Journey Into Inner Space: Conquering The Abyss

Walter Starck takes a picture of his wife Jo using his new re-breather design. Photo in National Geographic Magazine, December 1972.

There’s no question that human ingenuity and knowledge are initially crafted by our imagination. And when we look at the ocean, we are limited physiologically and can only perceive the surface of an enormous dark abyss, the stuff of mythology, fiction and dreams. Mysterious, deep, and profoundly important to our survival, the extent we can learn about the ocean depends on our ability to develop technologies that will enable us to begin our journey into this watery underworld. There are many challenges associated with reaching deeper depths that clearly limit our ability to explore this unknown world. It was not so long ago that SCUBA systems allowed humans to go below the surface for extended periods into what is now known as the “Shallows”, a depth to approximately 130 feet [39 meters] which still remains the limit for recreation diving.

In 1972 Walter Starck invented the first electronically controlled closed circuit re-breather (CCR). Walter put his new invention to work by documenting species of fish and corals in the Tongue of the Ocean off Andros in the Bahamas to depths over 300 feet [91 meters]. His research was supported and featured by National Geographic. Walter proved that this technology would allow us to safely document a world never before seen; the NG article was a fresh new look at deep corals and species of fish that inhabited this twilight region of the ocean, a new age of discovery had began. Recently we have witnessed considerable advancements to the closed-circuit re-breather technology, clearly an improvement on the conventional SCUBA technology.

The Era of the Scubanaut

Michael Lombardi (of Ocean Opportunity) is no stranger to the deep. Michael has had a long trajectory of underwater exploration supporting science projects. He recalls a life changing moment in 2002 when supporting a NOAA sponsored science project to a 300 foot [91 meters] benchmark,

“In just 8 minutes on a single dive at 300 feet [91 meters], nearly a dozen new, never before described sponge species were collected, several of which were found to produce chemicals of interest in fighting cancer and other human diseases. Since that single moment, I’ve said that my quest has been to achieve the 9th minute” recalls Michael with great excitement.

Jeff Godfrey observes the highly diverse benthic communities associated with the undercut ledge at 185 feet (56 meters). Photo by Michael Lombardi.


Michael’s pursuit is located in a 6561 foot [2000 meter] deepwater vertical trench formed principally by tectonic movements known as the Tongue of the Ocean in the Bahamas. According to Michael, this deep wall environment provides the ideal laboratory for the benthic ecologist. “Being a vertical wall, the full spectrum of depths is immediately accessible, meaning that even relatively short times on the bottom can be complemented by slow, productive ascents” Michael said. In essence, the quick bottom time, slow ascents and the long decompression is ideal for vertical exploration at various depths of these magnificent and poorly studied regions.

November 2010 Accomplishments

Funded by a grant from the National Geographic Society / Waitt Grants Program, Michael and colleague Jeff Godfrey (University of Connecticut) conducted a series of dives into the great abyss in November 2010. Their mission was to explore and document the deep walls off the East coast of Andros. Michael and Jeff were able to do a series of deep dives and spend more bottom time. Beyond shooting hundreds of images during the expedition, Michael achieved his goal, he reached that 9th minute, and much more. During this incredible feat, Michael and Jeff documented unusual and perhaps unknown biological and geological formations. In total, Michael and Jeff conducted six dives sub-300 feet [91 meters], two of which were deeper than 400 feet [121 meters].

FE: What’s it like being at 400 feet [121 meters] below?

ML: Spooky”, is the conclusive and quite fitting term used by David Campbell in the final chapter of his 1978 book, ‘The Ephemeral Islands’, the most comprehensive text about Bahamian natural history, to describe the deep vertical walls that plummet from the shallow fore-reef to the abyss. That single word is accurate in describing the environment.


Jeff Godfrey observes the wall face at a depth of more than 300 feet (91 meters). Photo by Michael Lombardi.


Freefalling into Darkness for 7 minutes

Michael remembers that very day: “Passing 350 feet [106 meters], passing 370 feet [112 meters]. I communicate with Jeff, all still ok. Check all systems. All systems ok. Slam on brakes by inflating buoyancy compensator. I then pick out a small outcropping on the wall for stopping. Settle in at 410 feet [125 meters]. 11 minutes in to the dive”.

