Monday, April 14, 2008

The Next Exploration

In my previous expeditions to Cocos Island National Park I’ve seen the hardships and the obstacles that the park rangers have to overcome on a daily basis in order to protect the area. It seems an impossible task with what little resources they have available, and with such great numbers of illegal fishermen pitted against them. Day by day, the battle continues, and little by little the fishermen wear away at the parks fragile ecosystem. It won’t be long now until the fishermen have fished beyond the sustainable limit, and the marine sanctuary will collapse. This is not an endless pot of gold, and there is a limit to how much we can take out before it cannot refill itself. The species that the Marine Reserve was established to protect are mostly of the Pelagic kind, and their time on Cocos Island is limited to only brief visits. As soon as the great schools of hammerhead shark, bluefin and yellowfin tuna, and swordfish depart for their feeding grounds they can no longer be protected, and as you can imagine, fishermen descend on their schools like flocks of gulls on a forgotten lunch. There are a myriad of unknowns about the pelagic species and we still can’t follow their open ocean migrations because they travel to deep and too far, making protecting them next to impossible. No amount of money can solve this problem, because the technology simply doesn’t exist.

What we do have however is a few key pieces of knowledge that we can use until our habitation of the ocean improves. Recently it has come to light that there is a sea mount just 30 miles off the coast of Cocos Island that the pelagic species and fishermen alike use on a daily basis. This seamount has never before been seen by human eyes, and it’s depth is known only by the fishermen who drop their lines approximately 300 feet to hunt for the gigantic grouper that also call this place home. One of these fishermen has provided us with the approximate GPS coordinates to find the seamount.

As the location of the seamount is as yet only an approximation, and it’s existence only a rumor until recently, it was not included in the original boundaries of Cocos Island. It hasn’t been considered even by agencies such as the French Fund for the Environment and the UNDP when they have been researching on Cocos Island in an effort to expand the borders of Cocos Island National Park, this work has been led by Kifah Sasa, and Kifah is also going to be a part of this expedition so he can have a first hand view of the events as they unfold. Nobody has had the equipment, the knowhow, or the ability to pull together a team capable of exploring the seamount to make it’s vital role in the Cocos Island Ecosystem anything more than speculation. We now have the capability, we have the team, and we are readying to dive into a sea of unknowns with one inspiration, to gain ground on the illegal fishermen. The question is how.

How will visiting the seamount do all this? While exploring the seamount we will be placing a receiving unit that will ping every time a tagged animal passes through the region. With the Unit in place over the next year or so, information will be gathered from years of tagging work that scientist Randall Arauz has been doing on Cocos Island. Every tagged animal that passes will have come from Cocos Island at some point in the past, because every animal was tagged on Cocos Island. Once Randall processes the information, he will know what animal it was that has passed the seamount, how long it stayed, and wether or not the animal makes frequent visits. We can make a strong hypotheses that we will not be disappointed with our findings. That hard data will then be provided to the agencies that are making the petition to expand the park boundaries and will be used to show that the seamount is not separated from Cocos Island, but is a major portion of the Cocos Island ecosystem.

It won’t be a simple task to place the receiving unit on the Seamount, at a depth of 300 feet and 30 miles from Cocos Islands protected bays, a whole new realm of difficulties present themselves. The main reason that the seamount hasn’t already been dove by the Seahunter group, a dive company that operates a deep water submarine on Cocos Island is that until now they haven’t had the ability to launch the sub in the rough pacific swells that rhythmically crash into the rock walls of Cocos Island. A new boat, specially outfitted to launch the sub in the open ocean has been outfitted and this will be its maiden voyage. The depth of the seamount is easily reachable by the three person submarine once it has passed below the surface, but is beyond the normal limits of even an advanced deep water diver. The normal limits of a deep water diver are at 135 feet, I’ve dove to nearly 200, and very few people have passed 200 feet without very specialized equipment. It’s unlikely that we will attempt a subless dive to the seamount, but if the opportunity presents itself and all safety measures are taken, we are specially outfitted with Rebreather units that recycle the air that has already passed through our bodies, enabling us to breath our own air again. With these units, it may be possible to reach the seamount and install the Receiver unit ourselves. If not, we will rely on the arm of the submarine to do the work.

There are inherent difficulties when it comes to tagging a pelagic species as well. William Bebe was one of the first naturalists to visit cocos island, and in his book the Arcturus Adventure, he wrote of the difficulties of observing the fish. Hooked fish were found to die following their struggles, and even the great bluefin tuna are timid creatures. Bebe did however have plenty of encounters with shark while diving with his primitive compressor and helmet. The shark, though timid, can be curious. Species such as the hammerhead shark are frightened easily by the bubbles that the commonly used scuba regulator makes. The bubbles are thought to register as a impenetrable wall to the senses of a hammerhead. Marine biologist Peter Klimley writes in his book the Secret Lives of Sharks about suddenly realizing that the sharks all but ignored him while he freedove among the vast schools, sans tank and regulator. It was Peter Klimley who began tagging and tracking the sharks with great success, and scientists like Randall Arauz followed suit. The personality of the hammerhead shark has made it the most viable option for our expedition, and once the receiver has successfully been placed on the Seamount, we will move on to dive Cocos Island with the goal of tagging three more sharks. With three recently tagged sharks, and numerous sharks having been tagged over the last number of years, we will have an exceptionally detailed view of the role that the seamount plays on Cocos Island. The data will also be referenced to other receiver units that Randall already has stationed inside the park boundaries on known hammerhead cleaning stations and schooling areas. What’s more the tags are harmless to the shark, and will optimally be placed in the cartilaginous dorsal fin to minimize harm to the animal. Equal in difficulty to tagging the shark is covering the story.

I’ve teamed up with my brother Jesse Horton to capture the events as they take place, Jesse is a superb underwater videographer and has extensive experience on Cocos Island due to the fact that he has been working on Cocos as a the pilot of Deepsee, the submarine that we will be using. Jesse has also had footage included in a National Geographic special on Sharks along with the work of world renowned underwater videographers like Howard Hall.

For literary coverage, Kelly Hearn has agreed to join the expedition. Kelly is a National Geographic correspondent and has been working as an independent journalist in Latin America since 2004. Kelly wrote the National Geographic News Article for my first Cocos Island expedition and has done extensive research on the problem of Shark Poaching in Cocos Island.

Besides putting this expedition together, and aiding in gathering the scientific data, my role will be to gather the photographs that will be used to tell the story visually. Photography has been of great importance on other expeditions with goals such as ours like Micheal Fay’s legendary Mega Transect. It was the photography of Nick Nichols that put what science had found into perspective. Once the boat has left port, the photography will be my primary job, and I’ll be working to capture the value of the seamount through images.

The Urgency of the expedition cannot be stressed enough. Already over 90 percent of the pelagic species have been lost (appendix 1) and fisheries are advancing technology to make up for the difficulties of having less fish to catch. That they can maintain their quotas even with so few fish just goes to show that marine sanctuaries like Cocos Island are more precious than we think. Soon, they may be all that we have left.