From above, the Belize Blue Hole is impressive. Its deep blue color contrasts with the light of the turquoise waters surrounding it, a vast, tempting, and almost perfect formation in the middle of the reef.
A publication by Adam E. for travelerdreams.com
CHETUMAL, QUINTANA ROO.- (travelersdreams.com) Belize Blue Hole hides a deep secret. The hole, which has been dubbed one of the best places to dive in the Caribbean Sea, sinks to the bottom of the ocean almost 420 feet below the surface, almost 130 meters, and remained unexplored and unspoiled at those depths… until now.
With the help of billionaire Sir Richard Branson, a team of explorers, conservationists, and scientists, as well as the grandson of famous ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, oceanographer Fabien Cousteau, have set out to discover what lies at the bottom of the ocean’s tantalizing formation.
But what they would discover when they finally reached the bottom of the ocean would leave them surprised, horrified, and deeply worried.
The Cousteau family and their long history with the oceans.
Fabien Cousteau’s grandfather, Jacques Cousteau, was a pioneer in diving and helped design the diving equipment that divers still use today. Fabien, on his part, has dedicated his life to exploring the depths of the ocean. He searched for and discovered ancient shipwrecks, documented sharks, and dived into the dark waters of the deep sea on countless occasions.
But his dive into Belize’s Blue Hole left him completely speechless, and what he would find on his expedition would leave the scientific community horrified.
Belize’s Reef Barrier
The Belize Reef Barrier, east of the coast of Belize, is a large part of the known ecosystem of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Beginning in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the north and ending in southern Honduras, it is the second-largest network of reefs in the world, after Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef.
The Blue Hole is located in the center of the reef, a dark spot, which invites explorers with its bewildering and unexplored depths.
Fabien Cousteau was not the only great name in oceanic exploration to join the Blue Hole expedition. Another who joined him was the legendary billionaire, conservationist, and adventurer, Sir Richard Branson.
Through his ownership of Virgin Group, Branson also owns the Virgin Oceanic company, which owns a fleet of submersible vehicles. Passionate about ocean exploration and conservation, Branson was interested in joining Cousteau in the Caribbean.
Descending to the bottom of the Hole and the two explorers was oceanographer Erika Bergman, who would also pilot her submarine, Aquatica.
But while everyone was excited about being the first humans to visit the bottom of the pit, their happy faces would show much more somber expressions upon their return.
Image by @fcousteau / Instagram
Man on a Mission
Sir Richard Branson had been very fortunate in his business, and today, he is interested in giving back to society. One of the most passionate issues is raising awareness about climate change and finding ways to combat it by promoting and educating about ecological sustainability.
Following Jacques Cousteau’s doctrine that “people protect what they love,” he believes there is great value in making the oceans more accessible to people and has even organized a summit on global warming at his private residence in the British Virgin Islands.
Internal Planetary Space
While the Belizean Blue Hole is far from being the deepest sinkhole in the ocean, its unique shape and geological composition have made the mission of penetrating its depths unique in the history of in-depth sea exploration.
Sir Richard Branson called it a mission into “inner planetary space,” and the event’s media coverage was unprecedented.
Branson, Cousteau, and Bergman’s descent would be broadcast live as they went into the deep ocean, with the Discovery Channel transmitting via its cameras to the entire world in real-time.
Finally, preparations were completed, checklists were checked, and cameras began rolling. The intrepid trio was ready to make history.
The last time there was so much excitement and public interest around a deep-sea mission was when acclaimed Hollywood director and ocean explorer James Cameron had descended to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest known point in the world’s oceans.
Because Cousteau, Branson, and Bergman’s depths would be much lower, they could afford a much broader observation dome. The Aquatica submarine had excellent views around its passengers.
Soon, the submarine was transmitting images that many divers who had dived the Blue Hole had seen. The blue waters were swirling around a cliff, and the mission was on.
At first, the submarine raised some sediments, damaging the crew’s visibility, but soon, the floating submarine sediment gave way to a fascinating geological formation: caves overhanging stalactites.
