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A Deep Dive Into Exploration With Scientist Diva Amon
Sustainability

A Deep Dive Into Exploration With Scientist Diva Amon

By | February 1, 2022

Diva Amon, a marine biologist who went 3,300 feet below the surface in a submersible with Will Smith in the National Geographic series “Welcome to Earth,” joins the podcast to talk sustainability and the experience.

 

The following transcript was edited for style, length and clarity.

James Tehrani:

Welcome to the SpheraNOW ESG podcast, a program focused on safety, sustainability and productivity issues. I’m James Tehrani, Spark’s editor-in-chief. Today, we have a special guest on the program. I will be speaking with Diva Amon, a Caribbean-based marine biologist and the director and founder of SpeSeas, a group of Trinbagonian scientists and conservationists who want to make positive changes to the way the ocean is used and managed. And, oh yes, she also spent some time 3,300 feet below the surface with the ‘Fresh Prince’ himself, Will Smith, on ‘Welcome to Earth’ on National Geographic Channel. We’ll be talking about that experience and about climate change and more. Thank you so much for joining me today, Diva.

Diva Amon Spheranow podcast

Diva Amon:

My absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.

James Tehrani:

It’s my pleasure. So before we begin, I have to ask as somebody who can barely hold his breath underwater for maybe 30 seconds, how long can you hold your breath? Because in one episode of the show we see you down there for … it seems like eons.

Diva Amon:

I mean, that’s a great place to start. So interestingly there are static breath hold times and then there are active breath hold times, if we want to get really nerdy about this.

James Tehrani:

Oh, totally, let’s get nerdy.

Diva Amon:

So in terms of active breath holds, I can only hold it for about one and a half minutes. Static, probably over four minutes. But I know that sounds like a lot, but trust me, you’ll be surprised that given just a few hours of training, what you can manage. So I mean, I’ve had minimal training, but the first day of my training, I was able to push to over three minutes static breath hold.

James Tehrani:

The first day, really?

Diva Amon:

Yeah, just after a few hours. So it’s something that I think we actually don’t realize how much we’re capable of and, just knowing a couple little tools and techniques, really allows you to push way beyond what you thought possible.

James Tehrani:

I don’t know if it’s possible for me, I guess I’ll have to go with your instructors because I certainly can’t do it, but we do see you in that one episode swimming with the whales, which is really cool. And so how did you go down that path and want to swim with whales? I mean, how’d you get interested in marine biology?

Diva Amon:

It’s so funny. I mean, who doesn’t want to swim with whales though, right? Even if you’re not interested in marine biology. Surely that’s the thing everyone wants to do, but to answer the marine science question, I mean, as you said already, I grew up in the Caribbean in Trinidad and Tobago. That’s where I’m from. And it meant that when I was growing up a couple decades ago, hours were spent playing on the beach and snorkeling and sailing. And I remember during some of those times, really looking out to sea and just wishing that I could pull away all of that water to see what life was there.

And so that was really where my love for the ocean blossomed, but it wasn’t until I was able to go to university in the U.K. that I realized that, ‘Hey, there is so much more about the ocean to love than what meets the eye in the shallows.’ And that’s really where I began learning about the deep sea and all of the life down there. I think I didn’t really realize studying the deep ocean was even a potential career path, but there is this innate desire I think in all of us to explore, right?

James Tehrani:

Sure.

Diva Amon:

Being able to work in the deep sea, this massive part of the planet that actually far less than 1% of it has ever been seen with human eyes or imaged with a camera. That, to me, really evoked this true sense of exploration. And while I may have gotten into deep-sea science from that exploration perspective, it’s certainly now molded into seeking to understand this poorly known realm of our planet better and also seeking to conserve it because it really doesn’t have that many mechanisms for conservation in place right now.

James Tehrani:

And what was the first thing in your first deep dive that really just made you go, ‘Oh my goodness, that is so amazing?’

Diva Amon:

Oh my gosh, that’s one of the hardest questions. So interestingly, when we do deep sea research, it’s still really rare to be able to go in a submersible like I did with Will [Smith] in ‘Welcome to Earth.’ Often we tend to use technology called remotely operated vehicles or ROVs. And those are robots that we send down into the ocean to do our work for us. And we’re able to control them live from the ships, see what they’re seeing, collect samples, etc. And so that was what was used on one of the first research expeditions I was able to participate it in 2010, and that was to the Cayman Trench, one of the deepest parts of the Caribbean and one of the deepest parts of the world, of course, and we were there.

James Tehrani:

How deep is that?

