of Connecticut, Brian hoped to achieve a unique and very never-before-seen view of the DeepSee with the seamount terrain. The ROV is a small unmanned vehicle that was controlled from the deck through a set of joysticks and control monitors. The operator navigates via a video camera mounted on the front of the vehicle.

To achieve the shot Brian had in mind we removed the custom made still camera mounted on DeepSee and reinstalled it on the ROV. That way Brian could stay on deck while the ROV moved in for the shot (200 meters below him). The ROV and Argo team maneuvered both the ship and ROV to the site where DeepSee was hovering. Four and a half hours later, with the satisfaction of Brian, we looked at the creation of a photo beyond words. Brian was excited with the results, the photo was unique he said, and we had never seen something so dramatic.

The 2012 pre-booking for DeepSee dives at Cocos for the rest of the year is now available to our clients. Make sure you reserve the dive of a lifetime in the DeepSee on your trip to Cocos Island.

© copyright by Undersea Hunter Group

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.
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