What is it like to submarine dive a thousand feet underwater to an unexplored region of the Galápagos Islands? Marine conservationist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Jessica Cramp takes us on a journey to find out.
Cramp’s submarine dive was part of a larger, near-monthlong Galápagos Islands expedition carried out by National Geographic’s Pristine Seas in an effort to work with Ecuador’s government to improve their marine protection policies. “One of the things I love about the submarine dive is the ability to explore the deep sea. Not a lot of eyeballs get down there. It’s really hard for people to understand that there could be an ecosystem worth knowing about, let alone worth protecting,” Cramp says.
Cramp, along with Pristine Seas producer Maureen Dolan-Galaviz and submarine pilot Diana Garcia-Benito, explored a steep shelf in Punta Vicente Roca’s waters. That team was nearly as impressive as the mission itself, as the three women may have set a record for the youngest all-female submarine dive team, and Garcia-Benito is one of the only (if not the only) female commercial submarine pilots in the world.
But even this dream team encounters physical challenges when submerging themselves a thousand feet underwater in a tiny acrylic bubble. “We’re down in the submarine for about two hours. So it’s really important that you empty your bladder, that you don’t drink too much coffee, and you remain as dehydrated as possible, because there is no getting out once you’re down 400 meters [1,312 feet],” Cramp says, and goes on to explain the mental obstacles. “The very first time you go down in a submarine, it’s a little bit nerve-racking because you think about all of the forces on the sub and that you’re going to be locked in this bubble for the next few hours. But then, once you realize that your field of view is 360 degrees, I think the curiosity overcomes any anxiety.”
As the submarine descended into the water, the women were not disappointed. “We were charged by a swordfish down around 300 meters [984 feet]. We saw a sea lion pup that held its breath and swam down to about 250 meters [820 feet] to check us out. We had hammerhead sharks and silky sharks diving around us,” Cramp recounts. “The machine itself actually gives off an electromagnetic field, which attracts sharks, so I find that I’m more surrounded in the submarine than I ever have been on scuba. And the lights the sub gives off are so bright that animals get really curious.”
The team also saw a sizable Mola mola and lots of smaller marine life too, such as pelagic sea cucumbers—and though small in stature, the curious-looking creatures were one of Cramp’s favorite sightings. “I have never seen a pelagic sea cucumber before. It’s a mesmerizing experience—watching it dance. They look like something out of outer space.”
While enthralled by the diverse sea life, the dive team was also careful to comprehensively document everything they observed. Cramp explains, “The most important data we bring back from every sub dive is just a list of species at the recorded depth, because new species are being discovered all the time in the deep sea. Then we want to get this data back into the hands of the local community to inform their decision-making with the hopes that they put in stronger marine protection. It’s our hope that they’ll realize just how special the ecosystems that surround these islands are.”
The community and national government did in fact come to such a realization and declared a new 15,000-square-mile marine sanctuary in the Galápagos Islands, just a couple months after the Pristine Seas expedition.
While the Pristine Seas visit was part of this significant development for the Galápagos Islands, the submarine dive had a very personal impact on Cramp as well. “I’ve never felt as much like an explorer than I do right now in the submarine. There’s something about being a thousand feet under the water, where no one else has actually ever been, that feels, I don’t know, like true exploration.”