An enigma for divers - the Blue Hole of Belize is widely regarded as a wonder of the underwater world. A team of divers decided it was time to unravel its mystery, and the outcome was truly astounding.
The Caribbean Frontier
Fabien Cousteau, a deep-sea explorer renowned for his underwater documentaries, has decided that it was time to test his limits: Challenging a place no diver dares to venture - the Blue Hole of Belize.
From swimming with tiger sharks to uncovering bleached coral reefs in century-old shipping wrecks, one might assume that this diver has seen it all. However, nothing could have prepared him for his trip to the Caribbean. One thing was for sure: He was determined.
A Remarkable Reef
The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System is a uniquely diverse ecoregion that extends from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to Honduras. It is the second-largest reef on the planet, following the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The Belize Barrier reef, off the coast of Belize, is just a fragment of this robust ecosystem.
The region is widely regarded and is even mentioned by Charles Darwin as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies,” as he documented his trip sailing through its waters. Having a plethora of spectacular sights, Darwin sure was onto something. Could it be that he saw the Blue Hole too?
Out of the Blue
Sailing to Lighthouse Reef, located in the easternmost part of the Belize Barrier Reef, one may notice a peculiar sight amidst the coral blue. A large, unmistakable dark blue spot, as if appearing literally out of the blue. That is the famous 300 foot deep Blue Hole - a wonder of the scuba diving world.
A mysterious underwater sinkhole, the Blue Hole is large enough to fit a plane manufacturing factory. The reason why this spot exists is relatively unknown, with many sea-lovers theorizing anything from monsters to meteor crashes. What could be the mysteries underneath?
It Gets Personal for Cousteau
Fabien Cousteau's grandfather, Jacques Cousteau, was a world-famous French oceanographer. Jacques surveyed the Belize Blue Hole in 1971, ultimately naming it to be one of Earth's top five diving spots. Having his grandfather as an inspiration throughout his career, Fabien took this trip personally.
Jacques didn't have the right tools to properly survey the hole, as it was many years before the technology we have today. In a poetic twist, his grandson came to finish off the work he'd left many years later, not only with better tools but a billionaire side-kick backing him up.
The billionaire joining Cousteau was none other than the business magnate and environmentalist Sir Richard Branson. The Virgin Group mogul found himself in the passion beaming from Fabien's eyes, deciding that he wanted to help uncover the aquatic mystery.
Adding to the ambitious team, oceanographer Erika Bergman found herself wanting to uncover the mystery too. Prepared to make the voyage in the Aquatica submarine, the trusty team of three was ready to set sail. Heading to the deep unknown, no one could have guessed what they would soon find.
Citizen of the World
Sir Richard Branson is known for promoting awareness of climate change. Using his billions to help the planet, he even won the United Nations Correspondents Association Citizen of the World Award for his efforts. He also hosts his own climate change conferences at his residence on the British Virgin Islands.
In 2006, Branson announced that he would take proceeds from his Airline and Rail subsidiaries to fight global warming. Estimated to be around $3 billion, he funded countless organizations. His planet-loving personality only made it natural, excuse the pun, that he wanted to join the trip to the bottom of the Belize Blue Hole.
The Blue Hole was scientifically regarded as a mystery, one of the underwater holes yet to be explored. No team had ever reached the deepest point of this aquatic anomaly, so naturally, it had endless questions to be answered. Why was it formed? What lies at the bottom of this structure?
Jokingly, Sir Branson dubbed the mission as “inner planetary space,” acquiring some unprecedented media attention. The Discovery Channel asked to live stream their deep dive, and the team's composition only intrigued watchers more. With the excitement surrounding the mission, all eyes were on them.
Diving Made Easy
The Aquatica submarine was quite the right choice for live streaming. Having an overhead glass dome and see-through walls on all sides, documentation was quickly done. The last time such excitement surrounded a dive could probably have been James Cameron's famous Marianna Trench expedition.
The live stream's footage seemed surreal as the blue walls of the seeming crater-like structure presented themselves. Understandably fascinated, the team examined the walls, but they discovered something that seemed a little bit off up close. Was the hole created by something else?
The submarine continued its descent, bringing to life Sir Branson's joke from before about space exploration as darkness filled the aquatic depths. Lighting up an underwater light, the Aquatica revealed an unearthly complex of hanging sediment stalactites.
Such formations growing from the "roof" of the underwater layer could only be created through erosion of water slowly dripping into an underground cave. So how did this formation come to be? Sitting almost 60 miles away from land, how did a cave end up being submerged?
A Connection To Climate Change
Sir Richard Branson was gobsmacked to the sight, later citing that it was “One of the starkest reminders of the danger of climate change” that he had ever witnessed. Theorizing that this could be an outcome of the last ice age, which added to the sea level more than 300 feet in height after ending.
