From tracking dolphins and manta rays to studying coral reefs, scientists are in need of help from superyachts, says Richard Madden.
"All these strange life forms were flashing their lights at each other. It was like a psychedelic pyrotechnic display,” remembers Rob McCallum, founding partner of EYOS Expeditions, as he talks to me via Zoom from his base in the US. He is telling me about some of the extraordinary sights he has seen while exploring the deep ocean with his clients.
“And the truth is, it’s science that really seems to motivate superyacht owners these days,” he continues. “There’s a new generation coming through who have often made their money fairly young but are not particularly materialistic. They like nice things but they are more interested in experiences and finding out about their world, how it functions and how it might be better looked after in the future.”
In 2019, during the Five Deeps Expedition, McCallum’s team picked up a rock from the bottom of the Mariana Trench, nearly 11 kilometres down. “The rock was taken back to the University of Hawaii where they examined it under a microscope, and inside the rock were threads of biological matter,” McCallum continues with amazement in his voice. “Life inside a rock at the very bottom of the world’s oceans. These are incredible discoveries."
If we are to find solutions to the many problems facing the planet, maritime research may hold the key. The health of the oceans is critical to the health of the planet as a whole, and yet we don’t fully understand how they function. As of 2020, only a fifth of the earth’s ocean floor had been surveyed. Nonetheless, even though huge strides are being made, one of the greatest challenges for marine scientists is gaining access to the sea to carry out their work. While some grants and berths on ships are funded by national governments, one of the UK’s top marine scientists recently reported that his application success rate is just four in every hundred.
To help find a solution to this problem, the Yachts for Science initiative was launched in 2019, a collaboration between BOAT International, Nekton Mission and OFF (four yacht-owning families that form the Ocean Family Foundation). EYOS Expeditions has since joined the partnership, which aims to bring marine scientists looking for yachts into contact with boat owners, decision makers, brokers, designers and builders who can take them to the places in the world’s oceans they need to study.
One notable early success story was Dr Erika Gress’s project studying black coral reefs in the Raja Ampat region of Indonesia. In collaboration with local scientists, Gress’s research involved two dives a day over 12 days from a 51-metre luxury Indonesian phinisi, Dunia Baru, owned at the time by American Mark Robba.
Other philanthropic yacht owners have been carrying bathymetric sonar on their boats to contribute to the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), a project that aims to fully map the world’s sea floor by 2030. During the past 18 months, one vessel has mapped a staggering 1.6 million square kilometres. Others have used conductivity, temperature and depth sensors to profile more than a million vertical metres of water column, while others have deployed autonomous vehicles, collecting 500 hours of HD footage of the oceans’ deepest marine creatures, including the deepest fish, octopus, shrimp and jellyfish ever recorded. Last year, private yachts also discovered 30 species previously unknown to science.
Among the many inspiring scientists whose research projects need berths during the next year is Dr Wilford Schmidt of the University of Puerto Rico. “Of all the world’s deep-ocean trenches, the Puerto Rico Trench is unique because it is completely isolated from all the others with no geological or water flow between them. It is also the deepest in the Atlantic Ocean,” he says.
“The three major reasons for this research are to discover more about the likelihood of future natural disasters, such as tsunamis, that could be set off by marine earthquakes in the region, the study of climate change and the thermohaline circulation that acts like a thermostat of the planet and which runs through the trench, and the possibility of discovering unique species that might lend themselves to groundbreaking new natural pharmaceutical products.”
The world’s deep-ocean trenches are all fascinating from a geological perspective and are created by subsidence around tectonic plate boundaries. It is this that makes them fertile ground for earthquakes, which, in turn, trigger tsunamis and which, in the case of the Puerto Rico trench, could threaten the entire region including the East Coast of the US. The trench also contains water that has migrated from both the Arctic and Antarctic oceans and could have been there for as long as one thousand years, making it a fertile source of information into the make-up of the earth’s atmosphere in pre-industrial times.
In the past, the size of the equipment that was necessary for research at such extreme depths would have deterred many yacht owners from offering to host a scientist such as Dr Schmidt on board. However, today’s state-of-the-art technology means that he will be using untethered vehicles consisting of glass spheres that can withstand the huge pressures encountered at extreme depths. They contain micro controllers that can be programmed to seek out the right areas for study, and they also deploy biota traps and sediment samplers. This equipment weighs approximately 100 kilograms and is around three metres in length (see below).
On land, charismatic species from pandas to polar bears often fly the flag for wildlife conservation organisations. According to Simon Hilbourne of the Manta Trust, manta rays have the same magnetic qualities to motivate people in the cause of marine conservation.
“It’s sometimes hard to get people to engage with marine conservation, but to get someone to fall in love with a manta ray all you have to do is get them in the water,” Hilbourne says. “They fall in love instantly. Mantas are so beautiful and charismatic, it’s impossible not to be blown away by their elegance and grace. They are also very vulnerable because they reproduce so slowly and have so few offspring. By protecting them we are also protecting the entire marine ecosystem.”
The Manta Trust has been researching manta rays in the Maldives, where they have six project sites, for the past 15 years. But there are huge areas that are still relatively unexplored, and the Trust is looking for boats to host an exploratory trip to find new populations of reef mantas in remote areas. Oceanic manta rays, the larger of the two species, have recently been classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List and their movement through the Maldives also urgently needs studying.
“We call it the Maldives Galápagos,” adds Hilbourne. “To yacht owners who might be able to offer us berths, I would also say that we only need to bring minimal equipment with us, and if you, your friends or family want to join us in the water, we will happily introduce you to the mantas and show you all what we’re doing so that you can get really involved.”
Other indicator species that can reveal important information about the health of the oceans are cetaceans such as bottlenose dolphins, which inhabit waters off the coast of Florida. “We know very little about what’s happening along the continental shelf, pretty much from Fort Lauderdale all the way down to the lower Florida Keys,” says Jeremy Kiszka of Florida International University.
“Cetaceans are apex predators and they need a lot of food, so they’re really good indicators of abundance of lower trophic species,” Kiszka continues. “We know that there is a diversity of cetacean species there, but we have no idea about their relative abundance and spatial distribution or what the most common species are. So what we are planning is a baseline study to understand the risk for cetaceans of adjacent populated areas on the mainland and busy shipping lanes.”
It’s all essential research, and something that could add a fascinating new dimension to your next trip, too. If you think you are able to offer scientists berths to carry out their studies, there are a number of projects looking for assistance on an ongoing basis through the Yachts For Science initiative. To find out which ones you could help, visit yachtsforscience.com.
This feature is taken from the June 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.shop now