Diva Amon:

So we were working at … Well, it goes down to I think over 7 kilometers [about 4½ miles], but we were working around 5 kilometers [about 3 miles], and we were there specifically searching for these incredibly unique deep-sea ecosystems called hydrothermal vents, and these are sort of like underwater volcanoes that gush superhot chemical-rich fluid that powers the life living on these volcanoes because the life is able to use chemical energy rather than light energy like what we’re used to on land. So it’s really unique. And I remember, we had put the ROV in the water, we’d spent several days surveying the area trying to narrow down the spot that we would be searching in. And we put the ROV in, waited for it to get to the bottom, which often takes hours considering your journeying down to 5 kilometers.

And we started climbing this hill, and we were looking for the hints, right? So you know that the hill is supermetallic and because these ecosystems are made of metals. And so we’re like, ‘OK, we’re on the right track.’ And then we start seeing some interesting animals and then the interesting animals end up being more and more abundant. And then suddenly in front of us were these tens of meters high chimneys that are skinny like drain pipes, if you will. And they are just absolutely gushing what looks like thick black smoke.

James Tehrani:

OK. So I interviewed Robert Ballard a few you years ago. He was talking about black smokers, so that’s the same thing?

Diva Amon:

That’s exactly what I’m talking about. These were the world’s deepest black smokers. Just about 5 kilometers deep, and every single species that we encountered living on those black smokers were brand new to science. Never seen before. Never studied before, didn’t even have names. So, I’m not going to lie. There were a couple tears shed. There were screams in the ROV control van, but that was certainly one of those moments. And of course, there are many where you just go, ‘Oh my God, how has no one ever seen this before? How did we not know this existed?’

James Tehrani:

Exactly.

Diva Amon:

Yeah.

James Tehrani:

That’s really cool. So obviously on this program, we talk about sustainability and part of sustainability is climate change. I’m curious, you’ve been doing this for you said about 12 years now. How have the oceans changed over just the past 12 years? And are you seeing noticeable differences because of climate change?

Diva Amon:

So just to give you two quick examples, one is that I started scuba diving when I was 15, and in the time that I have been scuba diving in the Caribbean, because that’s where I started, I have seen an appreciable difference in coral cover down here. And it actually has gotten to a point where it’s so bad that actually I don’t really like diving in the Caribbean anymore because it’s just hard to overlook these huge changes.

One of the other changes that we see happening, and it’s not related to climate change, but it’s just an example of the fact that we humans are changing our planet. There’s no part that is escaping it. I’ve worked everywhere from the Antarctic to the Mariana Trench to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and on every single expedition that I’ve been on where we’re working in the deep sea, often in an area that no one has ever been before, we find evidence of ‘us,’ whether it is a troll mark where a fishing troll has dragged along the seafloor or a piece of our trash, a plastic bag, a glass bottle. ‘We’ are always there before we get there.

James Tehrani:

Even in the Arctic.

Diva Amon:

I’ve never actually worked in the Arctic, the Antarctic, yes.

James Tehrani:

Antarctic, I’m sorry.

Diva Amon:

I think one of the most insidious things about climate change is it’s really hard to see many of the changes from climate change directly. Does that make sense? So sure, we can see the corals bleaching. That’s probably one of the easiest ways to see it manifest, but in somewhere like the deep sea, it’s hard to see ocean temperatures rising.

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James Tehrani:

Yeah.

Diva Amon:

But I mean, you asked what does this all mean, right, for our planet? What are these huge changes that have happened just in the last couple of decades mean for us, for biodiversity and, ultimately for humans? And of course, it’s not good. I’m sure you’ve touched on this many times in the show, but we rely on the ocean not just for things like food and other resources, but for livelihoods, for energy, for shipping, for well-being, and something else that we rely on the ocean for is its ability to regulate our climate.

James Tehrani:

Sure.

Diva Amon:

It [the ocean] absorbs heat and sequesters carbon, and actually it’s absorbed about 90% of excess heat produced and 38% of carbon dioxide generated by human activities. Those are staggering amounts.

James Tehrani:

Definitely. And I mean, I was just reading a report from Berkeley Earth [an independent U.S. nonprofit organization focused on environmental data science] that said that 2021 was the sixth-warmest recorded for the land and seventh for oceans. I mean, that’s pretty scary because you look at the data and really most of the highest temperatures recorded in the last 150, 160 years have been in the last 10 to 15 years.

Diva Amon:

There’s no question about what’s happening, right? And what is even scarier is we’re seeing these manifestations, these rising temperatures, but there are also all of these other effects that we’re not seeing. So we know that these increasing temperatures have a twofold effect. They are impacting all ocean biodiversity and a lot of the ecosystem services that we rely on, but it’s also making the ocean less effective at regulating our climate. Because it’s getting to this tipping point where it can’t take anymore. And so that means that we’re actually beginning to see the ocean is now much less resilient to change. And we’re now beginning to see changes happening, not just in the ocean but also big changes to, given the connectivity of the planet, to our weather, to increasing fires around the world, to flooding, to extreme weather events, to rising sea levels.