While stalactites are typical in caves on dry land, they can’t form underwater, so how could there be stalactites more than 20 meters underwater?
For the crew, seeing stalactites from the underwater caves could only mean one thing. This was, in the words of Sir Richard Branson, “one of the starkest reminders of the danger of climate change” they had ever seen.
By the end of the last great Ice Age, sea levels in the Caribbean had risen at a rapid pace, submerging vast tracts of once dry land. At 200 feet underwater, the coloring of the rock formations changed, denoting previous seawater levels, before the oceans rose and drowned the cave systems above.
Years before Branson, Bergman, and Cousteau took the Aquatica to the Blue Hole, a team of researchers from Rice University and Louisiana State University had descended on it to collect samples from its walls, at different depths.
They hoped the samples they took would help them solve a historical mystery that took place miles and miles away in the jungles of Central America.
The Passage of a Civilization
Belize, like the rest of Central America, had been home to a large and advanced civilization: the Mayan Kingdom.
One of the greatest mysteries of history was the apparent mass abandonment of the Mayan cities and the subsequent collapse of the ancient culture.
Could the Blue Hole contain the answers to the age-old question of Mayan civilization?
Before the Hole, scientists from the expedition found abnormally low levels of titanium and aluminum in its walls, elements that tropical storms often wear away from the rock and ocean waters. This could mean that Maya’s decline may have been related to a terrible and prolonged drought. But the Pit had even more secrets to reveal.
A Toxic Layer
As the team continued to descend, they began to notice a floating barrier below them. It was a deadly layer of hydrogen sulfide-rich water, 20 feet thick, floating nearly 100 feet below the surface.
Hydrogen sulfide is an extremely toxic substance that can corrode metal and easily suffocate and kill any form of marine life that enters it. In the surrounding caves, the team found countless crabs, snails, and other invertebrates that had become stuck in the toxic waters and died.
Usually, this unpleasant water layer marks the limit to which Blue Hole divers can travel, but Aquatica was equipped to handle the harmful environment and continue its descent.
What they would find underneath the sulfur layer would prove to be far more frightening than the contaminated waters and the crab carcasses.
Hitting the Bottom
After battling the thick layer of hydrogen sulfide, the team managed to reach the bottom of the pit, a feat never before performed by a manned vessel.
Fabien was especially excited: he could pick up his grandfather’s work where he left off and expand our knowledge of the oceans.
The team planned to map the geological anomaly’s lower reaches and hopefully recover some scientifically essential findings.
But what they ended up finding under the heavy blanket of hydrogen sulfide would leave them in a panic.
When Cousteau and his team mapped out the background of Belize’s Blue Hole, their sense of fear and worry grew by the minute.
The Blue Hole looked like an untouched, unspoiled natural wonder, far from any human influence from the surface. But when the submersible crawled along the bottom of the pit, a very different reality was revealed.
Countless empty plastic bottles, bags, and trash lined the floor of the hole. The hole, like many other parts of the ocean, was found to be an underwater dump. The team was horrified, saddened, and revolted. How could we have let this natural wonder become a garbage dump?
When Cousteau and Bergman expressed their concern, Sir Richard Branson was clear that it was imperative to do something.
Horrors in the Depths
What began as a mission to map an unexplored part of the planet had become a mission to map the frontiers that human pollution had already conquered.
The hole contained no underwater beast but the ocean monster of mankind’s creation: pollution.
Branson was not going to let this go quietly. Together with Ocean Unite, a conservationist conglomerate, he decided to take action to save the Blue Hole and the rest of the ocean.
Saving the World’s Oceans
Ocean Unite’s stated goal is, by 2030, to reserve a minimum of 30 percent of the world’s oceans as protected areas, which would have real legal consequences if they were damaged.
As a member of Ocean Unite, Branson intends to combat ocean pollution wherever and however it can. Even before he embarked on his deep-sea mission, Branson had met with the Prime Minister of Belize, and his wife.
The multi-million dollar explorer had hoped to convince the nation’s leader to set aside 10 percent of his country’s territorial waters as protected areas for conservation and ban several commercial and industrial products that have proven to be highly damaging to the ocean ecosystems.
