DeepSee Special Expedition Trip Report: Clipperton & Socorro
Part I: Clipperton
After 3 days of sailing from the Mexican coastline, out of the blue arose a white-sand atoll that looked like a ring of sand floating ever-so-slightly above the surface. Welcome to Clipperton: the most easterly atoll in the Pacific Ocean, which lies only a few meters above sea level.
We were here with the National Geographic Pristine Seas team. Their goal was to collect scientific data and produce visual media that will inspire governments to protect this remote and forgotten place. As with many other isolated oceanic islands, Clipperton is heavily threatened by overfishing.
As we set anchor and established satellite communication, exciting news streamed in. Rafael Corea, the president of Ecuador, had announced the creation of a 40,000 square mile marine sanctuary scattered throughout 21 distinct habitats around the volcanic archipelago of the Galapagos – an archipelago we visited last December with Pristine Seas. The initiative had been successful once again! This was the most incredible way to begin our Clipperton expedition – motivation and team spirit skyrocketed. Everyone aboard the Argo glowed with pride to be supporting such a valiant project.
Clipperton is the first true atoll the DeepSee has explored – up until now we have only used it to dive oceanic volcanic islands and coastal waters. We truly did not know what to expect. For our first dive, we decided to just cruise along the perimeter to get our bearings and observe this habitat and its underwater structure. The slopes of this atoll are very steep, and soon our depth gauge marked 350m. To our surprise, there was not much biodiversity below the 150m mark; however, this atoll had a very unique and fascinating geological story to tell.
Christian Jost, a French geographer who has dedicated his career to studying Clipperton, explained to us that the atoll is a geographical hotspot. Lava pressure under the earth’s crust had been pushed and elevated over time to create this unique structure. Once the lava cooled, pressure decreased and the island began to sink. Thus, the lagoon in the center was created. Interestingly enough, the atoll keeps sinking even today. The only thing that keeps it above sea level is a ring of coral reef that grows on the exterior slopes. If the island sinks faster than the coral can grow, it will transform into a seamount.
Nat Geo’s team used several different observation techniques and scientific disciplines to survey, quantify and catalogue the diverse species in the area. They used methods as simple as looking for pelagic animals from the surface of the open ocean; to techniques as complicated as using drop cams that can be deployed to abysmal depths and self-propel themselves back to the surface on a timer. They also used scuba and rebreather diving, and of course the DeepSee submersible.
By far the most exciting method was using the DeepSee to study the twilight zone, from 50m down to 450m. This is an exciting zone because so very little is known about it. In this area, species still use their eyes to see, but they are developing sensory organs to overcome the darkness.
Diving with Jost was fascinating, and he was an endless source of stories. He told us about fossil corals that grew on top of the atoll 3 million years ago, which today lies at a depth of 300m below the surface – solid evidence that this mountain is sinking.
The DeepSee team designed and executed a special container system, which enabled the sub to collect sand for later lab analysis. Scientists hope to learn about the age of this place from the tiny microorganisms that lived in the sand millions of years ago. Using the DeepSee’s manipulator arm, we collected samples of fossil corals. Looking at the corals’ growth rings we will be able to estimate their growth rate and approximate time approximately they were colonizing the shallow waters of the fringing reef.
Throughout 10 action-packed days of diving at Clipperton, we accomplished 18 sub dives during which we collected sand, corals, and recorded hours and hours of high quality video that will be used by National Geographic’s media team.
“Using the DeepSee and its dedicated crew is our first tool of choice, when it comes to deep water exploration,” proclaimed expedition leader Dr. Enric Sala.
Hearing these words was a definitive moment for the DeepSee team. For us, there was truly no better way to end yet another exciting and successful expedition. We packed up and set sail for the Mexican coast, where we would refuel and prepare for our next voyage: the Mexico’s Revillagigedo Archipelgo.
Christian Jost getting ready to explore Clipperton in the DeepSee sub
Part II: Revillagigedo
This was not the first time the DeepSee had visited the Mexican Revillagigedo. We first explored this area back in 2014, supporting a Mexican television production called “Por La Planeta.” Fast forward two years later, and now we were voyaging with Nat Geo’s Pristine Seas team. Their objective was to document and evaluate the biomass and diversity of fish, sharks and coral of the Socorro Island, San Benedicto Island and the Roca Partida outcropping – with the ultimate goal of inspiring the government to promise more protection for those remote islands.
