Classrooms Under the Sea: Descending into the Deep Reefs of Curaçao

Young Explorer Erika Bergman is sharing the thrill of diving in a submersible with classrooms and onlookers all over the world. With external and internal cameras mounted on her sub, viewers will experience a new vantage point as Erika pilots through the deep coral reefs of Curacao and Honduras. Follow her expedition and post your comments right here onExplorers Journal or tweet your questions at @erika_bergman


On the southeast end of the island nation of Curacao enormous limestone cliffs rise up above you. That is, they rise up if you are hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean looking through the acrylic dome of a submersible.

As the sub begins a slow decent into the deep, shadows play across the face of the stone. The stunning profile of this massive wall is backlit in ethereal blue by the sun shining through the rippling surface of the sea.  As you pass through four hundred feet the light fades from brilliant blue to deep navy. Dive down a few hundred feet more and the ocean around you is a dense, living black.

As the CuraSub descends through 100 feet Submersible Pilot and Young Explorer Erika Bergman films the vehicle and crew. Photographed by Barry Brown.
As the CuraSub descends through 100 feet Submersible Pilot and Young Explorer Erika Bergman films the vehicle and crew. Photographed by Barry Brown.

At a thousand feet, staring out into inky darkness, I have a sense of being completely alone though I share the small pressure sphere with three other crew members. Our mission on this dive is to deploy research equipment along various depth contours, and to observe and identify the organisms inhabiting deep water coral ecosystems.

As we fire up the sub’s powerful light array the darkness of the deep ocean dissipates. In front of our eyes pink and yellow crabs scuttle across the rocky landscape to hide behind sponges and corals.

A brilliantly colored crab scopes out the area from behind a glass sponge.
A brilliantly colored crustacean scopes out the area from behind a glass sponge.

As the sub traverses the seafloor we gaze out between the manipulator arms our vehicle simply observing life in the deep. Around 700 feet we pause to watch the slow passes of a Crinoid’s arms as it sweeps through the water for its food.

From the silty bottom at 1000 feet to the current swept rock walls of the surface these echinoderms can live at a wide variety of pressures and depths. Some Crinoids live above the seafloor on long stalks and are known as sea lilies, which is a near translation for the greek root of their name.

At 696 feet deep a cryonoid over a foot wide has made it's home on top of a stony coral.
At 696 feet deep a Crinoid over a foot wide has made it’s home on top of a stony coral.

Many of the deep limestone cliffs have been uplifted by earthquakes and shifts in the seafloor. The striated rock is home to an outstanding variety of organisms including glass sponges, crabs, scorpion fish, and corals. Follow along in the coming weeks as I continue to explore deep reefs using manned submersibles.

Have a question about underwater exploration? Ask away on twitter at @erika_bergman.

A Scorpion Fish rests gently on a rock at 810 feet.
A Scorpion Fish rests gently on a rock at 810 feet.

Read the entire blog series

As a submarine pilot and National Geographic Explorer Erika Bergman is a passionate storyteller. She studied chemical oceanography at the University of Washington while working as a diesel engineer aboard the tall ship S/V Lady Washington and a steam ship engineer aboard the S/S Virginia V. Since then she has worked as a submersible pilot for exploration, research and filmmaking. Erika is an editor of, a site dedicated to supporting and curating a new era of connected, citizen exploration. She is also the Founder of GEECs - Global Engineering & Exploration Counselors; providing a network of thrilling engineering camps to girls around the world. Photo - Heather Perry.

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