The Undersea Hunter just returned from a special research expedition with Pharmamar, a bio-pharmaceutical company dedicated to searching for cancer cures in the deep sea.
In collaboration with InBio, the research team was made up of 7 people in total – all professional divers and marine biologists. Over the course of two weeks we took them exploring dive sites all over the southern Caribbean, starting in front of Manzanillo and stretching up to Limon. In uncharted waters at depths from 50-80m (165-260ft) the scientists were surprised to find colorful gardens of larger-than-life barrel sponges. The underwater seascape here was nothing short breathtaking.
Pharmamar was founded in 1986, with the express purpose of discovering marine invertebrates with molecules that can fight against cancer. In order to do this they have to dive deep – on this trip, anywhere from 45 to 250 feet. This requires specialty equipment, expertise and technical know-how concerning rebreathers and Trimex gas mixes; all of which the Undersea Hunter is well equipped to provide.
Closed-circuit rebreathers allow a diver to reuse each breath. When the diver exhales, the rebreather absorbs the carbon dioxide and recycles it, rather than releasing it in the form of bubbles. A computer reads the amount of oxygen left, and adds more oxygen to the gas so the diver can use it again. The loop can go on for a long time, allowing the diver to stay underwater for much greater periods than they could with open-circuit systems like SCUBA.
Trimex is another method Pharmarmar used to explore the depths. Trimex is a gas mix of helium, oxygen and nitrogen that reduces the narcotic effect of deep diving that can come on around 100+ feet. Breathing this gas, scientists can avoid nitrogen narcosis and keep a clear head at all times. This technique requires very long and carefully planned safety stops.
Over the course of two weeks in the Caribbean, the scientists collected and classified a whopping 400+ samples (most of them sponges). Such a sizeable number puts into perspective the impressive richness of species biodiversity that make up Costa Rica’s marine ecosystem!
To collect samples, Pharmamar took anywhere between 2 and 25 grams of each specimen – the minimum weight a chemist needs for analysis. They never, ever use machines, trolleys or dragnets for collecting – all is done painstakingly by hand so as to best preserve the natural habitat. They are also very careful not to collect any endangered species, species on the CITES list or organisims that are protected by nationwide laws. Back on the boat, the samples were organized, labeled and photographed. Once the Undersea Hunter reached land, they were sent to the lab to be analyzed for their cancer-fighting potential.
We look forward to supporting Pharmamar’s research team on future forays both at Cocos Island as well as into the vast, unexplored waters off the coast of Costa Rica. The ocean's potential for breakthroughs in modern medicine is just one more reason to protect this precious natural resource.