Chapter 1 / Sharing Stories
Into The Deep
Into the Deep
You’re on a boat, in the middle of the Atlantic. An infinite blue horizon surrounds you. You’re about to make a journey; not in pursuit of land, but to a new, undiscovered world - and it’s right beneath you. You’re venturing into the deep ocean.
Diving down, you pass through the sunlit zone. Fish and cetaceans abound the water, coral reefs and kelp forests fill the seascape with colours. This is the ocean we are most familiar with. Books, films, and documentaries rarely represent an ocean deeper than this. But the sunlit zone only constitutes around 10 percent of the oceans; further down, at around 200m deep, you enter the Twilight Zone. There’s substantially less light here, only enough to see a few meters. You’re entirely engulfed in a deep-blue haze. This is the last light you will see. The deeper you sink, the colder you get, and the pressure on your body more intense. At 1,000m below the ocean surface, there is no light at all. The water sits at around 4c. The pressure is 1000 times greater than at the surface: it feels like the weight of 50 jumbo jets on your head. You’ve made it to the deep ocean.
You’re immersed in complete darkness, and the cold is piercing through your dive suit. Suddenly, a faint glow of light appears in the distance. It shines an electric blue, drifting slowly through the darkness. It fades into the black. Another one appears, two, four. A bigger, brighter blue light zooms in circles right before you, like a spinning pinwheel of fire. Within moments, you’re watching a light show of blue and green stardust dance their way through the darkness. Breaking up the dance is an enormous, glowing red lantern, with a flesh-like translucency. It bursts through the milky blue dust, and shimmers a rainbow of colours up and down its body as it glides along, like runway lights on an airstrip.
You’re not alone down here. There is life, and lots of it.
The Big Black
About 90 percent of the ocean’s water lies in the deep. The ocean should more aptly be nicknamed the big black instead of the big blue, if we’re talking water volume. The deep sea is the last unexplored realm for mankind; the final frontier. Vast mountain ranges exceeding 6,000m and trenches deeper than the height of Mount Everest lie within the waters we swim, surf and stroll in. Indeed, we know more about the surface of the moon than the deepest parts of the ocean.
And what about life down there? Scientists now think there may be more species in the deep sea than in all the other environments on Earth combined; by some estimates, as many as 100 million species may live there. How is this possible, in an atmosphere devoid of light, warmth, and extreme, crushing pressure?
Deep sea life forms possess characteristics so unique to their environment, they exceed what humans could have imagined life on earth could look like. Perhaps the most famous, beautiful (and most alien) trait of deep sea life is bioluminescence. In a world of darkness, these unique creatures have the ability to produce their own glowing light.
Bloodybelly Comb Jelly
Bloodybelly Comb jellies are thought to be around 500 million years old. Bloodybelly jellies come in a variety of colours but always maintain a blood red stomach. They glimmer rainbow-like colours along their bodies from the tiny hair-like cilia that refract light - looking eerily similar to a UFO (check out this video to see them in action).
It’s true: Kraken is real. But it’s likely that the mythical sea monster, with its gargantuan tentacles and ship-sized body, was perhaps just a surfacing giant squid. Giant Squid live in the deepest parts of the ocean. We know very little about them; they are rarely seen, dead or alive, and only three have ever been filmed in the wild. For the carcasses that have been washed ashore and studied, the sizes generally vary between 13-17m, however it’s predicted that some Giant Squid could also reach 27m long. And even better - they’re thought to use bioluminescence to hunt. A bus-sized squid with glowing tentacles - does it get any better than this?
Deep Water Coral
Corals have been found as deep at 6,000m below the ocean surface. Deep water corals are able to produce their own food using biofluorescence - by absorbing the very small amount of blue light that reaches them, the coral converts it into an orange-red light. This is Avatar-inspiring stuff (director James Cameron is actually a deep-sea diving fanatic) Scientists believe that because deep-water coral cannot photosynthesize with such little sunlight, it produces its own light to do so.