No Place Left Untouched
Cousteau, Branson, and Bergman were surprised that Belize’s remote Blue Hole had become as dirty as it had been. Still, even the most remote underwater locations have not been able to escape the ravages of pollution.
The Mariana Trench is the deepest point in the earth’s oceans. When ocean explorers reached its bottom, along with the fascinating marine life and geological formations, they could detect a few plastic bags and other man-made debris.
The Deepwater Debris Database
The Deep Sea Debris Database is a project where thousands of divers document the trash and pollution they find on their underwater excursions.
Of all the debris recorded in the database, plastic is by far the most common.
Other materials include processed woods, metal, rubber, and cloth. Most of the plastic detected (89%) originates from single-use plastics such as disposable water bottles and utensils.
But the news gets even worse.
Where does it all come from?
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has sent multiple exploration vessels to the Mariana Trench’s bottom. In 17% of the images taken by the submersibles, organisms can be seen entangled or in contact with plastic debris.
But Mariana Trench is one of the most remote locations in the world! Deep in the ocean, it is far from any human habitation … where does all this plastic come from?
Where does it all come from?
Image by cegli.o2.pl / Depositphotos
All Rivers Flow to the Sea
A recent study conducted in the Mariana Trench indicates that the trench has a higher overall level of pollution than some of China’s most polluted rivers. This is since as plastics break down into smaller and smaller particles, they find it “easier” to go down and eventually reach the lowest point they can – the trench.
The oceans’ pollution is not only due to waste dumped directly into the sea but also to the rivers that flow into them, sometimes even from landlocked countries.
Is there any way to stop this type of pollution?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a large strip of the ocean, stretching from California to Hawaii.
About Texas’s size, it is not, as many people imagine, a huge island made of plastic bottles. Rather, it is made up of countless plastic particles that have largely broken down into small flakes. While this may seem better, it couldn’t be further from the truth. The smaller the toxic plastic particles are, the easier they are for marine life to consume… and the more difficult they are to extract from the water.
Plastic fibers found in high concentrations in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other parts of the ocean can enter the digestive systems and even the bloodstreams of marine animals. Plastic fibers have been found in organisms in almost all ocean ecosystems, slowly poisoning entire populations.
But while this may sound tragic, some of you may wonder how this affects humans
Circle of Life
Although the ocean may seem distant, the life of every human being is intimately related to it.
Many of the natural products we consume, from the fish we eat to the trees and forests we depend on for oxygen, have an ecological connection to the sea.
When our plastic waste hurts and poisons marine life, it eventually hurts us too.
A Global Phenomenon
Because the deep sea is the lowest point that plastic waste can reach, it ends up accumulating there in amazing quantities.
“This is a very worrying finding. The isolation of plastic fibers from the interior of the animals from almost 11 km deep simply shows the magnitude of the problem,” said Dr. Jamieson, a researcher who studies plastic debris in the ocean. “This is global,” he continued, explaining that this is not a problem that is localized to any one country or area.
Plastic fibers have reached tap water, table salt, and other products that humans consume, and they show no signs of disappearing.
Scientists say that about eight million tons of plastic are discharged into the world’s oceans each year. With more than 300 million tons of plastic fouling the seas, researchers estimate that by 2050, plastic will outnumber fish in the oceans.
Elena Polisaon, an Oceans Campaign activist for Greenpeace UK, says that the oceans currently contain about 51 trillion microplastic particles, 500 times more than the number of stars in the Milky Way.
If we don’t act quickly, the ecological ramifications of this will be terrible.
Fighting for the Future
While the numbers and research show a depressing picture of the world’s oceans, we can still take action to change the situation.
In addition to stopping the dumping of waste into the ocean, it is important to dramatically reduce our use of single-use plastics such as plastic bags, cups, straws, and packaging.
If you want to be more proactive, you can stop actively supporting companies that use single-use plastics instead of supporting industries that have become biodegradable and sustainable alternatives.
With more and more people aware of pollution’s dangers, there is still hope for our planet and future generations.
Piece By Adam E. -2020-09-29