Just in time to ring in the New Year, the Argo returned from a 20-day chartered voyage to the Galápagos Islands with National Geographic!
This special expedition was led by Enric Sala of the Pristine Seas project. His goal was simple: to examine and document the biomass of this marine treasure in order to make a case for increasing protection in the area. As of now, it is surprisingly legal to fish in the precious waters of the Galapagos national park.
There is a reason why Charles Darwin was so fascinated with this place. According to National Geographic Ocean, it is home to “2,900 known species of fish, invertebrates, and marine mammals, in addition to endemic seabirds and the world’s only marine iguana. Of those species, 57 are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.” Enric Sala would ultimately like to see the Galapagos made into a marine sanctuary, where underwater wildlife can live and thrive without human threats or intervention.
This was our 3rd trip with Sala and his Pristine Seas project, and once again the Argo proved to be the perfect vessel – it’s specifically designed to support both film and scientific crews. Sala’s emphasis on deep-sea and offshore environments made our DeepSee submersible a must. During this three-week expedition we managed to support 8 unique missions teams, which stretched the Argo’s crew capacity to the max.
Throughout the week, the Pristine Seas team used scuba diving, rebreather technology, 360-degree imaging, satellite tracker tagging, our DeepSee sub and an array of drop cameras and other high-tech gadgets to survey and document the Galapagos. The Undersea Hunter team was responsible for dozens of tasks at a time, manned and ready around the clock to help with whatever unforeseen obstacles might arise. If something broke, we were right there to fix it (or provide the tools necessary to fix it). This ensured that the trip ran as smoothly as possible.
After weeks of preparation, on December 3, 2015 we picked up Sala and his team of scientists and film crew, as well as members of the Charles Darwin Research Station, from Isla Santa Cruz, Ecuador. From there we explored Punta Vicente Rock, Roca Redonda, Darwin and Wolf Islands among many other places. We came across sea lions, penguins, cormorants and turtles. One sea lion loved our skiffs so much he climbed aboard each night to sleep in it! The terrestrial wildlife was just as interesting as underwater – we saw many reptiles and the world’s only marine iguana.
Each night after dinner Sala made the next day’s plan. He divided everyone into teams – the scientists, the film group, the pelagic camera group, the Drop Cam group and 360-degree camera group – our head dive officer, Federico Pochet plan and set logistics and made sure everyone could accomplish their goals without interfering with anyone else. Pochet handled everything from the broadest factors to the most minute details. Who will use each of our five skiffs tomorrow? Who needs boxed lunches for the day, or who will be dining buffet-style on the Argo? He had it all covered.
Everything ran like clockwork. One team of scientists would be out on one skiff scuba diving with specific mixes or using their rebreathers; at the same time the second skiff would be onshore or underwater at another location with a film crew. Meanwhile, the DeepSee made daily exploratory immersions. Its new 4K camera produced stunning, top-quality images on par with what Nat Geo required.
Nat Geo used a slew of photographic equipment to accomplish their biomass calculation goals. They dropped stereoscopic pelagic camera systems; as well as twin GoPros on a flat bar suspended by a line down to about 12m deep, placed 700m apart at the surface of the water. These ran for several hours a day, every day. Corey Jaskokski of Hydro Tech deployed various 360-degree cameras – these were composed of 12 GoPros joined together in an intricate, multi-armed structure. For extreme depths, an arrangement of 6 ultra-resolution cameras in a deepwater housing was attached to the sub. These rigs were filming in all directions. After a long editing process, the final product can be watched when the user puts on a pair of glasses and simply moves their head up, down or from side to side to see all of the different perspectives.
Nat Geo's Alan Turchik managed the Drop Cams, which were giant glass bubbles loaded with lights, mirrors and high-depth cameras capable of being submerged up to 11 kilometers deep! (Although Sala mostly used them at depths of 600-1000m). We placed them in the mornings, and retrieved them around mid-day. These babies are self-operated by a weight that is circuit-programmed to release at a certain time. Once the weight is released, the cameras surface on their own.
All in all, the underwater ecosystem was not as healthy as we’d hoped. Undersea Hunter owner Avi Klapfer was surprised by the diminutive life seen along the shore, which he attributes to overfishing in the area.
“Fisherman are allowed to fish in Galapagos and it shows big time,” Klapfer said. “Cocos, being a no take zone, is tenfold healthier. Cocos’ total protection of its near-shore ecosystem has clearly made an impact.” Although El Niño is in effect at the moment, it’s safe to assume fish would seek refuge in deeper water; but there too, the large reef fish were absent. “It was a sad reality,” Klapfer maintained. “This, in comparison to Cocos Island, truly demonstrates how effective conservation can yield a big change.”
Sala is fixated on encouraging the Ecuadorian government to declare Wolf and Darwin Islands a no-take, no-fishing zone – just like Cocos Island. Throughout the week, he was visited by several ministers and influential people all with the same goal of having the president sign a protection decree. Everyone has their fingers crossed.
Again, this is not the first time the Undersea Hunter has had Sala and his team aboard the Argo – in 2009 he visited us at Cocos Island and the Las Gemelas seamounts to document the precious aquatic ecosystem there (and he filmed a television documentary in the process). In 2013 he again chartered the Argo to explore Chile’s Desventuradas Islands, in hope of catalyzing the government to declare it a protected zone. On Oct 5, 2015, his hard work paid off – Chile made a chunk of ocean the size of Italy a no-take zone that is now and forever off-limits for fishermen. With luck and perseverance, Sala will repeat this success at the Galapagos.
What does the future hold? For 2016-2017, we have Pristine Seas on the books for a trip to the French Clipperton Island and the Mexican Revillagigedo Islands. Sala and his Pristine Seas initiative are taking the world by storm – one marine haven at a time.