One of the most exciting and moving moments in the life of marine scientist Juan Mayorga occurred recently, while he was diving in the clear and shallow waters of the Colombian Pacific Ocean, near the island of Malpelo. “We found a very special community of planktonic organisms, many species of jellyfish and ctenophores, transparent and very small animals that, when photographed, reveal a beautiful and strange ecosystem, full of unknown colors and shapes,” says Mayorga by voice message.
Telephone communication with the scientist is impossible. For a month, Mayorga and 17 researchers and photographers from different parts of the world have been visiting the best preserved places in the Colombian oceans aboard the scientific vessel argusa ship of the program Pristine Seas (Pristine seas) of National Geographic, which recalls by name the famous ship from Greek mythology in which Jason and the Argonauts traveled through the Black Sea.
The international expedition, which has the support of the Presidency of the Republic, the Ministry of the Environment and the Malpelo Foundation, aims to make an inventory of Colombia’s marine fauna and flora, record a documentary that shows the natural wealth not yet studied in the region and thus help protect these ecosystems, considered by experts to be one of the most biodiverse in the world.
Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and founder of Pristine Seas, explains by email that the plan of the voyage is to help increase the Marine Protected Areas of Colombia. “We want to serve as support so that the Government fulfills its commitment to protect 30% of Colombian waters by 2022. Our contribution is in scientific research and communication”, he says from the ship argus the American, one of the most important researchers in the study of the marine world.
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At the time of the publication of this article, the expedition – which began on March 3 in the open waters of the Colombian Pacific, in the Yuruparí and Malpelo ridges, and will end on April 30 in the extreme north of the Sea Flower reserve on the island of San Andrés, in the Atlantic Ocean – will be touring the waters of the Gulf of Tribugá, an area north of the Colombian Chocó department that has the second deepest bay on Earth and is known worldwide for being a corridor for different species of whales and sharks.
“Right now we are in the Gulf of Tribugá,” says Mayorga, “we have already completed the first phase of the expedition in Malpelo, an extremely important oceanic area for the diversity of the entire region.” The scientist reveals that in that initial stage of exploration they found “many threatened and vulnerable species”, such as hammerhead, stickleback and thresher sharks; black corals, included in the list of the Convention of the International Treaty of Endangered Species; glass sponges and sea feathers, and even a rare species of stingray that seems never to have been discovered before.
“Although this area is still in very good conservation conditions, we found fishing lines and nets entangled at the bottom of the sea, which shows the urgent need to protect these marine sanctuaries,” insists Mayorga.
Whitney Goodell, another of the National Geographic researchers aboard the argus, remember that in the Malpelo ridge, at a depth of 1,500 meters, they observed a beautiful ghost shark, known for having an appearance similar to that of a spaceship. “The waters off the coast are full of strange and interesting creatures, many are tiny, translucent animals that float in the open surface water, drifting on currents,” explains Goodell. The researcher is referring to the same brilliant and multicolored ctenophores and jellyfish that surprised Mayorga. “These animals propel themselves with vibrating appendages and hunt each other, swallowing their food, which is visible through their transparent bodies.”
Enric Sala agrees with his colleagues: “The strangest animals we have seen so far are small gelatinous specimens that live in shallow waters, 200 miles from the Colombian coast, near Malpelo.” And he adds: “they look like alien creatures.” All three scientists agree that these zooplankton species are the base of the marine food chain, sustain the region’s productivity, and often go unnoticed. “We know very little about these animals, but we do know that the entire ecosystem depends on them, from tuna and marlin to whales,” says Mayorga.
The routine on the ship is the same every day. The researchers wake up at dawn and launch the remote depth cameras into the sea, which can go down to 6,000 meters. “We left them for five hours recording the biodiversity of the bottom of the sea. Each one has a pot of food to attract animals that are nearby, “explains Goodell. At 7 in the morning they have breakfast and go diving in shallow waters. At noon, they send special cameras that float less than 20 meters deep, also with bait, to document and record the species that are close to the surface, such as sharks and groupers.
Goodell says by email that on each dive teams of divers examine fish, plants and invertebrates and collect water samples for eDNA analysis, a method used to detect the DNA of animals that have recently been in the water. Every day, in addition, three divers travel in a special submarine that can descend up to 350 meters deep.
Scientists inside the submarine have received visits from thresher sharks, a very difficult to see species that has a tail as long as the rest of its body. “One of these sharks swam calmly and slowly enough that the sub followed it for a while, allowing scientists to share a special moment with this creature of the deep,” recalls Goodell.
At four in the afternoon each day, all the scientists are back on the ship, analyzing data, cleaning equipment and organizing the next day’s work. as in the poem The sea Pablo Neruda: “I need the sea because it teaches me: / I don’t know if I learn music or awareness: / I don’t know if it’s a single wave or a deep one / or just a hoarse voice or a dazzling / assumption of fish and ships”.
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