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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Diva Amon: as deep as it goes | Discover

The portion of the sea below two hundred metres is our planet’s biggest habitat, and the least known. Erline Andrews meets Trinidadian marine biologist Diva Amon, pioneering deep-sea research in our region

  • Hydromedusae jellyfish are among the creatures that inhabit the deep sea, the region below two hundred metres. Photo by Mickyteam/Shutterstock.com
  • Descending into the depths in the submersible Nadir, off the St Peter and St Paul Rocks in the mid-Atlantic, off the coast of Brazil. Photo courtesy Novus Select
  • Diva Ammon retrieving a new species of deep-sea sponge collected from the Marianas region of the Pacific. Photo courtesy NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

“I went to the Antarctic one year,” says Diva Amon. “I had a window in my cabin, and I was brushing my teeth one morning, looking out the window, and all of a sudden I just saw this thing go by. I was, like, ‘What was that?’”

“I looked out the window,” she continues, “and there were so many penguins outside swimming away, doing their thing. There were penguins around the ship every day.”

Amon’s job gives her experiences that are the stuff of dreams and movies. Back home in Trinidad for the holidays, she’s seated on the couch in the living room of her Maraval house, describing life on board a marine research ship.

“There were humpback whales literally where that chair is every day,” she says, pointing. “People don’t get to do that on a day-to-day basis.”

Amon is the only deep-sea biologist in the Caribbean — which is disturbing, considering the importance of the deep sea. More than two hundred metres beneath the surface of the ocean, pitch black, high-pressured, and extremely cold, this region is the earth’s largest habitat, teeming with life, much of it undiscovered. It helps regulate the world’s climate and cycle the nutrients that support the marine life many people depend on for their livelihood.

In 2014, Amon was part of a team that explored the deep sea around the country of her birth, Trinidad and Tobago, for only the second time in history. It was the first time Caribbean scientists were involved. Caribbean nationals’ lack of involvement with the depths of the ocean is sadly ironic, because the history of deep-sea exploration is intertwined with that of the Caribbean, T&T in particular.

The first real mission to observe life in the deep sea was launched off the coast of Bermuda in 1934. The scientist involved, American William Beebe, used a spherical vessel called the Bathysphere, and set a record at the time for the deepest dive by a human being. He later founded a research station in Trinidad, and died and was buried on the island in 1962.

The expense and expertise needed to carry out deep-sea exploration are partly why it’s rare in small, poor countries. But this makes it no less necessary in these places than in big, rich countries. The 2014 expedition — on board the American research ship Nautilus and using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) which carried cameras rather than human beings to the deep sea — explored areas off the coast of T&T and Grenada over fourteen days.

A subsequent paper co-authored by Amon and other members of the team argued that as oil-and gas-producing T&T moves towards deep-sea drilling, it is necessary to try to better understand the possible impact of such activity on that environment. The expedition also looked at parts of Grenada’s Kick ’em Jenny, the only active underwater volcano in the Caribbean, which scientists are anxious to learn more about.

At the Trinidad sites, the expedition found more than eighty species of animal, including five that were newly discovered, and unusually large mussels and tube worms. In a video about the experience, Trinidadian marine biologist and UWI lecturer Judith Gobin, who helped organise the trip, held a sub-sandwich-sized mussel that she said was the largest ever found. “We don’t do deep-sea research in the Caribbean, because nobody will fund it at the moment, but Diva and I are trying to change that,” Gobin says.

The creatures were found around areas called cold seeps, where methane sprouts from cracks in the sea floor and feeds the bacteria that sustain the deep-sea food chain. Cold seeps are associated with petroleum deposits. Previous research suggests there may be as many as eighty-five off the east coast of Trinidad alone. “This should be something we’re proud of,” says Amon. “Just like we’re proud of our Caroni Swamp and the beautiful birds that live there, and the important role that mangroves play. It should be the same for the deep sea.

“There are so many species there,” she adds, “probably loads that are new to science, some that could have properties that could help us at some point in the future. Apart from all that, they’re just incredibly beautiful.”

Amon, now thirty-one, traces her own interest in the sea back to her early childhood. “My parents took me to the beach all the time, and I just became fascinated with the ocean,” she says. Amon, her father, and her younger sister also sailed competitively.

Her fascination with the marine environment was reflected in her academic performance. A graduate of St Joseph’s Convent in Port of Spain, she earned the second-highest mark in the world in the Cambridge A-level geography exam. She was awarded a national scholarship and studied at the University of Southampton, where she learned about the deep sea for the first time.

Over her career, Amon has taken part in fifteen deep-sea expeditions, eight of them in the Caribbean and its environs. Most of the explorations were conducted using ROVs. Three times she descended the depths herself in machines called submersibles. On every trip, she and other researchers have discovered new animals and information about the deep sea.

Amon is currently on a fellowship at the Natural History Museum in London. Before that, she was one of a team of scientists exploring the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a 4.5 million-square-kilometre stretch of the Pacific Ocean under international jurisdiction. Corporations are eager to begin mining the deep sea for precious metals found mainly around structures called hydrothermal vents. Like cold seeps, the vents are formed from chemical-rich fluid escaping fissures in the sea floor, and they support immense biodiversity. The International Seabed Authority is currently coming up with mining rules and regulations. Amon and other scientists were hired by one British company to find out as much as they could about the marine life and their habitats in the zone.

“Because the deep ocean has been so far removed from the average person, that out-of-sight, out-of-mind characteristic means that next to no one knows that deep-sea mining is on the horizon, that our oceans may be changed irreparably in the future, and it can change our environment irrevocably,” she says.

It’s a major story, with Amon quoted in a slew of media reports over the last year. And the prominence of voices like Amon’s is important.

“Because only rich, developed countries are able to do deep-sea science, it means that the deep-sea community is predominantly white,” she explains. “Now there’s this global conversation about managing and conserving our oceans, and many people are missing from that conversation.”

So Amon has conceived a venture called My Deep Sea, My Backyard — a one-year project that provides scientists in Kiribati (a small Pacific island nation) and T&T with deep-sea research cameras, ROVs, and training in how to use them. It exposes the public, especially kids, to the wonders of the deep sea around their home islands. The project is sponsored by the National Geographic Society, the Inter-American Development Bank, the University of the West Indies, and other organisations, and is working in conjunction with SpeSeas, an NGO Amon co-founded last year with other T&T scientists and environmentalists.

“We hope we will take everything we’ve learned in the year the project runs for — all the good and all the bad — and make a model that can then be rolled out to other developing countries,” says Amon, who was given the first-ever Award for Excellence in Deep-Sea Research from the International Seabed Authority last year.

The project, Amon says, is really about showing young people “you can do this too. Anybody can, if given the right resources.”