Scientists set off early Wednesday on a mission to explore the depths of the Indian Ocean, one of the planet’s last great uncharted areas. They intend to fully explore the deep seas around the Seychelles, a group of 115 islands off East Africa, to help conserve the ocean. Here’s a look at what the Nekton Mission hopes to achieve and why the people of the Seychelles are excited about its launch.
The expedition is led by the Britain-based Nekton, a nonprofit research institute that works with the University of Oxford to increase scientific understanding of the oceans. It has chartered a ship called the Ocean Zephyr for a seven-week exploration of the waters around the Seychelles, islands about 930 miles east of the African coast.
This is the first of a half-dozen regions the Nekton Mission plans to explore before the end of 2022, when scientists will present their research at a summit on the state of the Indian Ocean.
Along with 18 crew members there are 33 scientists, technicians and reporters onboard.
The Associated Press is accompanying the expedition and will provide live underwater video from the dives.
Researchers started by heading to the Farquhar Atoll, a group of islands about 480 miles southwest of the Seychelles capital, Victoria.
But brewing bad weather caused the mission to change course Wednesday because it feared that strong waves and high winds would make it too difficult to carry out its work.
With building storm activity close to their first chosen location, the low-lying Farquhar Islands, the team decided to head instead to the tiny atoll of Alphonse, the above-water tip of an underwater mountain, or sea mount, surrounded by seas thousands of feet deep.
“It’s no good sticking to a rigid plan if we have a storm coming through and we are going to sit around and do nothing for a few days,” Nekton’s principal scientist, Lucy Woodall, said.
Further stops include Aldabra, a coral atoll that’s home to a large population of giant tortoises and other vulnerable species.
Little is known about this watery world. Yet what happens beneath the waves could affect the lives of billions of people who live along the Indian Ocean’s shores in Africa and Asia.
Already, rising water temperatures are bleaching coral reefs, with potentially serious consequences for other organisms.
By conducting at least 50 “first descents” to map the depths around the Seychelles, scientists hope to better understand the marine ecosystem and the way this vast body of water is changing due to global warming.
“If you save the islands, you save everybody,” Ronny Jumeau, Seychelles’ ambassador to the United Nations, told the AP in explaining the importance of countering climate change. “If the islands go, every port city, major port city, will go. Every beach in the world will go, every river estuary will go. Every delta, the Nile Delta, the Mekong Delta, you name it.”
The Nekton Mission has become the talk of the Seychelles, a nation of fewer than 100,000 people, since the Ocean Zephyr’s arrival last week.
President Danny Faure visited the ship last week, calling the expedition “a historical moment” for the nation. “The scientific community, the academia, the children around the world in schools, they see what’s happening” to the climate, he said. “Why can’t other governments see this? Are they blind?”
Michelle Murray, chief executive of the Seychelles-based Island Conservation Society, called the expedition a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“We’re the first to feel the true impact of sea level rise,” she said. “Climate change poses the biggest threat to our survival, to our existence as a nation.”