In the history of deep sea exploration, Bermuda has always ranked pretty high on the charts, although technical scuba and rebreather diving is completely new there.
Otis Barton and William Beebe made history in 1934 as they descended a record-breaking 3,000 feet in their crude metal bathysphere. Following in the footsteps of a more recent, unmanned ROV, sent out by Dr. Thomas M. Iliffe to find hidden caves underwater in Bermuda as part of a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) mission. This exploration was set out to find links between the prehistoric shorelines and the island’s unique cave ecology.
Although Bermuda is famous for its caves, recreational cave diving is not permitted. This decision was made in order to protect their remarkable environments and the life within them. Bermuda’s underwater caves are a biodiversity hot spots for at least 25 critically endangered species, some of which are only found in a single room in a single cave on the entire planet. Because of this, only a select few fortunate scientists and researchers are granted rare collecting and work permits allowing them to dive with the support of local guides. With these measurements in place, the underwater galleries and tunnels of Bermuda will be preserved as delicate time capsules of unique forms of cave-adapted life that might teach us about survival, evolution and the history of our planet. The hope of this undertaking was to discover caves or some form of evidence of former caves in the depths of the bank and seamounts, and perhaps reveals a drifting pathway for the unusual creatures still thriving in Bermuda today.
Iliffe and his team had previously mapped the island’s walls and seamounts using side-scan sonar. With this information, they took their best leads and deployed the ROV to create a video preview for target areas to dive. This unparalleled information gathering allowed them to focus on key features of interest. With two years of advanced underwater imaging under his belt, Iltffe was set to dive 18 miles southwest of Bermuda for what would be a challenging last dive of the project.
After only three minutes, he reached the timeworn peak of the formidable Challenger Bank. A lonely lionfish haunch in the clumping masses of coral where the divers hook jerks and bounces, dangling slightly, firm at its maximum reach. At this point, the orange surface marker is long out of sight, bobbing overhead on the waves marking the position. Moments like this, swimming awestruck in a place that has been out of reach until now, makes us acutely aware of our humanity.
Iliffe swiftly ties on his cave-diving reel and flies out over the abrupt drop. It seems like an eternity before he lands on a tiny crag at 460 feet, with the endless wall sloping infinitely downward and out of sight.
He locks off the dive reel, positions his mesh bags and tools, and then intently goes to work. Iliffe is reminiscent of a Wal-Mart shopper crashing through the door on Black Friday. With only minutes at this depth, he makes the most of every breath. Hammer swinging and arms flailing, he grabs delicate coral twigs and rock samples. Iliffe bags sets of animals, as if he were loading the ark for Noah, ensuring he has at least two of everything new or interesting.
The delicate wall covered with fragile purple hard corals and crusting fiery sponges, flaming in bursts of color, is unlike anything that can be seen anywhere else in the world. Schools of curious jacks zip around, while huge crab-eating permit reflect the sultry light back toward us. In this previously unexplored twilight zone, there is no shortage of extraordinary life.
With collections of more than 50 species of plants and animals on these dives, this one in particular, yielded new discoveries for Bermuda, some previously unknown to biologists. Geologists are now studying the photographs and rock samples taken, trying to piece together the changes in sea level over time. Examining deep cave structures and wave-cut notches, they can now determine when sea level was at its lowest point.
This first glimpse into Bermuda’s netherworld suggests that exploration and discovery are still in the very early stages. Dives in the future will focus on determining how the unique life in Bermuda first populated remote island caves. The questions that now is imposed on scientists minds are did the cave-adapted animals migrate upward from deep ocean vents? Did they swim through tiny spaces within the matrix of rock? Or did they arrive in some other way?
As a race, we humans know more about outer space than we know about the pristine Bermuda, Argus and Challenger banks. Yet for those who are lucky enough to be working there, Bermuda Deep offers the chance to join the ranks of aquanauts on the edge of underwater discovery.