The Revillagigedo is located in the middle of the Eastern Pacific hurricane belt. Most hurricanes born on this side of the ocean ram into these islands. Local scientist Carlos Sanchez explained that the lack of hard corals and invertebrates here are the direct result of frequent and severe storms that crush the shores of the archipelago.
We started by exploring Socorro. Socorro is the largest of the 3 main atolls here, featuring a Mexican navy base on its protected side. After anchoring and checking in, we invited the navy admiral for a sub dive the next day. Although he had spent years on the island, this was his very first opportunity to experience firsthand the multifaceted underwater world that lies just meters away. Socorro is relatively young volcano, offering rock formations surrounded by plenty of black volcanic sand. The island suffers from overfishing and very little governmental protection. Unlike Clipperton, which is so remote that practically no one goes there, Socorro is a hotspot for hardcore divers. Liveaboards arrive from the Mexican coastline bringing divers from all over the world. This meant we had to coordinate our dives with the liveaboard operators, and plan around their diving “rush hour.” This was a very different experience than our past Pristine Seas expeditions, where it was normally just us and the ocean.
We began diving with the sub around the rockiest areas, which we located with the boat sounder. Using the DeepSee’s manipulator arm, we collected several species of sea fans that we suspect are new species to science. We observed very few hard corals and visibility was not that great, but we could still see some sharks and the rock formation was impressive. As we continued deeper, we found large schools of Peruvian snappers and giant Pacific manta rays. The mantas just couldn’t contain their curiosity about the DeepSee sub, and they swam around us for the entire dive – culminating in the most spectacular dance show we’d ever seen.
As it happens, this year the entire eastern Pacific suffered from the effects of a severe El Niño event; Socorro included. Warmer water was pushed into the shallows, changing the typical migration routes of humpback whales – which normally pass by here between January and April. This year, as far as we could tell the whales were completely absent along the Revillagigedo. We looked for them, but to no avail.
After completing our survey of Socorro, we lifted anchor and sailed to the remote outcropping known as Roca Partida. This tiny rock formation in the middle of the ocean is a landmark for pelagic travellers including manta rays, Galapagos sharks, silvertips and silky sharks. Yet its remote location is not enough to protect it; as evidenced on one of the DeepSee’s dives to the base of the rock at about 80m. There we witnessed the power of the destruction of overfishing – a tuna seiner net was entangled on the ocean floor, engulfing hundreds of square meters of rocks, corals and living organisms as a silent death trap.
Here, just like at Socorro, we found ourselves sharing the water with up to 5 liveaboard boats at a time. As the weather changed, we all had to move to a more protected location (Roca Partida affords no shelter from storms). Luckily we had already completed the deepwater survey with the DeepSee sub, and collected all the samples that we needed. We were now ready for San Benedicto.
San Benedicto Island is famous for its intense concentration of giant Pacific mantas. These graceful creatures can grow up to 5m in wingspan, and they are known to visit the shallows to be cleaned by the endemic clarion angelfish. On one specific round rock, called “The Boiler” you can find mantas on almost every dive. We were about to find out that there is also another reason that the mantas come to this special spot.
Diving much deeper than humans could ever safely go with scuba tanks, the DeepSee took us to 100-150m where we found a thick layer of krill – which look like tiny red shrimps – that created thick clouds around the sub lights. It became obvious that the mantas come here not only to be cleaned by the angelfish, but also to feast on krill! The rays swam down to this deep layer using their cephalic front fins to scoop nutrient-rich water through their mouths, tumbling in perfect loops and landing 360-degree barrel rolls. This was a mesmerizing behavior that we had never seen before.
After 16 days of sub diving, the DeepSee completed 30 dives including over 100 hour of surveys and dozens of sample collections for Nat Geo’s scientific team. This being our 5th expedition with the Pristine Seas project, we were sad to see the journey end – as we have come to feel like a big family with their team.
As for the big picture, I feel lucky that we live and operate at Cocos Island. Personally, I think that the marine life at Cocos Island in terms of sheer quality and quantity is far greater than in all of the places we visited on this voyage combined. Thanks to Costa Rica’s local protections and dive regulations, Cocos Island offers an unadulterated underwater experience – it is truly one of the ocean’s last frontiers.
DeepSee Submersible Director of Operations