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Dive to the Abyss


Previously the Head of the Natural History Unit at the BBC, Alastair Fothergill has a degree in Zoology and has worked on much of the Unit's most memorable output. He was the Series Producer for LIFE IN THE FREEZER and then on BLUE PLANET which took five years to produce.

Alastair's journey to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in a Russian MIR Submersible was the deepest of the program's dives -- over a mile and a half underwater. The journey down can take over an hour and a half. At the bottom are towering vents spewing super-heated water at 300-400ÉC known as "Black Smokers." Most extraordinary of all are the unique forms of life that survive here, including white shrimps that swarm around the vents, like bees around a honey-pot, to feed on bacteria.

Alastair Fothergill gazes out into the abyss.
Alastair recently spoke with NATURE about his dive to inner space:

You chose to explore the thermal vents along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge -- why?

Two factors. One was the natural history spectacle. The other was practical -- the two MIR submersibles and the Keldysh (their tender) were going to be working in the Atlantic this summer.

What makes the MIRs so special?

They can dive to 6,500 meters (21,000 feet) and they are the only pair of submersibles in the world that can dive that deep. Having two subs together was key to what we wanted to do -- it allowed us to shoot one sub from the other for scale, and use one sub to light shots for the other, too.

What's it like inside a MIR?

By submersible standards, it's rather comfortable. But still very cramped -- there is room for just three people. And at depth it can get rather cold. Still, it is an amazingly well-designed submersible. I felt very honored to have had the chance to dive in them.

Were there ever moments when you felt afraid?

Yes. Before we launched I was nervous. But as soon as I saw the professionalism of the crew I was very happy.

How long was the journey -- and did you see much on the way down?

It was 12 hours -- 2 hours down, 8 hours on the bottom, 2 hours back up. We went down to 2,300 meters (7,500 feet). We saw nothing much on the way down because for most of the time we turned off the lights to save batteries. I was pretty desperate for a pee by the end.

At one point, we hear an alarm in the background -- what was it?

There were various alarms for oxygen level, proximity to the bottom, calls from the surface, etc.

You've had a lot of underwater experience and seen some amazing things. What made this dive so significant?

This was an amazing experience -- by far the deepest I have ever been -- 1,000 meters (3,500 feet) was my previous record. And the sheer spectacle of the hot vents is unforgettable.

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