James Tehrani:

Sure.

Diva Amon:

And of course all of that is going to, in turn, affect not just life on the planet or life on the planet but us, of course.

James Tehrani:

And I’m just curious because I know you study whales, how is climate change affecting the whales?

Diva Amon:

So interestingly, I would never say I study whales, and I know that’s something that’s directly said and ‘Welcome to Earth,’ but I would never say I’m an expert on whales.

James Tehrani:

All right, can we get Will on the phone because he done me wrong here?

Diva Amon:

[Laughs] I definitely have to take that bone of contention with him, for sure.

James Tehrani:

Well, now that we brought up the program, so for people who haven’t seen the series, can you briefly describe what it is and your role in it?

Diva Amon:

Sure. So I love describing ‘Welcome to Earth,’ which is streaming now on Disney+. It’s an original series from National Geographic. It’s really a natural history ‘blockbluster.’ [Laughs] Blockbuster.

James Tehrani:

I like that one better.

Diva Amon:

[‘Welcome to Earth’] is really this love story to the planet. I mean, it’s just this fun, entertaining ride where Will Smith is our guide into some of the most incredible parts of our planet, some of the most captivating wildlife spectacles on the planet. And also I think fundamentally some of the most mysterious and unknown parts of our planet, and having Will as well as this group of explorers who take Will to all of these places that he has never been before in his life really allows us to see real reactions to moving into places that few have been.

But also I think my favorite thing about the series is that it really rewrites what an explorer is. I think when we think about the word explorer, it conjures this particular image, this show through Will through Erik [Weihenmayer], through Cristina [Mittermeier], through Dwayne [Fields], through Albert [Yu-Min Lin] and through myself really helps to dispel that and hit home that we are all explorers and actually anyone can be an Explorer.

James Tehrani:

And you’re talking about in terms of diversity.

Diva Amon:

Exactly, yes. Absolutely. This is really about rewriting who is an explorer as well as why we explore. It’s not anymore about conquering and extraction. Now we’re moving into exploring for understanding and conservation. And I think this diverse cast really helps to hit that point home.

James Tehrani:

Well, it’s a really interesting series. I watched it a few weeks ago. I really enjoyed it. So is Will really that terrified of water or was that just an act?

Diva Amon:

[Laughs] No, I mean, that was a very genuine reaction. Of course, anytime you’re going into the deep sea, even for a seasoned deep-sea scientist, it’s a nerve-racking and exciting experience, much less when you were now this A-list celebrity’s guide going down into this unexplored place. But it’s even more terrifying when he, himself, is terrified. And so I met him the day before, he was this wonderful, charismatic, that guy you see on screen, witty, charming. And then once we got into the sub and the sub started heading over the side, it was like a light switch flipped. And he suddenly became very reserved, very quiet. There were times when we were down, when we were descending and at the bottom that I was concerned about whether he was awake just because he was so quiet.

James Tehrani:

Was he snoozing? Come on.

Diva Amon:

[Laughs] Of course, he was awake but he was just, for a lot of it, I think, he genuinely was very, very, very afraid, and that really came through in just a lot of silence from him.

James Tehrani:

So what safety procedures were in place because I know they show that there’s— I can’t remember his name, the man in the back [Mark ‘Buck’ Taylor] who said, ‘There’s a yellow button here in case I pass out.’ That’s got to be reassuring. So what other safety training was there before, or is it just kind of, ‘Will, hop in. We’re going to go to the bottom. Everything will be OK’?

Diva Amon:

So interestingly, I mean from what Will and I experienced, it really was just the latter: ‘Hop in, we’re going to this place. Let’s go.’ What you saw as the safety briefing was really the safety briefing. But, of course, I’ve dived perhaps 10 times in a range of different submersibles. So there’s a variety of things that you should and can do. And, of course, then we also have our wonderful pilot, ‘Buck’ who has done however many submersible dives, thousands upon thousands of dives and knows all of the intricacies of the submersible, all of the safety mechanisms and everything that we potentially could ever need to worry about. But I think what’s really important to hit home here is when people watch the show, when you talk about exploring the deep sea, I think one of the first emotions that I dare conjure is really fear and, yes, that’s rational.

You’re going to a part of the planet, no one’s ever been, you’re going to a part of the planet where something goes wrong, no one’s coming to help or it’s highly unlikely someone’s coming to help. And also that it’s really dark and not at all what we’re used to. So fine. Fair enough. That is scary. But actually the safety, what’s the word I’m looking for, reputation or stats from deep-sea scientific research as well as exploration using submersibles has been near-faultless. And that is largely in part due to really incredible kits as well as even more incredible people who constantly maintain and tend to these pieces of equipment. They’re absolutely the central part of making everything work and keeping everybody safe.

