The Sargasso Sea
Teddy enjoyed a long-standing relationship with National Geographic magazine, first as the subject of articles and then as a consultant on expeditions that included a number of assignments with deep-sea photographer Emory Kristoff.
Teddy possessed a unique understanding of ocean currents and conditions and could drop a camera trap or submersible on a sixpence, miles below, long before GPS and precision positioning software. His skill on the water and knowledge of the ocean was unsurpassed hence the saying among the staff of National Geographic magazine that ‘if you need to get something done, get Teddy Tucker.’ In the notoriously unpredictable environment of the ocean Teddy would put you in the right place at the right time.
In July 2013, photographers David Doubilet and David Littswagger teamed up with Teddy on a challenging assignment to record the life of the little understood area of open ocean called the Sargasso Sea. This turned out to be Teddy’s final mission. The account below is by team member Dr Philippe Rouja:
At 3 am, with the generator humming and the lights pointing down into the depths, I boarded Chris Flook’s 16 foot dory “Little Tunny” that we had towed behind “Sea Foam” as a safety and collections boat for the expedition. As we let loose the line and backed away from the halo of light created around the larger boat, it felt like we were a constellation letting go of a larger planetary body to slip into outer space.
Manifest in a pitch black sea 20 miles off Bermuda, this blue halo of light was created following Teddy Tucker’s instructions. Anchored on the edge of Challenger Bank with the stern hanging in over 1,000 feet of water, we had at the stern of Teddy’s boat three 700 watt halogen lights racked on the gunnels and one submerged 800 watt HDMI light pointing down from the surface. As we were carried back by a soft 2 knot current, the darkness literally folded over Chris’s boat.
I have only ever experienced this kind of darkness in the remote coastal wilderness of northwestern Australia. Here on a becalmed Sargasso Sea, it carried with it one additional feature - almost perfect silence. With the boat adrift on a mirrored ocean, as the light fell away so did the noise of the generators powering the lights, and we were enveloped in an incredible stillness.
At first the darkness felt thick and empty, but as the light of the expedition boat dimmed, the majesty of the moonless sky came to light. The Milky Way in full view with no light pollution is not just a “milkiness” in the starry sky that we are used to seeing but a clearly definable shape and individually constituted universe. Chris lit the small LED light he had been using all evening to spy on the creatures that live at the surface of the Sargasso Sea and said, “Check this out." As he waved the narrow wand of light into the depths, the dark sea lit up, not with the bright phosphorescence of disturbed water but with its own set of stars deep down. As we drifted further into the darkness, the effect of being on the edge of the universe was only accentuated. The infinitely starry ocean moved seamlessly to infinitely starry sky and back again. If gravity had lifted, we could have sailed off with equanimity in any direction on any plane.
Under Chris’s light we started to see small bits of sargassum weed. Leaning over the edge of the low gunnels of the dinghy in the dark, Chris began searching, finding and collecting the tiny creatures of this unique ecosystem for David Littswagger. David is a National Geographic explorer in residence and specialist in highly planned macro photography who was sent to Bermuda to help document and highlight the micro universes within the Sargasso Sea. Before collecting them, we watched and tried to film these creatures caught in their nightly routines. Coming out of the dark we could achieve a scientist’s perfect fantasy: observing behaviors as close to uninterrupted by the observer as possible.
Flying fish the size of my fingernail belied both their names by neither flying nor swimming but by appearing to nimbly walk over the top of sargassum patches. Larger 3-inch blue versions floated by in the current with tails oddly curled under their bodies, wings out, sitting up vertically not horizontally, as if standing in the water column, seemingly asleep in the tide.
That was not all we learned; striking, too, was the amount of (small) micro sized plastic debris on the surface caught in the band of organic material between the Sargasso pieces. Reflecting the light in blues and whites, tiny plastic particles that blend with ocean particles during the day became highly visible at night. I had heard that plastics are throughout ocean ecosystems but had not really taken samples on board. I can tell you now that it is a truism – plastics are everywhere.
After an hour or so we returned to the mother ship knowing that we were needed to assist Teddy and the other National Geographic explorers on this expedition, the world renowned underwater photographer David Doubilet and his wife Jen Hayes. Their mission was to capture these creatures in their habitat in order to bring to the world a greater appreciation of just what is out here. Clipped onto a 60 foot tether with an array of camera gear, David would launch himself into the blue halo created by the lights out over an abyss. The edges of the light halo looked definite but only to the eye, so Chris and I were there in some measure to add an element of watchfulness over his activities.
Two nights before, again at Challenger Bank, when we first tested the lights on a less calm night, a giant marlin came to visit us. We are told that marlin are cast in dark blue and hard silver, but this is untrue. In a ten second performance of absolute speed, he flashed through our lights turning his immense head once to have a look and then he was gone. The impression he left behind on the retina was a palette of pastel light blues, greens and whites but most predominantly and inconceivably, pale yellows – muted in color but incredibly lit up and bright all at once. Before a hand could touch a camera, it was gone. All we had time to do was gasp.
On our expedition into the darkness we had collected Puffer fish, a juvenile Trigger fish and some possible juvenile flying Gannards and Mahi Mahi or Dolphin fish. We reattached our tether and handed our samples aboard. Tonight for the third dive it was decided that we would lift anchor and drift off the northeast quadrant of the Bank. As David attached his line, dipping seamlessly into and out of the water, I said to him that I felt as though we were in the book “The Little Prince” with our boats floating on the outside of the atmosphere of a little planet. We imagine we are diving but we are actually space walking with fish flying up to see us.
That night as we drifted over 2,000 feet of water, David Doubilet would go on to find himself surrounded by hundreds of jacks flying out of the deep. They gathered in the light and schooled around him embracing him in an incredible dance. In the last hour of darkness before dawn, he spent some time at the surface with a bearded flying fish and took what I believe is one of the most incredible ocean pictures ever taken.
Bermuda is surrounded by one of the most incredible and diverse ocean wildernesses, a collection of miracles manifesting themselves on a continuous basis. The two Davids are effectively time bandits freezing the frame for a millisecond and capturing a small, perfect element that encapsulates ( the totality of ) this ongoing miracle so that we all can be stopped and made to wonder.
Teddy had observed, first hand, the changes in the life among the reef and surrounding waters of Bermuda over his lifetime. Over exploited, polluted and with man continuously extending his reach into the ocean, often unregulated and with unknown consequences, Teddy was a fierce advocate for conserving the marine world.
He was a founding member of the Sargasso Sea Alliance, a partnership of governments, scientists and marine conservation groups to protect the unique and vulnerable ocean ecosystem by creating the world's largest high seas marine protected area.
“Tucker deserved to be remembered as much for his work in protecting the oceans as he will be for his glamour exploits as shipwreck diver and treasure hunter. That was a very important part of Teddy’s life.” Wendy Benchley.