BANGKOK: When Dr. Deo Florence Onda found himself more than 10,000 meters below the surface, in the third deepest trench on the planet, he was looking for mysteries hidden in the dark.
The Emden Deep, which is part of the Philippine Trench, is one of Earth’s last frontiers, an unexplored section of one of the world’s oldest seabeds. Until just a few months ago, no human had ever been there.
The 33-year-old microbial oceanologist from the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of the Philippines considers himself “very adventurous” – despite being from the tropics, he completed his doctoral studies on the North Pole . But it was something entirely different.
High seas adventures are rare and complex, which brings them closer to venturing into space.
“The feeling itself, no one can prepare for it. You don’t know what to expect. It was really the mental preparation, being in a little submersible without panicking while you dive in and say goodbye to the world, ”he said.
During a 12-hour period in March, Onda and American explorer Victor Vescovo of Caladan Oceanic, a private organization dedicated to the advancement of underwater technology, descended and explored the trench, in the hope for a glimpse of life below.
“If you look at the Philippine trench, the first description goes back to the 1950s, then the most detailed one goes back to the 1970s. The technology then was not quite as good, nor precise. It was an opportunity for us to see what is happening there, which has never been seen before, ”said Onda.
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“When we were about to hit bottom, I expected to see creepy creepy things creeping up or peeking out the windows.”
Instead, what greeted them in the depths was something much more familiar – something that had also traveled from above the surface.
“There was a fun scene when we were exploring the area. There was white material floating around. I said “Victor, it’s a jellyfish”. We went there and we approached and it was just plastic.
“The only unusual thing was the garbage. There was a lot of garbage in the trench. There was a lot of plastic, pants, a shirt, a teddy bear, packaging and a lot of plastic bags. Even I didn’t expect this, and I’m researching plastics, ”he said.
“Seeing him for the first time was a privilege as a human being, representing 106 million Filipinos and billions of people around the world. But witnessing the scale of pollution, and witnessing the seriousness of the plastics problem from the surface to the bottom of the ocean, is another thing.
“It becomes my responsibility to tell people that their waste does not stay where they put it. It goes elsewhere and it will flow. “
What was originally planned to be a scientific research mission had to be changed to a purely record-breaking trip, due to the COVID pandemic and bureaucratic difficulties in obtaining clearance for further study in deep water.
Nonetheless, he said the effort gave him fascinating information and a platform to detail the issues facing the deep water environment, an area difficult to research in the Philippines due to logistics and costs.
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Onda’s main research focuses on the life cycle and role of microorganisms, such as phytoplankton, which help produce oxygen and are among the primary drivers of energy and biomass accumulation in the marine ecosystem.
The discovery of plastic in the trench shocked Onda, who fears that the transboundary nature of the plastic spread in the oceans has unknown but profound consequences on marine ecosystems and, indeed, on the very foundations of life on the ocean. the planet.
“Microorganisms are the main drivers of carbon storage, which then leads to climate change. When phytoplankton consume carbon, taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it converts it into particulate organic matter which sinks to the bottom of the ocean and is stored for millions of years, ”he said. he declares.
“In fact, we don’t know the extent of biodiversity in these high seas environments. We don’t yet know the full extent of their roles in terms of biogeochemical processes, how they regulate weather and climate. But we are already changing it. I do not see that it will stop soon.
Studies show that the deepest layers of the ocean heat up at a slower rate than the surface. Yet for the wildlife and organisms living in these environments, exposure to global warming can be more severe and present greater risks.
In the meantime, how the waste reaches the farthest depths, across different water densities and great distances, requires even more research. But it is proof that the ocean is a continuum where impacts know no borders.
While Onda wished he could learn more from his trip, he admits it was still an unprecedented chance to promote Filipino science and deepen his own understanding of the region.
“As an oceanographer and a teacher myself, most of the things I teach in the books have been done by Western academics. But seeing it myself was like a fairy tale… every page of my oceanographic book came true, ”he said.
“I saw how the light dissipates with the depth. I saw how the pressure goes up and then the temperatures go down and all of this physics and chemistry and biology of oceanography come true. It was a fantasy for me.