“It’s as close to being in space as you can be on the Earth,” says Oxford University’s Prof Alex Rogers, as he recalls his journey to a depth of 3,380m inside the Japanese submersible Shinkai 6500. “You are so remote from your normal environment. There’s a real sense of isolation.”
Rogers is science director of a new deep-ocean research initiative called Nekton. On the first Nekton expedition in 2016, he explored the deep sea around Bermuda inside a Triton submersible. This two-person, three-tonne sub is relatively small and lightweight compared to many other submersibles, and highly manoeuvrable. It also has a huge acrylic dome, giving scientists fantastic views of the ocean for observation and research. “The submersibles are absolutely fantastic. It’s very James Bond,” says Rogers.
Among the things that Rogers and the Nekton team observed were huge forests of tree-like black corals stretching down to Triton’s depth limit of 300m. Giant sea fans and enormous sponges add to the strange, living seascape. To reach deeper, the team will send down remotely operated vehicles and other deep water probes.
The long-term aim for Nekton is to document the life at depths between 200m and 3,000m in 14 distinct regions worldwide. These 14 regions are defined by particular attributes of the oceans, including temperature, salinity and currents. The team will also measure the health of these deep ecosystems and look for signs of human impacts, like trawling and plastic waste. Who knows what else could be lurking there?
Nekton uses two Triton subs, which gave Rogers a new perspective on the scale of the oceans. “You look across and see the other sub in the distance as this tiny, toy-like thing,” he says. “There are many scenes that are lodged in my memory. These majestic cliffs and landscapes… it can make you feel quite small.”