Published On: Fri, Sep 6th, 2013

Classrooms Under the Sea: Descending into the Deep Reefs of Curaçao

Young Explorer Erika Bergman is sharing the thrill of diving in a submersible with classrooms and onlookers all over the world. With external and internal cameras mounted on her sub, viewers will experience a new vantage point as Erika pilots through the deep coral reefs of Curacao and Honduras. Follow her expedition on Explorers Journal or tweet questions at @erika_bergman

On the southeast end of the island nation of Curacao enormous limestone cliffs rise up above you. That is, they rise up if you are hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean looking through the acrylic dome of a submersible.

As the sub begins a slow decent into the deep, shadows play across the face of the stone. The stunning profile of this massive wall is backlit in ethereal blue by the sun shining through the rippling surface of the sea.  As you pass through four hundred feet the light fades from brilliant blue to deep navy. Dive down a few hundred feet more and the ocean around you is a dense, living black.

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At a thousand feet, staring out into inky darkness, I have a sense of being completely alone though I share the small pressure sphere with three other crew members. Our mission on this dive is to deploy research equipment along various depth contours, and to observe and identify the organisms inhabiting deep water coral ecosystems.

As we fire up the sub’s powerful light array the darkness of the deep ocean dissipates. In front of our eyes pink and yellow crabs scuttle across the rocky landscape to hide behind sponges and corals.

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As the sub traverses the seafloor we gaze out between the manipulator arms our vehicle simply observing life in the deep. Around 700 feet we pause to watch the slow passes of a Crinoid’s arms as it sweeps through the water for its food.

From the silty bottom at 1000 feet to the current swept rock walls of the surface these echinoderms can live at a wide variety of pressures and depths. Some Crinoids live above the seafloor on long stalks and are known as sea lilies, which is a near translation for the greek root of their name.

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Many of the deep limestone cliffs have been uplifted by earthquakes and shifts in the seafloor. The striated rock is home to an outstanding variety of organisms including glass sponges, crabs, scorpion fish, and corals. Follow along in the coming weeks as I continue to explore deep reefs using manned submersibles.

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By Erika Bergman for National Geographic

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