Pristine Seas

Exploring Pristine Places

Picture of a diver looking at corals

Photograph by Scott Ressler

Reprinted from the National Geographic book, Pristine Seas: Journeys to the Ocean’s Last Wild Places by Enric Sala

National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project sends expedition teams to some of the most remote, unexplored places in the ocean. Utilizing some of the latest technologies—from drones and drop cameras to rebreather diving technology, submarines, and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs)—the team and key partners work together to conduct comprehensive surveys of these marine environments.

The goal of each expedition is to document what is there. That means observing and estimating the abundance and biomass (a measure of the weight of every species per square meter) for as many species of alga, coral, other invertebrates, and fish as possible. That’s hundreds of species—and we obtain measures of abundance for each one. When we add microbes, it’s tens of thousands of species. And then we film everything that happens, topside and underwater.

We usually start planning expeditions one year in advance. We find and charter a ship; assemble our science team, including local scientists; obtain research and filming permits; gauge the government’s interest in a Pristine Seas expedition; and confer with any conservation organizations working in the area. We have to plan far ahead to ship the expedition gear to the port nearest our expedition start point.

We spend two to six weeks in each expedition location. In most cases we follow up with a trip several months later to show the country’s government—and the local population, if there is one—what we found.

What’s a normal day on an expedition like? We wake up at 7 a.m., have breakfast, and jump into our small boats to go diving around 8:30 a.m. We have a boat for the science team, a boat for the filming team, and another boat for deploying our deep dropcams and offshore baited cameras.

The scientists conduct two scuba morning dives to count organisms, and the filming team conducts a longer dive with rebreathers. Both teams come back to the mother ship for lunch, when they also refill tanks and recharge batteries. After lunch, both teams dive again.

When they come back to the ship, they enter data, download the footage and photos onto hard drives, recharge batteries, fill tanks, and get all the gear ready for the morning after. Meanwhile, the deep-offshore team spends all day out, dropping cameras that film deep-sea habitats—and what’s attracted to baited containers near the surface—and returns shortly before dinner.

At dinner there’s always a lively discussion centered around what we accomplished that day, any surprises we encountered, and our work plan for the following day, which shapes the route planned by the expedition leader and ship’s captain after dinner. After dinner we enter the day’s data into our computers, back up all images, and write our expedition journals. The expedition leader writes the day’s blog for the National Geographic website and sends it via satellite.

Having done all that, we retire to our cabins and collapse with the satisfaction of good work done. But at least once during an expedition we watch a film after dinner. Our favorite, watched over and over, is Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

We repeat this routine daily, as long as the expedition lasts. It is exhausting work, but we could not be happier to have the sea as our office.

Order the Pristine Seas Book

The last of the pristine seas offer a fascinating glimpse into our past and an inspiring vision for the future. In Pristine Seas: Journeys to the Ocean’s Last Wild Places, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala takes readers on a dazzling journey to ten of these astounding locations, showing what we have to gain by protecting our seas.


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