A few metres down in the Atlantic Ocean just off the southernmost tip of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean you really are in a different world. Just a short distance away is the coast and the road that runs along it. In the afternoon, locals gather to go swimming there and island life hums along.
But underwater I’m in a parallel universe. Literally. Populated by coral, sponges and fish. A huge silvery-grey shoal of hundreds moves as one, this way and that. While below there are tree-like sponges and strange things that look like human brains scattered around.
I’m a total novice at diving but I’m in the company of some serious pros. And as I pootle around with my oxygen tank imagining I’m in a James Bond film, I can see my hosts resting 6m down. They’re decompressing after a dive to an astonishing 120 metres, which necessitates a gentle staged return to the surface to avoid the perilous “bends”, or to give this its real name, decompression sickness.
My hosts are part of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet Initiative. The Swiss watch company has been working with explorers for nearly a century now, ever since founder Hans Wilsdorf decided to support exploration expeditions as a way of stress-testing his watches. Perhaps most famously, Rolexes accompanied Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on their successful expedition to reach the top of Everest in 1953 – the firm launched the Explorer model that year after that achievement. Today, however, the watchmaker’s interest in exploration falls under its Perpetual Planet Initiative that focuses on the application of expeditions. Instead of facilitating human achievement, Rolex now aims to support explorers whose discoveries will help protect the world we live in.
One of these projects is Under The Pole, the brainchild of French husband-and-wife team Ghislain Bardout and Emmanuelle Périé-Bardout. The project was founded in 2008, and in 2010 the couple led an expedition to dive beneath the geographical North Pole. Since then Under The Pole has been exploring the depths of the world’s oceans to reveal what nobody knew was there.
The astonishing reality is that nearly everything we know about the oceans only extends to a depth of around 30 metres. This is because that is the depth that has been easily accessible since diving began in earnest in 1943 after the invention of the modern regulator, the device that allows pressurised gas to be breathed underwater. This piece of equipment – called the Aqua-Lung – was developed by French engineer Émile Gagnan and his countryman, the famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, and meant that divers no longer had to wear cumbersome suits connected to the surface by air hoses. Fun fact: SCUBA stands for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”.
‘I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau on [TV on] Sunday afternoons,’ explains Ghislain Bardout, an experience shared by his wife Emmanuelle. The couple met when Emmanuelle was working as a sailing instructor and Ghislain was performing a similar role for divers. She took lessons and they discovered their shared passion for the seas.
They would discuss their ideas for exploring ocean life and Under The Pole was born. Today they are based on a schooner called the WHY, which they share with a multi-disciplinary crew of scientists and divers. The couple have two young children who often accompany them too, and there is an on-board tutor so they keep up with their schoolwork. Every inch of the WHY is taken up by kit – either for facilitating the voyages or carrying out the dives and experiments. Plus the kids’ books and toys.
I have come to the Caribbean to join the crew of the WHY on the third leg of its DEEPLIFE expedition, which started in 2021 and is scheduled to continue until 2030. This aims to explore the depths of all the world’s oceans, and began in the Arctic Ocean at Svalbard in Norway before moving to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Now it has reached Guadeloupe, where the Atlantic Ocean merges with the Caribbean Sea.
The discoveries have been significant. In Svalbard the team found a marine animal forest in the depths of the Arctic Ocean, an extraordinary ecosystem, which Lorenzo Bramanti, who is the scientific co-director of DEEPLIFE, describes as ‘the rainforest of the sea’. This was the first-ever marine animal forest discovered in the Arctic, and it was made up of hydroids, animals related to corals and jellyfish. These look like flowers, ferns and bells and are technically referred to as Hydrozoa.
‘These underwater forests are exactly the same as the forests we have on the surface, on land. They are three-dimensional structures that will shelter life,’ says Ghislain Bardout.
In Guadeloupe the crew of the WHY is hoping to make similar discoveries, and has been joined by renowned marine biologist Luiz Rocha who is curator and Follett Chair of Ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences. Rocha is also a Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate, and was brought together with Under The Pole last year when he was exploring in the Maldives and needed a diver who could go deeper than he was able to do himself. ‘There are very few people, let alone scientists, who are actually qualified to dive to those depths,’ explains Emmanuelle Périé-Bardout. ‘These are really rough, difficult dives and you need to have the passion for scientific discoveries to be able to go there. There is no room for error.’
‘It is amazing that Rolex is supporting two initiatives working in the mesophotic zone,’ says Rocha. This is the area of the ocean that stretches from 30 metres to 200, known colloquially as the Twilight Zone by the diving community.
Rocha’s speciality is fish, and he explains how research into the depths has yielded not only many new species, but also a wider surprise. ‘The thinking was that the deeper we went the less life we’d find,’ says Rocha, ‘as there’s less and less light as you descend.’ The opposite has been the case, with the variety of marine life – sponges, corals, gorgonians (soft corals) and fish – increasing at depth.
The other surprise has been the discovery that the deep is not immune from pollution. Rocha explains that down below you see man’s mark on the planet in the form of discarded plastic, waste and, particularly, fishing nets. ‘Because we know so little about the lower regions of the oceans, we don’t know what we need to protect and preserve,’ explains Rocha, pointing out that preservation orders only currently extend to the shallow coral reefs around coastlines.
Under The Pole has developed a team capable of illuminating what else needs to be preserved. ‘There are very few people who have the technical skills to do this,’ explains Bardout. And observing the dives over a couple of days I see how meticulously the divers prepare, and how, no matter how experienced they might be, Ghislain insists on a full and detailed briefing before each sortie. Even so, mistakes do get made. On one dive a simple mix-up of the size of filter pellets used by a US diver who had come from San Francisco to accompany Rocha meant that his mission had to be aborted.
The ability to physically go down and film, photograph and gather samples in person is crucial to effective discovery, says Rocha. ‘Trying to study fish from a submarine is like trying to study birds in a rainforest from a helicopter,’ he explains.
After the dives, the team brings samples back to the surface for study on board the WHY. Looking at some of their discoveries under the microscope only reinforces my sense that this project is shining a light on a hidden world we know so little about. And we need to protect.
‘It’s very exciting to think that we have found the first underwater Arctic animal forest,’ says Emmanuelle of the discovery on the first leg of the DEEPLIFE expedition. ‘We’ll be able to come back and see how it evolves, which is extremely valuable for science… if we succeed in revealing these forests to the world, and they are protected, that would be my greatest achievement.’
underthepole.org; rolex.org; Under The Pole’s DEEPLIFE 2021–2030 is supported by the Rolex Perpetual Planet Initiative, which supports individuals and organisations committed to safeguarding and protecting our world.
Peter Howarth is the editorial director of Secret Trips
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