The Mars rover Curiosity is sending images back home: glimpses of another world during a voyage of discovery. While Curiosity is clicking pictures millions of miles away, I am privileged to be taking part in my own voyage of discovery to the inner space of this planet.
Without need of a spacesuit, I am clicking pictures off Curaçao, an island in the Dutch Caribbean. A submersible carries researchers to one of the least explored regions of the ocean: the deep reefs of the twilight zone, which in the clear waters off Curaçao extend to a depth close to 1000 feet. In this shadowy realm, researchers find new life forms on most dives.
Since 2010, a diverse team of Smithsonian scientists has come to Curaçao to explore deep reefs. Why Curaçao? This island is a perfect place to access the deep sea because within 600 feet of shore, the land drops off to a depth of 1000 feet.
Because of this quick dropoff, a land-based sub, such as Substation Curaçao's vessel, the Curasub, need only maneuver a few feet from its dock before diving. As Dr. Carole Baldwin of the Smithsonian says, “where else can you get on a plane in DC in the morning and be diving at 900 feet, collecting specimens, in the afternoon!”
Taking advantage of this newly available access, the Smithsonian’s Deep Reef Observation Project (DROP) in Curaçao is utilizing collection claws and suction tubes, DNA analysis, Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures, and lab experiments to answer questions of what’s there, how things there live, how they change over time, and how they are connected to shallower, more familiar reefs. I’m here for just a week. It’s going to be busy!