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One Small Splash for Man

SCUBA diving revolutionized ocean exploration for all.

By Carmen Hoyt, The School for Field Studies

Late one summer night, nearly 51 years ago, half a billion people watched in anticipation as Neil Armstrong was the first human to step onto the moon. An event embodied by the phrase “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” marked the climax of the infamous space race playing out on (and beyond) the global stage.Less celebrated in pop culture, but equally as significant to the development of the US space program was Lieutenant Colonel John Glenn and his spacecraft Friendship 7. In 1962, after three years of training, he was the first American to orbit the Earth not once but three times, spending nearly five hours appreciating our planet from afar. Upon his return later that day, Friendship 7 landed in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Grand Turk, where Glenn was transported for medical testing before returning to the States.

Even further off the public radar were Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard. In a similar five-hour feat, they became the first humans to venture into a different frontier, equally as alien but closer to home: the deepest depths of the ocean. Despite a series of non-essential instrument failures the morning of the proposed dive, Walsh and Piccard took the bathyscaph (a deep-sea submarine of sorts) Trieste down into the Marianas Trench 220 miles off the coast of Guam and 35,856 feet below the surface, two years before the launch of Friendship 7.

“Splashing down” into the ocean opens up a world of wonders just as exciting as space exploration.

What was the equivalent of a “small splash for man but a cannonball for mankind” never panned out into a dramatic show of technological will and military might, but it nevertheless captivated the minds of ocean explorers, scientists and engineers all over the world. Mankind’s quest to reach new heights is only paralleled by our desire to go deeper, stay longer and experience what we never have before. Ocean exploration shares its foundational values with space exploration, but has taken a backseat in political priorities. The responsibility has fallen on the people—the ones curious enough to ask questions and daring enough to find answers.

Aboard the Trieste, Piccard describes watching bioluminescence at different points along the descent and the shocking moment they encountered a fish upon reaching the bottom. There had been previous debate as to whether or not fish could live that deep, demonstrating that there was some type of deep ocean current supplying these great depths with oxygen.

In 2000, the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration claimed that as much as 95% of our oceans remain unexplored. More recently, over 900 hours of video footage from sea floor mapping collected during 2015 and 2017 captured 347,000 creatures from the deep sea, less than 20% of which could be identified. In 2018, Salinas-de-León and a team of researchers found that a species of deep-sea skate, a relative to the ray, was using warm water from hydrothermal vents off the Galapagos Islands to incubate its eggs. The discovery of such a nursery is important because hydrothermal vents around the world are being targeted for mining, as they are rich in mineral resources. There’s no telling what other surprises lay in the deep oceans waiting to be discovered, and it’s important we do so before they are gone.

While much of this “final frontier” lies in the deep sea, there is plenty of exploring to be done in our own backyard. I would argue that the Turks & Caicos Islands now play a much more important role in exploration than they did in the 1960s, thanks to the invention of SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus).

What we recognize as modern SCUBA equipment has its origins in 1943, decades before we dreamt of a space suit, yet a century after the first dive school was established by the Royal Navy in 1843. We can thank Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan for the original Aqualung, an apparatus combining the inventions of a portable air tank and regulator that freed humans of rudimentary dive suits weighing as much as 200 pounds. Though these previous iterations captured the attention of the 1867 World’s Fair, it was Cousteau and Gagnan’s Aqualung and subsequent improvements that expanded the accessibility of the oceans from beyond military enterprises and into the recreational realm. The regulator, or breathing piece, was streamlined in 1952, followed by the first buoyancy control device, or jacket-type compensator, in the 1960s and improved upon by SCUBAPRO in 1971. Slowly SCUBA-training organizations such as NAUI (1960) and PADI (1966) began to appear, all before man set foot on the moon.

Students at the School for Field Studies in South Caicos do data collection and research.

SCUBA divers are always hungry to expand their dive repertoire, and the 340 miles of reef offered by the Turks & Caicos serve up something truly special. The secret recipe? An exciting mixture of underwater geological features and charismatic megafauna. A huge draw to the Islands is wall diving, and several of the top dive sites offer this opportunity. The walls are just as their name suggests: vertical slabs of rock that plunge anywhere from 40 feet to 7,000 feet down, though you will need special training to go anywhere beyond the PADI Advanced Open Water limits of 100 feet. Dive sites like these can be found virtually all over the Islands, including Providenciales, West Caicos, South Caicos and Grand Turk.

Besides the walls, it’s not uncommon to find canyons, cracks in the wall, and a few interesting wrecks. A mixture of hard corals, soft corals and sponges grow along the wall, making for intricate hiding and feeding spots for various marine life. TCI waters have been known to host sharks, dolphins, whales (seasonally) and spotted eagle rays, to name a few.
The best time to go diving is . . . well, all the time. While late summer months bring calmer seas and better visibility, hurricane season is a factor. During this time, water temperatures peak at 86ºF (30ºC), but they drop to about 75ºF (24ºC) in January when sea conditions can be a bit choppier.

At The School for Field Studies’ Center for Marine Resource Studies on South Caicos, university students participate in an exploration of their own. They have the opportunity to become PADI Open Water and Advanced Open Water certified divers. We aim to equip them with the necessary skills to meld SCUBA diving into their recreational and scientific endeavors.

Here on the “Big South,” we are lucky to have exciting dive sites along the wall, one of which contains wing wreckage from an old airplane. SCUBA has become an important tool for our young scientists to collect data, and many of our long-term projects would not have been possible without the necessary training and equipment. Some of these projects include coral monitoring and fish surveys. Students use SCUBA to assess coral diversity, bleaching status and disease progression as well as identify and tally reef fish abundance. This data is used to help the community identify and implement tools to sustainably manage the local ecosystem. Snorkeling has been equally as important in data collection and an excellent way to get out and see the wonders below the surface.

If you would like to participate in your own ocean exploration, there are a few things to consider. Read up on the health risks associated with SCUBA diving and consult your doctor to make sure you are fit for such an activity. Underlying respiratory and cardiac illnesses are often barriers to diving but will not necessarily hold you back from snorkeling. Always be aware of surrounding ocean conditions and be sure to participate in the necessary training before attempting any new dives. There are a variety of centers certified to teach diving or lead snorkeling trips scattered across the Turks & Caicos Islands, and they can always help refresh or advance your skills if you have been previously certified. If you own your own gear, be sure to keep up on maintenance or have it checked prior to use if it has been sitting for a while.
As the father of modern SCUBA, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, once said: “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” So, what will you discover beneath the waves?

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