A Deep Ocean Expedition with ZEISS

Interview Part 3: Highlights of the Season 2016

Kirsten and Joachim Jakobsen from the Rebikoff-Niggeler Foundation (FRN) dive up to 1,000 meters into the deep blue sea searching for the ocean's hidden wonders. In their one-of-a-kind submersible – the "Lula 1000" – they document the deep waters off the coast of the Azores and encounter species and organisms no one on this planet has ever seen before. At the end of the year we spoke with these researchers about their experiences and vision of the future.

The 2016 diving season has ended. What were the highlights of this year's mission? Did you discover anything special?

Kirsten Jakobsen: This year we undertook an expedition to the eastern Azores with our catamaran and submersible and explored new dive sites. This was a particularly interesting expedition, especially because there was a clear change in the deep water fauna. Special discoveries this summer included the first living documentation of a pelican eel as well as the first documented case of a (potentially new) species of deep-see angler fish and a local chimaera (also known as a ghost shark).

Did you achieve your goals for this season?

Joachim Jakobsen: We certainly achieved, even exceeded our goals thanks to these discoveries. We are also filling a niche through our work with film. TV stations around the world have recognized this, and we have already made images of deep-sea organisms available to television productions.

How many times did you dive with the "LULA1000" this season and how long does the average dive last?

Joachim Jakobsen: We've dived 23 times so far this year with the "LULA1000" (check out the video here). On average a dive lasts four-and-a-half to five hours. From the end of June until the middle of September we were on an expedition with our "ADA REBIKOFF" catamaran to go on dives along the Azores island slopes of Pico, São Jorge and Santa Maria.

We found the 'Crazy Pelagics' in your season schedule – how did you come up with this 'crazy' name?

Kirsten Jakobsen: We encountered the craziest organisms in the Pelagic zone, i.e. the area of water between the surface and the ocean floor. These organisms are absolutely fascinating, no matter if they're deep-sea fish, mauve stingers or cephalopods. Many of these creatures are real designer animals, perfectly adapted to their environment. Filming at these depths is a challenge every time, such as when you want to capture illuminated and breathtaking images of a pelagic octopus to take back with you to the surface.

In the famous science fiction series Star Trek, the goal of the Enterprise missions is to go "Where no man has gone before": do you sometimes feel like Captain James T. Kirk and his crew?

Joachim Jakobsen: Absolutely. More than ever after the most recent discoveries, because every foray into the world deep below the waves demonstrates how much potential there is for exploration.

Rowan Jakobsen recently declared that that the Great Barrier Reef was dead after 25 million years. This is quite a dramatic statement if the oceans reflect the rest of nature – what effects do you see on the deep ocean?

Kirsten Jakobsen: We are currently involved in a specific project where we document trash during our dives. This has shown us that people leave traces the more they use the ocean – logically enough. Corals, for example, have a calcium carbonate skeleton. This makes them particularly vulnerable creatures that are quite sensitive to chemical changes and different temperatures. The deep ocean is also not spared from these effects.

You do most of your diving by the Azores – are there other deep-sea areas you would like to explore in the future?

Kirsten Jakobsen: The area around the Azores is huge. Up until now we've been concentrating on ecologically relevant areas along the island slopes. But there are also more remote areas in the ocean around the Azores, such as the vent field or several seamounts. We plan on doing more dives in these areas over the coming years.
A few of these areas have been declared protected areas and belong to the Natura2000 protected areas network, such as the Menez Gwen hydrothermal vent field or the underwater volcano D. João de Castro, located between the islands of São Miguel and Terceira. Since very little or no research at all has been done in the deeper areas of these protected zones, both the government and the local research institutes are extremely interested in obtaining data from these areas.

We're still thinking about undertaking an expedition to the area around Madeira in 2018. This would be conducted in partnership with the local ocean research station.

Autonomous mobility is currently the major trend in the automobile industry. What role do robots play in oceanology?

Joachim Jakobsen: Romotely operated vehicles (ROV) connected via a cable to the surface ship are being increasingly used in deep sea research. This is definitely the right way to go for many applications, such as when we're talking about the more-or-less automated collection of data. But in many areas these are simply not a replacement for manned submersibles. And using diving robots also doesn't save you time or costs.

Do you think that deep sea research – which is, after all, extremely dangerous for human beings – will soon be automated?

Joachim Jakobsen: The manned diving expedition clearly has its place, but being on site and making direct observations is crucial, particularly in our field. Automation is simply not thinkable in this instance. A robot can't make a film.

So long as component safety standards are observed and everyone follows the operational safety rules, then this research doesn't present any special risks for those in the submersible. The sky above is also a hostile place for us humans, but we continue to board airplanes – and do so for perfectly normal reasons like going on vacation.

How likely is it that the sentence "mankind knows less about the oceans than about space" will soon no longer apply?

Kirsten Jakobsen: We think this is quite probable assuming a few green martians don't land on earth tomorrow, causing everyone to focus solely on space again.
Luckily Europe and other countries worldwide are devoting more and more attention to the state of our oceans. At times the promises made are simply not put into practice because oceanic and deep-sea research in particular is naturally dependent on financial endeavorssupport. But we hope that we will make an important contribution by continuing our work, namely by collecting data about deep-sea fauna and habitats. Just like space, there's essentially no end to the deep ocean for us human beings. Researching it and understanding its interconnections is an unending task in both cases.

We would like to say thank you for providing this fascinating look at your work and want to wish you all the best for your future research trips!

Learn more about the Rebikoff-Niggler Foundation and discover other stories on Twitter and Facebook via the hashtag #Secretdeepsea