By Tara Golshan
For seven weeks earlier this year, a group of scientists from the California Academy of Sciences were in the Philippines on a mission to see what no one else had seen before.
Bart Shepherd, Cal Academy’s Steinhart Aquarium director, took part in the 2014 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition — an expansive marine expedition of more than 70 scientists, researchers and educators. Shepherd was part of a small team of divers who performed a series of underwater dives in order to explore ocean life at depths typically impossible to reach with standard diving equipment.
“You are going through and it is dark and you can see the sandy bottom,” Shepherd said of one of his dives. “Then all of sudden, I could see fish. I have no doubt that I was one of the first two people to ever see that space.”
The purpose of these scientific dives, between the Luzon and Mindoro islands, is to explore what the Academy is calling the “twilight zone” — a narrow band between 130 and 500 feet underwater, a stretch of water too deep for recreational diving technology and too shallow for submersible vehicles. The area is on the cusp of the darkness, leaving just enough of a twilight for plant life to grow.
Like the popular science fiction television show of the same name, this twilight zone is full of mystery.
This area boasts the highest biodiversity of marine life in the world — much of which has never been explored. According to Cal Academy Senior Curator Terry Goslinger, Academy scientists are finding dozens of new species every hour ranging from giant stingrays to the Pseudanthias fasciatus, whose males are a bright orange with pink and yellow highlights and a thick red stripe down the length of their bodies.
Goslinger gives a conservative estimate of between 30,000 and 40,000 species of plant and animal life living in the Philippine passage, more than the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Shepherd calls the region the “center of the center of biodiversity,” but for him and the Academy’s scientists, the mystery lies in the “why?”
Due to the difficulty in getting to the “twilight zone,” the region has been explored less than the deep sea. Sending an ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) into this band of water would be the equivalent of exploring the Amazon with a helicopter — every inhabitant of the underwater garden would go into hiding.
However, with training and access to improved diving technology, the researchers of the Phillipine expedition were able to extend their time underwater. The scientists used a closed-circuit rebreather system, which used filters to absorb carbon dioxide.
The rebreathers made it possible for the dives to last more than five hours. Nevertheless, getting down past 150 feet and back safely, in addition to eating and keeping hydrated underwater, proved to be the greatest challenge. According to Shepherd, divers were able to figure out how to peel and eat bananas underwater. But sadly, peanut M&Ms proved too big a challenge.
On a serious note, Shepherd said the key to safe dives meant going slowly. Even five-hour dives allowed researchers only 45 minutes in the depths of the “twilight zone,” because a gradual ascent was needed in order to avoid decompression symptoms, or the bends The same went for the fish they had collected for observation — fish get the bends, too.
The Academy even developed a fish-sized hyperbaric chamber and built an on-site aquarium to transition the different species safely into captivity.
Back in San Francisco, Shepherd is in the process of bringing some of the team’s discoveries to the floor of the aquarium.
Behind the scenes of the bustling aquarium floor, scientists work to prepare the vibrant colors of Philippines underwater life for display, observing their transitions, mating and reproduction habits, and quarantining the newly discovered species to ensure they do not contaminate the existing collection at the museum.
For Shepherd and the scientists on the expedition, bringing these new discoveries to the public is the type of public engagement that will serve as a safety net for the biodiversity in the Verde Island Passage region in the future.
“We get to show people what they would otherwise not be able to see, and that will inspire them to conserve and sustain the earth and the ocean,” Shepherd said.
With increased awareness and by providing a solid foundation of scientific data on the region, Shepherd said he hopes the expedition can ultimately help inform policy for the protection of these areas.
“I am really hopeful for the future of the ocean,” Shepherd said. “We know so much now. We know what we are doing.”
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