New Frontiers of Inner Space

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

This past summer, people all over the world thrilled to images sent back from Mars. A remotely operated vehicle drove about on the red planets surface and transmitted pictures of a world once apparently much like ours, carved and contoured by the erosional whims of water.

Soon the general awe gave way to talk of manned missions to Mars, of transport and commerce and the exploitation of Martian minerals. Finally, there was talk of settlement. All these rumblings reveal a common unspoken perception: Earth is played out, used up, exhausted. As we humans grapple with problems of pollution, global warming, biodiversity loss and overpopulation, many seem to have lost patience. Earth seems too dirty, too expensive and too small. Now many people are willing to speculate that the time may have come for the human species to look for new digs in space.

As if to underscore the market for space interest, American television broadcasts four spin-offs of the popular Star Trek series, each featuring advanced technologies, skin-tight suits and strange alien life forms.

We who explore the inner space of the water planet can only shake our heads in puzzlement. We have similar gear: tight-fitting space suits, remotely operated vehicles and shuttles. And, we too are coming up with new discoveries from a vast and distant realm. Yet our world does not enjoy the same renown, especially on television.

This is unfortunate, because we have so much more to offer the human imagination. Unlike Star Trek and (so far) the Mars mission, we are actually discovering new creatures in environments once thought too harsh to sustain life: deep-sea cephalopods, crustaceans and sharks and worms clustered around sea-floor vents. And, the best part of our adventures is the accessibility. You dont have to undergo months of training in zero gravity conditions at enormous taxpayer expense to discover unexplored parts of the sea, or even to experience the magic of exotic marine life. Its all very close to home.

Creative new forms of dive tourism allow us to extend our recreational explorations. Live-aboards, for instance, besides being tailored to those who literally cant get enough diving, give people an opportunity to go beyond the sites frequented by land-based dive boats. This is good for both divers and heavily-used reefs.

In Fiji, tourism is increasing. Someday, Fijis popular reefs may feel the pressure of too many divers, as some places in the Caribbean have. So its important to spread out. Our team is always on the lookout for new sites. Many of these lie some distance from the nearest island and are more suited to live-aboard traffic.

What makes a great new dive site? Im sure everyone has his or her own opinion, but for me it is a great diversity of life. Knowing where to look for diversity involves understanding geology, currents and marine biology, while being sensitive to the patterns of use in the area. On this last point, divers must remember their playground is usually the supermarket of the local population. Respect for local culture is essential when scouting for dive sites.

We generally begin in a small airplane, flying low over the seas between Fijis many islands. We look for seamounts, points of land and passages. These geologic structures may lie anywhere from slightly submerged to 100 feet below the surface. Obviously, they are perfect coral habitats and, where there is coral, soft or hard, there can be a dense matrix of other marine life: crustaceans, reef fishes and larger predators, such as sharks. In these waters, one may even chance upon a Humpback Whale. Passages and currents, especially converging currents, complicate the picture and add to the potential diversity of life. Once a promising seamount has been found, we note its position on a GPS device, then locate it on a nautical chart and return by boat.

A person can only tell so much about a reef from the air. Diving gives the true picture of a reefs character, health and biological diversity. On closer inspection, most of those we visit appear weak, lacking in diversity, or even, sadly, already despoiled by humans. In our experience, only 10 percent of the reefs we spot from the sky turn out to be fantastic dive sites. Still, that is enough to provide wonderful adventures.

Time and again I am awed by the beauty and mystery of these pristine places. There is a special feeling at every new site. With no signs of people, they appear to be underwater Gardens of Eden. Animals are usually not habituated to the human presence, so encounters are easy, fresh and spontaneous. The colors seem brighter, and there seems to be a greater abundance of everything.

On Mars, or under our own earthly oceans, a certain euphoria takes over when something new is discovered, a feeling that here is a treasure for the taking. It is the feeling that has fueled so many gold rushes;and extinctions. Judging from the talk about mining Mars, we havent learned enough from the trashing of this planet to establish paradise somewhere else. As for the places we are still discovering here on Earth, we must be careful to remember the same principle applies to them as to those places we already know and love: respect for the life forms that make their home in the sea. We must remember that we are guests, and guests dont smash china, tear holes in the furniture and tromp through the garden. On a reef, that means we dont kick up sand, grab or knock off coral heads or harass the locals for that perfect photo.

New dive sites present us with an opportunity and a challenge. We should be even more careful at new sites, because intact reef ecosystems are of even greater importance to scientists than they are to pleasure seekers. As we discover new sites, we can learn from past mistakes and take preventive measures for their well being. For example, it is common for live-aboards to free-boat at new sites, following the bubbles of divers as they make their way around the site, and pick them up when they surface. But, too many people still drop and drag anchors across sensitive corals. For sites destined to be revisited on a regular basis, the answer may be a system called Environmental Moorings, which consists of a stainless steel pin inserted into a hole drilled into the reefs limestone substrate, and tied to a float.

If these and other responsible measures are taken, we can use new sites and they will offer a thrilling experience for decades to come. We can also continue to renew our imagination here, on good old planet Earth. It still has a lot to offer, if we are willing to look beneath the surface.