The Deep Ocean

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An insatiable curiosity about life in the ocean drew Teddy to the edge of the reef platform and to look into the unknown. The seamount that Bermuda sits on drops steeply into the deep and Teddy described the island as the world’s best ocean research platform for this reason, just a few miles from shore and you are hovering over 2,500 ft of dark water. 

The deep ocean makes up 95% of habitable earth and to date only 0.0001% of it has been explored. The planet that we are familiar with, the land, coastal areas, shallow seas, the skies, all the life it supports, is a mere 5% of habitable earth. Please, stop and think about that for a moment. Protected by its inaccessibility, the vast majority of our own planet remains a mystery.

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s while the US and USSR punched through the sky, a handful of ocean pioneers were starting to probe the deep; testing equipment and mans’ resilience in extreme, earthly environments. This was Teddy’s first experience of the world of deep ocean exploration. In 1959, he was invited by Jacques Cousteau to view his diving saucer, ‘Denise’ (SP-350) on board his boat Calypso, docked in New York. Then in 1964, Teddy assisted the US Navy with the deployment of the SEALAB I habitat off Bermuda. These early advances would open the door for science to follow and in the 1970s Teddy set out to investigate the mysteries of life for himself in the deep ocean around Bermuda’s Seamount.

 
Teddy on board Calypso, talking with Emile Gagnan - co-inventor of SCUBA

Teddy on board Calypso, talking with Emile Gagnan - co-inventor of SCUBA

 

Teddy had spent most his life on the water around Bermuda, had listened to the fishermen’s tales of weird and wonderful creatures from far below and had seen unidentifiable fish emerge during his own open water fishing trips. Applying a fisherman’s practicality, Teddy used simple lines and baited traps to sample life in the water column. A crude methodology but an important and intriguing first step to begin to understand what was living up to a mile and a half beneath the surface.

Highly adapted for life in the ocean depths and rarely encountering any significant change to their habitat, many species have barely evolved for millions of years. One night Teddy lowered his lines thousands of feet into the deep and caught a primitive looking, 13 foot long shark. He had landed a blunt-nose six-gill shark, a ‘living fossil’ with more relatives in the fossil record than among sharks living today. Thought to live in a narrow range in the tropics they had never before been recorded so far north. 

 
RV Academic Keldysh and MIR submersible

RV Academic Keldysh and MIR submersible

Anatoly Sagalevitch and Emory Kristof aboard the MIR Submersible

Anatoly Sagalevitch and Emory Kristof aboard the MIR Submersible

 

In 1984 Teddy was a founding member of a remarkable collaboration between Soviet and Western institutions. The project would deploy manned submersibles up to 7,000 ft into the abyss around his Atlantic home in search of rare sharks and the elusive giant squid.

Led by Dr. Eugenie Clark, intrigued by Teddy’s discovery of the 6-gill shark, and specialist underwater photographer Emory Kristoff. The project was named the Beebe Project in honour of the 1930s deep ocean pioneer and personal hero of Dr. Clark, William Beebe. Of the deep, Beebe wrote: ‘The only other place comparable to these marvelous nether regions, must surely be naked space itself, out far beyond the atmosphere, between the stars.'

The project ran repeated expeditions to Bermuda until 1992, using first, the French Pisces VI submersible and then the Soviet MIR submersibles. They studied the habitat and behaviour of the six-gill shark, documented myriad deep sea creatures but never did find the giant squid. National Geographic photographer Kristof set baiting experiments at 2,000-4,000 ft in a hope to capture the first images of the elusive beast, the largest invertebrate on earth and basis of the most infamous sea monster, the kraken.

 
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Remains of unidentified beasts washing ashore have been reported for centuries and in 1988 Teddy found a globster (the term for an ocean born unidentified organic mass) in Mangrove Bay. He described it as three feet thick, very white and fibrous with five arms or legs rather like a disfigured starfish. Early analysis suggested the specimen came from a shark, later tests identified squid or octopus and most recently whale. Despite the science, the arrival from the deep of large alien looking matter does little to dispel the legends of sea monsters.

Author Peter Benchley used the adventures and exploits of his close friend Teddy as inspiration for his bestsellers 'Jaws' and 'The Deep'. In 1992 he released his latest novel, 'The Beast', about a 100 foot giant squid driven from the depths by over fishing and now stalking the waters around Bermuda. Fiction was tracking fact or at least, borrowing liberally from the latest pursuits of deep ocean explorers.

Teddy joined Emory on the 1996 National Geographic expedition to the Kaikora Canyon off the coast of New Zealand to hunt for the ‘kraken’ but again the giant squid evaded their attentions. The first live Giant Squid was finally photographed in 2004 off Japan but to date has never been recorded in the Atlantic. As technology advances and more frequent attempts to visit the deep are made, explorers will encounter more creatures, many that we never knew shared the planet with us. But there is an increasing risk that much of what is unknown will be lost before it is discovered. Ecosystems that grow at an achingly slow pace, some that have formed over tens even hundreds of thousands of years, are highly vulnerable to disturbance.

 
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“We still think of the deep ocean as being this remote and pristine realm, safe from human impact, but our research shows that, sadly, this could not be further from the truth.” Dr. Alan Jamieson.

Recent research found extreme levels of industrial pollutants present in deep-sea life. Crustaceans carrying the toxic chemical, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBS) at 50 times the concentration found in crabs from China’s most polluted rivers.

The latest discoveries of significant deposits of rare earth metals mean the sea floor below 1,000 metres is becoming a serious prospect for mining operations.

‘This Deep Sea Mining exploration frenzy is occurring in the absence of regulatory regimes or conservation areas to protect the unique and little-known ecosystems of the deep sea.’ Dr. Helen Rosenbaum.

The more scientists do learn about the deep sea, the less it appears as a lifeless abyss, and the more fundamental this world appears to be for both the wider marine environment and, as a carbon sink - the regulation of the Earth’s climate.

Better technology and reduced catch means some trawlers have shifted their attention to bottom trawling, dragging nets using heavy weights that are known to destroy underwater environments which have remained undisturbed for thousands of years. Raising concern for, the little understood, but life abundant, benthic sediments and deep sea coral sites. One such coral site is believed to be a contender as one of the world’s oldest organisms, at a remarkable 1,800 years old.

‘Individual corals could produce chemicals potentially useful for treating high blood pressure, cancer, and chronic pain. Unlike the world’s rainforests, these unknown formations could be lost or damaged without anyone ever having noticed they were there.’ Dr. Andrew David Thaler.

Teddy’s dear friend Peter Benchley used the world of the deep as the source of the greatest tension in his books. He exploited our primitive discomfort with an alien world, the fear of the unknown and what came from it. But more alarming than a fear of the deep would be our indifference to it.

 
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‘The seafood that forms an important part of our own nourishment lives in levels that are relatively shallow by comparison with the deepest depths. Factory ships scour these levels with nets akin to walls of death that overwhelm anything in their path. Further down, a mere mile from the land on which we live, a totally different world begins, a world without sunlight but one that is home to countless lifeforms of which we know almost nothing about. Many of these are beautiful and intricate, all are fragile, yet some of them have abilities that few other creatures possess, such as the power to produce their own light. They are not harmful and pose no threat; still we put them in mortal jeopardy.

Our lives, let alone ‘civilization’ as we know it, depend on the pristine purity of the oceans.’ Teddy Tucker

 

 
ben watson