Deep Ocean Impact
Although the deep ocean is mostly unexplored by humans (it’s thought that 95 percent of the ocean floor is undiscovered), it’s not untouched by human activity. The deep ocean acts like a sink for litter and pollution, and has been found to contain more persistent organic pollutants (POPs) than some of the most polluted rivers in China. Many seabeds have been damaged by bottom-trawling for fishing, destroying corals and the biodiversity that depends on them.
For An Environment So Removed From Humans, Why Is The Deep Sea So Important To Us?
One of the most valuable functions of the deep ocean is the sequestration of carbon. The ocean is the world's largest carbon sink: small marine plants on the water’s surface take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce most of our oxygen. The ocean’s absorbed carbon is either circulated within the marine ecosystem, or it sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor in the form of organic matter. Over a long time, this sediment piles up and, through a lengthy chemical and geological process, become fossil fuels such as oil and gas. This carbon can be kept out of the atmosphere for thousands to millions of years.
Deepwater oil drilling is releasing these vast carbon stores back into the atmosphere, as well as methane - a greenhouse gas twice as damaging as carbon dioxide. The industry also risks more immediate disasters. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the largest marine oil spill, and the largest environmental disaster, in recorded human history. The spill contaminated approximately 68,000 square miles of water, killing record numbers of marine and bird life.
More Plastic Than People Have Reached The Ocean Floor
Plastic particles have been found falling from the sky with snow in the Arctic. So it’s no surprise to hear that plastic has been found in the deepest ocean trenches on earth. The Mariana Trench, nearly 11,000m below the ocean’s surface, is home to an abundance of deep sea life - and some plastic bags and candy wrappers.Plastic is a big threat to the mortality of these sensitive species. They have an incredibly slow growth rate, meaning that their speed of reproduction wouldn’t match the rate of replacement if species populations were to suddenly plummet from plastic ingestion. In a study on tiny creatures that live in the Mariana Trench, every specimen tested was found with plastic in their gut.
Public beach clean-ups, seabins and offshore plastic capturing technologies are removing millions of tonnes of plastic already out at sea. Such projects aren’t driven for monetary reasons; their main incentives are ocean conservation, often funded by non-for-profit organizations. This is all well and good, but there is a growing incentive in removing large amounts of ocean plastic: turning that trash into treasure.
Marine plastic waste is being retrieved and recycled to create new textiles for clothing, furniture and upholstery. This is what the Healthy Seas initiative set out to do: in combining the efforts of divers and local fishing communities, ghost fishing nets lost at sea (there are an estimated 670,000 tonnes currently in the ocean) are retrieved and regenerated to create high quality nylon yarn - ECONYL®. This is the material used in OCIN’s entire swimwear range. Such recycled plastic textiles are revolutionizing the way we sustainably produce and recycle clothing whilst benefitting the environment in the process. In 2019, 57,200kg of fishing nets were retrieved from the ocean and regenerated into ECONYL® nylon. By retrieving plastic debris found in the shallower, more accessible parts of the ocean, there is a lesser risk of them sinking into the deep, becoming difficult or impossible to retrieve.
How can I help?
Like all environmental conservation action, your vote is the most powerful tool you have. Take a moment to read the policies of your political candidates and where they stand on ocean protection - what are their proposals for new offshore oil rigs? How do they stand on the production of new plastics, or the creation of new marine protected areas? Value, research and act on your knowledge, and let others know what’s happening to the deep ocean, too. You could also use the privilege of your choice as a consumer. In buying recycled plastics or, better yet, products made from marine-derived plastics, the demand for the production of new, oil-based materials will decrease. The consumer economy will follow consumer choice, no matter which way it steers.
Useful resources for further information on deep sea preservation:
The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition - The DSCC umbrella holds 80 organizations worldwide who are working together to protect cold-water corals and vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems
The Ocean Cleanup - Building the world’s largest plastic capturing technology to retrieve marine plastic pollution
High Seas Alliance A partnership of global organizations and groups aimed at building a strong common voice and constituency for the conservation of the high seas
Safeguard California Seamounts A partnership between Surfrider Foundation, Marine Conservation Institute and Wildcoast in protecting the biodiversity rich deep-ocean seamounts off the coast of California