Scientists state that the Caribbean region was actually land that had been submerged after the last ice age. Branson also mentioned that he saw differences in the coloring and variation in the stalactites, pointing at which rocks had been formed underwater and above land.
Mysteries in the Walls
It's worth mentioning that before Erika and Fabien embarked on this mission, researchers from Louisiana State University and Rice University headed to the Blue Hole. However, the previous research team was studying the chemical composition of the Blue Hole's walls instead.
The reason for their study was somewhat unexpected; It was to find whether the Blue Hole had a connection to the loss of civilizations historically documented in Belize. The last research team had brought back a sample from the walls, which could be traced back to 800 CE. They found a potential answer to a historical mystery.
The Maya Civilization
The Maya civilization used to rule the land we know today as Belize. Archaeologists and historians have been researching why the Maya empire inexplicably fell apart for a long time, but to no avail. The seemingly random mass exodus of the Mayas left a big question mark in the scientific world.
The Blue Hole provided some insight into this age-long mystery. Sediment showed abnormally low levels of metals such as aluminum, which are generally worn out of rock and into the water by monsoon-grade storms. This led to a conclusion that perhaps a widespread drought occurred when the Mayas were alive.
Could This Be the Bottom?
However, the hole's bottom added new layers to the mystery—a more than 15 feet - thick layer of hydrogen sulfide, to be exact. This was an opportunity to test out Aquatica's state-of-the-art screening technologies before they reached the bottom, to the group's delight.
They dug into the wall with their submarine's tools and tested oxygen levels and water quality. This revealed a mass of carcasses of many crabs and other aquatic life that had gotten stuck in the hydrogen sulfide wall. Digging deeper, they found something much worse.
Nearing the Base Level
After managing to pass through the nearly-gooey layer of hydrogen sulfide, the research team almost stumbled upon the bottom of the Blue Hole. Fabien Cousteau was incredibly excited, thinking back at how he'd done what his grandfather wasn't able to, almost doing justice for him.
It was clear to them that no living being could survive the hydrogen sulfide sheet above them, so the anticipation only grew. What was in the bottom of this hole if not living organisms? The crew also began comprehending their achievement as they were finally able to map out the deep unknown.
Twist of Events
Reaching a plateau-like floor, flooded with what looked like muddy sediment, the bottom did not look like what the crew thought it would. A pristinely blue circle with such dirt at the bottom? As they came in for a closer look, they found out a much deeper, darker secret.
Plastic pollution. Empty bottles covered in slimy grime encapsulated the base of the Blue Hole. Almost like an underwater garbage dump, the crew was appalled by what they'd found. As shocked as Sir Richard Branson was, the quick-witted businessman knew immediately what needed to be done.
Where Are the Monsters?
As the team uncovered the polluted grave, a stark reminder of reality started to kick in. While some may say that monsters don't exist, others may argue that it is a matter of perspective. Pollution and other forms of destruction could equal the terror that monsters are thought to bring with them.
As soon as he could, Sir Richard Branson partnered the mission along with Ocean Unite, an organization dedicated to the ocean, to raise awareness of the water's condition. To Sir Branson's surprise, the environmental group had much bigger ambitions.
The Big Project
Sir Richard Branson and Ocean Unite’s big and ambitious project is to defend at least 30 percent of world oceans. They hope to achieve this goal by legally designating these parts of the oceans as environmentally protected areas, minimizing pollution as much as possible.
Sir Richard Branson decided that as soon as the mission landed ashore, he would head straight to Prime Minister of Belize, Dean Barrow, who he's met before. The billionaire planned to convince Barrow to place 10 percent of Belize’s territorial waters under government protection and ban grill nets that harm marine ecosystems.
Leap of Fate
It felt like it almost wasn't enough. The team worried that if no further action was to be taken, the plastic problem in the oceans around Belize would grow to much more significant proportions, potentially destroying the entire eco-system, harming marine life and the coral reefs alike.
Sir Branson carried out his plan accordingly, and to their relief, the Prime Minister of Belize was supportive of the teams' proposal. The team came out of the meeting with him hoping for the best, especially considering how his wife is also a self-proclaimed supporter of ocean conservation.
It's Time for a Change
Deeply disturbed by what he'd seen, Sir Richard Branson knew he had just as much responsibility, especially being an owner of such a prominent enterprise. The entrepreneur quickly enacted reforms to his airline subsidiaries, making them pledge to not use single-use plastic on board.
Branson shared his concerns, noting that he couldn't bear the thought of the world his grandkids will grow up in; A future without coral reefs. Through Sir Richards's efforts, Belize pledged to phase out single-use plastic during 2019. This achievement, however, was not the only one the enterprise-maker had done.
Sir Richard Branson is no stranger to the world of planet-helping organizations, having quite an impressive track record. A famous instance being a conservation effort for the endangered ring-tailed lemur, which involved buying an entire island in the Caribbean for the species.
