Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Meet Idabel

Has it been a week already? What a whirlwind trip! The flight to Roatan, Honduras was so easy and short that we might as well fly in every other weekend. If I could only convince the boss.......

Our research group stayed in Half Moon Bay at the west end of Roatan. The atmosphere is laid back, with uncrowded beaches, and unpaved roads underfoot. The scenery is beautiful too, with near and easy access to healthy coral reefs. Scuba dives are cheap and quick with spectacular underwater views.

Things get even better once you're below sea level. Elkhorn coral colonies were frequently observed, a sign of good reef health. Young colonies were present. Coral cover is high. Most of the reefs are protected by Marine Parks. This is a good thing because fish abundance was not particularly high in the shallows. The consensus was that Roatan's shallow coral reefs are 'on the rebound'.

Idabel submarine dives regularly to 2100' depth off Roatan, Honduras
Scuba diving was only a small part of the expedition. The real reason we came to Roatan was to dive in the Idabel submarine. "The sub from Johnny Quest", a friend says. Our goals were to evaluate the utility of this tourism submersible for scientific research. Our objectives were to conduct quantitative transects, to test sampling gear, and to brainstorm a research design that will produce meaningful scientific results about deep-coral ecology.

Dr. Tom Shirley, Idabel submarine, and Karl Stanley
Dr. Thomas Shirley of Harte Research Institute (left in photo) flew in from Texas to join me and Dr. Fred Boltz of Conservation International for our exploration of Roatan's deep-coral communities. We met and conspired with  Karl Stanley (right in photo), pilot, designer, and builder of the Idabel submersible (center). The expedition was sponsored by Marine Science and Technology Foundation.

Aquanautix and Dr. Fred Boltz (r) get ready to dive
For background, Idabel is based at Roatan Institute for Deep-sea Exploration (RIDE) in Half Moon Bay. She's capable of dives to 2500 feet for multiple days. We made three 4-6 hour dives 1500-2200' deep, with one dive at night. We rose through the water column at 2 am that night, with bioluminescence 'raining' down upon us. It was magnificent,... and it was Miller-time. We motored towards home for 15 minutes through the shallow bay, arrived at the dock, and walked 75' back to the house to relax and review photos.

RIDE's operation is shore-based. Therein lies the beauty. There is no long transit out to sea, no big ship costing tens of thousands of dollars a day, no hardhats, and no "stand behind the yellow line." Idabel operates at a fraction of the cost of a federal research vessel with few constraints or distractions. Plus, she's got style. You won't find many submarines with leather cushion seats and parts lifted from a '57 Chevy.

Pretty as she is, Idabel does lack some scientific amenities. There's no sonar, manipulators, or surface communications. 'Coms' are a cell phone with a spare calling card. The ride is terrific though, even better than Alvin, in my opinion. You sit upright. Visibility is excellent, thanks to the 4" thick, 30" diameter plexiglass hemisphere and Roatan's crystal clear water. We could see 300' through the water at 300' depth. It all adds up to an unforgettable experience.

Yellow Paramuricea sea fan 2m across at 500 m depth
Some highlights of our experience include large colorful sea fans, healthy Lophelia corals, numerous sea lilies (stalked crinoids), a 10' smalltooth tiger shark that charged and rammed the sub at 900', and a magnificent ride through the thermocline at 300', where we saw several lionfish hanging out. Lionfish are invasive to the Caribbean, and they are voracious. Lionfish eat ~12 small fish daily, but that's a story for another time. Karl says he sees lionfish commonly at 400', occasionally at 500'.

In the next few days I'll try to post a few more details, notes, photos, and videos of the incredible habitat we observed. For now, here's a photo gallery so you can share our fascination, and treat yourself to a close-up glimpse of that smalltooth tiger shark. Please enjoy! Thanks for following along.

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