A glimpse into one tiny nook of the UK’s vast ocean depths uncovered two drink cans, one bottle, and a rusty food tin
On 15 August 1934, two adventurers squeezed into a tiny metal capsule and became the first people to see another world. Their names were William Beebe and Otis Barton, and the world that they saw was the deep ocean, when they dived more than half a mile down in their bathysphere near Bermuda. They were the first to journey beyond the sunlit waters of the upper ocean, and Barton later commented that “no human eye had seen this part of the planet before us, this pitch-black country lighted only by the pale gleam of an occasional spiraling shrimp”.
For the past two weeks, my colleagues and I have been exploring that pitch-black country further, by sending a remotely operated vehicle called Isis to the bottom of the Cayman Trough, which is located between Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, from the UK’s royal research ship, James Cook. We have surveyed the slopes of an underwater mountain twice as high as Ben Nevis, but whose summit still lies one-and-a-half miles beneath the waves. We have also investigated the world’s deepest undersea vents, three miles down in a volcanic rift on the ocean floor. And our journey has brought us face-to-face with new species of deep-sea creatures, from colonies of teeming glorious life in the abyss.
The area where we are working is part of the UK’s deep-sea territory, which covers an area 27 times greater than all of our land above the waves. Besides finding out what is in that unexplored realm, the goal of our expedition is to learn more about the geological forces that shape our world, the processes that govern the chemistry of the oceans, and how species disperse and evolve in the dark depths.