Descending into the deep ocean of Aldabra - the world's second-largest coral atoll - we entered an alien world akin to the lunar landscape of the moon.
Peering through the fish-bowl pressure hull of the submersible, I was humbled to be one of the first people to witness this unique environment. The scoured, undulating rock was in stark contrast to the bustling, shallow coral reefs I am more familiar with. Certainly, coral reefs have received a great deal of attention recently, however, we arguably know more about the moon than we do about the deep ocean.
Hoping to change that outlook is an interdisciplinary team of scientists, journalists and sub-sea engineers, who I am working with as part of the Nekton’s First Descent Mission in Seychelles. We are on the first of a series of expeditions, running from 2019 to 2022 in the Indian Ocean - one of the least researched and least protected of our ocean. With 2.5 billion people living in the surrounding nations, how this ocean changes in the coming decade will profoundly affect their lives and livelihoods.
Funding for scientific research is becoming increasingly difficult to secure, and despite many educational and awareness campaigns, gaining much-needed investment for the research and protection of our global ocean remains a challenge. One solution is to coordinate our efforts for the greatest impact, as the interconnected nature of our ocean means management and safeguarding must be a collective responsibility.
As part of the Nekton Mission, we are pioneering a collaborative approach. We are working on this ambitious project with over 40 global partners and a further dozen partners from the Seychelles, combining scientific research, capacity development, ocean management and governance with public engagement activities to achieve the greatest coordinated impact.
Deep ocean research and exploration is usually the domain of government-backed initiatives, offshore energy companies or billionaires, not a small charity from Oxford. But despite its size, Nekton has brought together partners from the public, private and charitable sector to explore the ocean depths of the Seychelles archipelago.
For a nation that has 3,000 times more ocean than land, the deeper waters of Seychelles have been woefully understudied. Their remote location and difficult access has prevented the development of a comprehensive data set of these tropical waters. Seychelles, however, does have a history of being a leader in environmental protection and it has now pioneered a unique approach to the investment of ocean protection by undertaking a ‘debt swap’.
Flying through the ocean depths in a submersible, the fragility and vulnerability of this environment becomes apparent and inescapable.
Trading $20 million of its national debt in return for protecting 30 per cent of its territorial waters by 2020 has been an impressive step forward in the right direction, and the leverage provided by private investors in this debt swap has been key. With the scientific consensus calling for the protection of 30 per cent of the world’s ocean by 2030, Seychelles is a beacon and bellwether for ocean conservation. Seychelles must succeed.
Alongside this expansion in marine protected areas, however, a baseline and further understanding of these waters is desperately needed. Nekton is helping to fill this gap through deploying a suite of innovative subsea research technologies, from submersibles to Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), seabed mapping equipment, and a vast array of camera, sampling and sensor systems. With an impressive budget of $5 million, investment from business has been crucial in the mobilisation of this unique scientific endeavour, not only in financial contributions but also by providing in-kind support through the donation of state-of the-art equipment and expertise.
From the coral carpets of Astove to the fish-rich waters of Aldabra, the mission has unveiled many biological treasures whose importance is only beginning to be understood. Flying through the ocean depths in a submersible, the fragility and vulnerability of this environment becomes apparent and inescapable.
But privileged as I have been in plunging to these new, unexplored depths, the experience and research only has value if it can shape and transform the way we perceive our ocean globally. Through new sub-sea broadcasts, technologies and media teams embedded on the Netkton Mission, from Associated Press and Sky, we’ve been able to tell the story of the deep ocean live from our submersibles.
We cannot expect people to protect or love what they do not understand.
We hope we have helped amplify the voice from the least known frontier on our planet. I am a firm believer that change can only arise from increased awareness and knowledge. We cannot expect people to protect or love what they do not understand.
We should all be asking ourselves “What am I doing to effect change? Am I working towards the benefit or the harm of our ocean?” Certainly we need to work together, and fast. The ocean cannot wait for any more inaction or indecisiveness. The time for change is now.
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This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.