FE: Reminds me of the famous Abyss scene when Bud, the character played by Ed Harris, is freefalling into the Abyss…

ML: “Both Jeff and I exchange ‘OKs’, and despite the tremendous excitement of being in this alien world for the first time, we stay on task with great composure and start working. I quickly realized that one of my depth gauges stopped working at 328 feet [100 meters].  Seemingly simple improvements in current equipment will make for enhanced scientific data gathering in the future.  We begin an ascent at a rate of 10 feet [3 meters] per minute for the work phase of the dive – about 10 minutes. We then increase ascent to 30 feet [9 meters] per minute. We reach our first decompression stop at 240 feet [73 meters]. Rest. Relax. Breathe.

Michael’s own words attest to the unique, beautiful yet unforgiving environment found in his descent into the Abyss. It is clear that we have just started taking our first steps into a brand new world, a world so familiar to all humans and yet so unknown. It is this pioneering research that will make this new world accessible for study, research and perhaps even human habitation. Only the future will tell.


Overshooting the target working depths would prove incredibly hazardous due to oxygen toxicity. With no physical bottom for at least another 2,000 feet, precision buoyancy control and dive management is critical. Here, Jeff Godfrey puts on the brakes and explores a depth of 330 feet (100 meters). Photo by Michael Lombardi.


Spring 2011

November’s expedition, made possible by a grant from the National Geographic Society / Waitt Grants Program has proven catalytic in attracting a multidisciplinary team of collaborators including biologists, geologists, and technologists interested in accessing the unexplored Mesophotic zone to gather data from this deep environment. Future collaborators include experts from the American Museum of Natural History, the City University of New York, the University of Connecticut, and the University of Kentucky.

David Gruber [CUNY], a grantee of the National Geographic Society / Waitt Grants Program, will be joining Michael in April. David’s role will focus on the discovery of fluorescent proteins in both fishes and invertebrates, many of which are likely to be new species, never before described for science. These proteins have proven applications in medicine and biotechnology. Other team members will benefit from data gathered during this expedition including research also gather on deep reef fish population dynamics [Auster/UConn], and imagery to help understand the geological history of these deep flanking margins [Doolittle/UKansas], and an unveiling of deep fish diversity [Sparks/AMNH].

Michael explains, “Diving to 300 feet is no record. However, diving to 300, 400, or even 500 feet [91, 121, 152 meters], coupled with conducting scientific tasks raises a unique set of challenges – operationally, logistically, and from a safety perspective. This is true exploration, where we are venturing to Oceana incognita“.


Branching corals and finger-like sponges make up a significant portion of the vertical reef’s ecosystem at intermediate depths from 140 feet (42 meters). Photo by Michael Lombardi.


Learn more about Michael Lombardi’s expedition:

Ocean Opportunity, a Rhode Island based not for profit organization, is pleased to announce a forthcoming expedition to explore and document the natural history of the mesophotic, or ‘middle light’, zone from 200 to 500 feet [60 to 152 meters] in the Exumas, Bahamas from April 28 through May 8th to be hosted at the John H. Perry Jr. Caribbean Research Center – a facility synonymous with a long lineage of advancements in marine technology and innovations in ocean exploration. This expedition is an extension of a successful November project to Andros, Bahamas in which the team worked to 430 feet – more than 3 times the depth of conventional scuba diving.

Changing Planet

Fabio Esteban Amador is an archaeologist, science communicator and visual artist. He uses visualization tools to get people excited about seeing, understanding and preserving their world and history. He is currently using gigapan technology, underwater imaging systems and aerial photography and video to capture art and culture around the world. Lately he has focused in the development of a new concept, strategy and workshop called the Art of Communicating Science, aimed at using creativity and visual technologies in exploration, discovery and story telling. He started his career as an art student at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and followed his interests in becoming an expedition artist by graduating as an archaeologist from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Lately, he has focused on the archaeology and exploration of caverns in Quintana Roo, Mexico, photo-mosaicking shipwrecks in Latin America and the Caribbean and capturing images and video from aerial platforms to document archaeological sites to create digital elevation models. Amador’s continued effort in communicating science has allowed him to use photography, cinematography and other multi-media tools to reach large audiences through his public lectures at universities, presentations at international scientific and professional symposia, publications in scholarly journals and on National Geographic’s Explorers Journal and NatGeo News Watch online blogs. Currently, he is a senior program officer for the National Geographic Society / Waitt Grants Program, promoting and coordinating scientific and exploratory research around the world. He is also an associate research professor at George Washington University and Executive Director and President of Fundacion OLAS, an organization devoted to capacity building for Latin American scholars dedicated to the study and preservation of the submerged cultural heritage.