Humankind has explored less than 10% of the world’s oceans. Now a team of scientific explorers plans to dive deep into the Indian Ocean—into a realm known as the “Midnight Zone.” Light doesn’t reach this far beneath the surface, but life there still thrives.
The British-led Nekton Mission is working in cooperation with the Seychelles and Maldives governments. Team members plan to spend five weeks surveying wildlife around seamounts. Those are vast underwater mountains that rise a mile or more above the ocean floor.
To explore such inhospitable depths, Nekton scientists will board one of the world’s most advanced submersibles, called Limiting Factor. The deepest point mapped by Limiting Factor is in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. It’s the lowest spot on Earth at almost 36,000 feet down. That’s farther down than Mount Everest rises up.
As divers descend, pressure increases. There are limits to what a human body can sustain without an adequately pressurized vessel. Limiting Factor provides that protection for two people in its compartment with a 3.5-inch titanium cocoon wrapping the submersible.
But God made deep-sea-dwelling fish, squid, sponges, and the other innumerable creatures, great and small, that teem there. (Psalm 104:25) He equipped them to not only bear the pressure but also thrive under it. You won’t find Midnight Zone marine life in aquariums above the surface. Marine biologists say it’s too difficult to recreate the habitat of the cold, dark, deep, high-pressure Midnight Zone. Those animals would not survive in even the best modern aquariums.
Many of the creatures that call the Midnight Zone home are blind. Others have poor eyesight. Because most creatures there don’t operate by sight, few Midnight Zone animals need camouflage to hide or bright colors to attract mates. But even in that murky darkness, God gave some life-forms light.
“What we do know is that beneath 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), there’s no light down there, but a lot of animals . . . are bioluminescent. It’s life that glows,” says Nekton mission director Oliver Steeds.
One example is the deep-sea anglerfish. This craggy-looking, bony fish sports a long, thin filament from its forehead. From that dangles a fleshy blob, glowing with bioluminescence. Bacteria living in the fish emit the soft light. The carnivorous anglerfish glides along with its natural lure bobbing gently before it. Other nearly blind creatures approach the curious glow, at which point they are scooped into the giant maw of the predatory angler. The deep-sea angler can expand its jaw and stomach to take in creatures more than twice its size. That’s a handy trick for a carnivore that meets up with a meal only every few days.
Fascinating as the anglerfish might be, scientists believe there are countless likewise fascinating species yet to discover.
“It’s one of the most bio-diverse parts of the world’s oceans. So what we’re going to find there is unknown,” Steeds said in Barcelona, Spain, before trials for the submersible began.
On each dive, Limiting Factor’s occupants will have only 96 hours to complete their tasks and collect data. That’s how long the oxygen for two adults will last. While below, the scientists will collect water samples and use sensors and mapping technology. They expect to identify new species, define seafloor topography, and evaluate pollution conditions.
What wonders await them in the deep! Because Limiting Factor is the only submersible passenger vehicle in the world that can reach the bottom half of the ocean, expedition leader Rob McCallum says, “Everything we do is new. Everything we see is virtually a new discovery.”
Do you find the idea of descending so far beneath the ocean’s surface frightening? In Bible times, people were terrified of the depths. “The deep” or “the abyss” often referred not just to the water itself. Those terms symbolized chaos and the great unknown.
The Psalmist used darkness and the “uttermost parts of the sea” as examples of the farthest reaches of existence. But the good news that the Psalmist arrived at is true for us all:
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you. — Psalm 139:7-12
There is neither “height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, [that] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:38-39)
The scientists on the Nekton Mission will combine their observations with those made last year during the Seychelles Indian Ocean mission (see “Charting the Indian Ocean”). They plan to present their findings in 2022.