He has also included environmentally friendly incentives for his companies, like the annual Special Award for Environment. Another thing under Sir Richard's belt is his key-member status in the OceanElders organization. But could Branson convince other prominent figures to join his cause?
The Blue Hole of Belize shined a rather harsh light to the plastic problem our oceans are facing, showing how it is one of the biggest current environmental disasters. In light of the matter, famous Hollywood A-list celebrities and other prominent figures have pledged themselves to the cause.
A notable A-list name helping the fight is Leonardo DiCaprio, the Plastic Solutions Fund founder, whose goal is to phase out non-essential plastic usage by 2035. While cleaning out the Blue Hole of Belize may be an urgent matter, the sad truth is that it is simply not enough
The Ugly Reality
The Deep-Sea Debris Database released a shocking statistic; Out of all debris detected in the organization's ocean, plastic was the most prevalent, mainly plastic bags. Even more surprising, more than 80% of all the plastic detected is single-use plastic.
A study in Mariana Trench was conducted to understand the extent of marine life damage caused by plastic. NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer vessel was sent down the trench in 2016, recording life in the deepest, darkest part of the world. But, awful news prevailed in the study when they found there was more than life in there.
An Underwater Graveyard
NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer discovered the whole marine ecosystem in the Marianna Trench was in grave danger. Taking pictures of polluted water with plastic, some pictures showed underwater life forms entangled in plastic garbage, with some even died as a result of suffocation.
A question that has come to everybody's mind, including the explorers, was where is this plastic coming from? The answer is simple; Single-use plastics take hundreds of years to decompose, allowing them to reach virtually anywhere in the oceans due to underwater currents.
A Dire Problem
Another study centered in the Mariana Trench suggested that it has a higher overall contamination level than the most polluted reaches of the Yangtze River in China. Being close to countries like the Philippines and Taiwan, the study also warned that the whole area is engulfed with plastic debris.
A hard-to-swallow pill that the study highlighted was that the oceans are essentially being fed plastic from almost all water-related mediums, whether it be rivers that flow directly into the sea or ships and coastal cities. In conclusion, there is virtually no way of preventing plastic from reaching regions like the Mariana Trench.
Fishing Gear Made of Irony
Plastics dumped from ships and discarded fishing gear are also a significant source of the plastic epidemic hitting our oceans. Anything from straws to little plastic plugs, a simple everyday plastic object could make its way to the sea in one way or another and wreak havoc on the eco-systems.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating island of trash the size of Texas in the pacific ocean, was examined by The Ocean Cleanup Foundation in 2017. This made it clear that a large proportion of the plastic island was composed of everyday fishing gear.
Suffocation Is Not the Only Problem
Several studies that have been conducted worldwide have pointed out how horrible ocean plastics are to living creatures. Suffocation is not the cause of death, as man-made fibers and plastics can penetrate marine animals' stomachs, poisoning and killing them.
Scientists from Newcastle University conducted tests of crustaceans at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The researchers collected the crabs and dissected them to find in horror plastics, nylon, and PVC in their stomachs. This ultimately led the scientists to a shocking conclusion.
It Affects Us Directly
Newcastle University's marine ecology professor, Dr. Alan Jamieson, who led the crustacean study, commented on the plastic found in the crab's stomachs. Leading on to say that humans ultimately end up getting contaminated by the ingested plastic, as it attaches itself to the crab's digestive system.
Dr. Jamieson also said that the results were "immediate and startling," as almost all crabs contained were infected with the plastic. The research team leader noted that deep-sea animals couldn't care less about what they're eating, and if there is plastic in our oceans, they will ingest it.
Once plastic reaches the bottom of the ocean, there is no way to extract it out and prevent underwater life from eating it. The waste also piles up and grows, as it has nowhere to go and it can't break down, essentially infecting the whole floor of the ocean.
“This is a very worrying find. Isolating plastic fibers from inside animals from nearly 7 miles deep just shows the extent of the problem,” Dr. Jamieson said about the study’s findings. “This is global,” he underlined. Plastic can be found everywhere, even in the tap water we drink.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature states that over eight million tons of plastic are littered into the world’s oceans every year. Experts have estimated that by 2150, there will be more plastic than fish, putting a frightening deadline in the spotlight.
Elena Polisano, an Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said that the seas contain around about 51 trillion microplastic particles, more than the number of stars in our galaxy. She also noted that this alarming number will most likely lead to the sixth mass extinction on Earth if we don’t act fast.
The good news is that while humans caused this problem in the first place, we also have the power to turn things around. All life on earth depends on the oceans and their gifts, and it all starts with the way we look at them. Instilling the right approach towards the oceans may be the first step.
Understanding the impact that single-use plastic and waste, in general, has on our oceans will help us find ways to heal them. Taking out all non-essential plastics from our day-to-day uses and even picking up litter we see on the beaches, doing a little to help, can make quite an impact!