High-tech subs explore Cayman’s twilight zone

A pair of high-tech submersible craft hit depths of 1,000 feet off the Cayman Islands last week, as a world-famous research and exploration ship dropped in on the Sister Islands.

The past and the future collided in Cayman’s waters as the state-of-the art submarines hovered over the coral-crusted wreck of the MV Captain Keith Tibbetts and roamed coral reefs off Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.

The subs, Nadir and Deep Rover, have been used on deep-sea missions to record stunning natural footage for shows like the BBC’s “Blue Planet 2” and Fisher Stevens and Leonardo Dicaprio’s “Before the Flood.”

The submarines’ mother ship, the Alucia, an international research and exploration vessel, dropped anchor in the Sister Islands to explore the depths and test out new “social media storytelling strategies.”

Working with National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen and a team from SeaLegacy, an environmental organization that aims to create powerful media to help create awareness of ocean conservation, the group shared underwater footage and photographs that reached millions of people on Instagram and Facebook.

Ian Kellett, director of media and special projects for Alucia, said the crew had taken an unscheduled side trip to the Cayman Islands after permits to deploy the subs in Cuba fell through for a project in Jardines de la Reina.

He said, “Other than the subs, SeaLegacy wrapped up a successful mission in Cuba celebrating the conservation and protection practices in the Gardens of the Queen, Cuba, and filmed charismatic megafauna such as crocodiles and sharks in the waters off the Cuban archipelago.

A high-tech submersible, capable of hitting depths of 1,000 meters, combed the reefs off the Sister Islands last week. – PHOTO: IAN KELLETT

“The project in Cuba will continue to investigate resiliency of coral ecosystems in the Caribbean, specifically examining the symbiotic relationship between algae and coral.

“Diverting to the Caymans was an unexpected detour and we were all blown away by the incredible underwater visibility and the ease of operating in the Caymans.

“We don’t have a specific project in Cayman but we took the opportunity to explore the 600-1,000 foot depths, also known as ‘the twilight zone’ and look for biofluorescence for another film project in development.

“We teamed up with the Central Caribbean Marine Institute and they showed us some of the turtle conservation that is going on in Cayman, and we gave some of the local scientists a tour of the boat and showed them what we do.”

He said the Alucia’s mission was to combine cutting-edge science and media to share the wonders of the ocean with the world.

Both the ship’s submersibles can reach 1,000 meters (3,280 feet, or 0.6 miles) with a pilot and passengers on board, and have helped record never-before seen footage of sea creatures, including the giant squid, found off the coast of Japan.

The Alucia is also used for marine science research with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the American Natural History Museum and the California Academy of the Sciences, and specializes in deep sea exploration.

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