James Tehrani:

You touched on this with your own exploration, but talk to me about the adrenaline that’s going through your body when you’re going down to the bottom of the ocean. I mean, it’s got to be this excitement but it’s also got to be a little nerve-wracking. So talk to me a little bit about that.

Diva Amon:

Of course. Every time you’re going to, in this case and in most cases where I’ve dived, you’re going to somewhere that no one has ever been before. And that means that not only do you not know what you’re going to encounter, but even if you were going to the same place in the ocean that you went yesterday, it’s highly likely that you could have a completely different experience because the ocean is always changing. So there’s that idea of newness and unknown that is just so adrenaline-invoking. But there is just this real mixture of emotions. I mean, you know what a privilege it is to be able to go down there. There are so few people that have been down there still. It’s still something that is largely inaccessible to the majority of the world’s population.

And it’s an incredible thing to be part of to be able to go to somewhere that no one’s ever been before to see some things no one’s ever seen before and to make a discovery that has never been made before. But hilariously, and this is probably going to lower the tone of the whole podcast, yes, of course, you’re superexcited and, yes, you’re a little nervous because there is always that thing in the back of your mind that if something does go wrong, it’s highly likely you’re not coming back. Even though that is an incredibly, incredibly, incredibly small possibility. But for me after having been down several times, the main worry I have in my mind is actually about, ‘Hey, am I going to be able to make it through these nine hours without having to pee?’ Basically.

James Tehrani:

I was going to ask you about that. And I was like, ‘Do I ask, no, I’m not going to ask.’ But since you brought it up.

Diva Amon:

Yeah. I mean, you’re down there and there’s no bathroom facilities you are in essentially an either acrylic bubble or a titanium sphere, both of which are so small that you are touching the other occupant or two other occupants because it’s so cramped, and yeah, of course there’s no bathroom facilities, right? So that is for me is the overwhelming worry.

James Tehrani:

What about if you get a cramp? You mean, you can’t really stand up to stretch it out.

Diva Amon:

(Laughs) You can stand up but you’d have to be hunched. So it might make the cramp worse. But I mean, so there are a couple— So to talk about the cramp thing, when you get out of one of those, especially the ones that go deeper than the ones we use in ‘Welcome to Earth’ that are actually a titanium sphere and only have a very small window to look out of, which means you have to contort yourself into all kinds of positions to be able to look out of it. By the time you get out of one of those, it’s like you’re a pretzel that is unraveling. And you honestly feel, even if you are 30, you feel like what I assume a 75-year-old feels like because it just that your body hurts in all places. You’re creaking and groaning. Yes, it’s a whole ordeal.

James Tehrani:

Speaking of creaking. So when you watch the episode, you hear a creaking noise the deeper you go into the ocean, that’s got to be really unsettling the first time you hear it.

Diva Amon:

Of course. It’s not just the first time you hear it, but I mean it is unsettling generally, and that is the force of this immense pressure acting on this sphere. And when you think about how much water is sitting above you, 1,000 meters of it or 3,300 feet of water above you. It really is quite a staggering thing to think about what an absolute feat of engineering these submersibles really are.

James Tehrani:

Totally. And so just to wrap this up, so a lot of companies listen to this podcast. So when we’re talking about sustainability, with your experience with going to the bottom of the ocean, why is it so important that companies take the lead when it comes to sustainability in your opinion?

Diva Amon:

So why is it important? I mean, because absolutely if we’re seeing our—a very obvious example—if we’re seeing our trash at the bottom of the ocean, it means [we’re] having an impact. And that’s probably one of the most obvious ways to see that. It is the deep ocean in particular or the ocean in general maybe out of sight and out of mind but it is absolutely under pressure. And that’s the same for even the remote parts of our planet and the not-so-remote parts of our planet. We are changing our planet in a way that we can’t afford to change it much more.

And so I think it’s going to sound pretty unforgiving but I’m sure by now you’ve established that I’m a pretty candid person, but I think we’re moving towards a point where it is no longer going to be a question of if sustainable best practice needs to be bought in, but instead how this is what a growing bunch of consumers want to see and rapidly growing bunch of consumers want to see. And so I’d say, it’s time to get with the program because otherwise you’re not only going to unnecessarily hurt the planet and we can’t afford to do that for much longer, but you’re also going to unnecessarily hurt your profits. So yeah, time to get with it.

James Tehrani:

Wonderfully said. Well, Diva, it was a pleasure meeting you and I really appreciate you taking the time to join our podcast today.

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Diva Amon:

My absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

 

 

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