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Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Little kids love dinosaurs. Ages ago, as a little kid myself, I was like everyone else in that regard. I had a Styrofoam T-rex skeleton in my room, some toys and a whole bunch of books on the subject.

One of these was a guide to ancient life published by Little Golden books. Like some of my others, it went back to the beginning of the planet, which meant that it had a little bit on the first four billion years of earth’s history and really started in the Cambrian, where the first fossils came from. I really liked this part. The animals from the Paleozoic were so exotic and weird, especially the invertebrates, which were usually ignored after the Devonian’s fish and amphibians, took the stage and stuff started to look like dinosaurs

But I was fascinated by the invertebrates. I was a trilobite freak. They dominated the seas until the middle of the Paleozoic, and then they petered out, going extinct at the end of the era. But there were others, giant sea scorpions, and echinoderms: starfish, sea urchins, and beautiful and weird stalked things called sea lilies or crinoids. Ah crinoids! a minor childhood obsession that stuck in the back of my mind for a lifetime. Crinoids still exist at the bottom of the seas and I dearly wanted to see one in real life.

Sea Lilies dominated the seas of the Paleozoic, they are some of the most common fossils and in the shallow seas of the time and, there were billions of them, covering the ocean floor like sunflowers in Kansas. One tiny group of them managed to survive into the Mesozoic and they flourished again, but after the dinosaurs died out, they retreated into the deep abyss, well out of range for snorkelers like yours truly.

Then, decades after I gave up hope, an opportunity presented itself.

Roatán is the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands. G Adventures had a month long tour of Central America that was 20% off, and it being cold up here in New York in December, I had decided to take it. Roatain was one of the stops and it was primarily for the beach. One thing I discovered when I got there was that there was this guy named Karl Stanley, who had a submarine and gave tours of the continental shelf all the way down to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. The eight year old in the back of my mind screamed out: “There’s CRINOIDS down there and I wanna see ‘em!!!” So the middle-aged rest of me decided investigate whether or not it was practicable or not.

There are lots of dive shops in Half Moon Bay, and they all knew about Stanley’s Roatán Institute for Deep-sea Exploration, but unfortunately none of them could get me a reservation. He makes them himself via his website or in person. It’s either PayPal or cash, and at $600 p.p. is out of most people’s league and I didn’t know it was per person at double occupancy. Still, it was worth a try…

I went to Half Moon Bay’s lone Internet café and sent an email. Then I went to actually find the office. This was a bit harder than I expected, as it was on the second floor of a slightly rundown house surrounded by near identical rundown houses. I found him and introduced myself. He then explained that due to weight distribution on his submarine, it was two passengers or nothing, but there was this woman who wanted a ride. He’d contact here and if she was a go, I was a go. That’s six hundred bucks, IN CASH. Something like Sixteen THOUSAND Honduran Lampiras.

So I went on an expedition to find an ATM that had that much money in it. This required a boat trip to the next town and sneaking into a ritzy resort with guards.

I went back to Half Moon Bay with a huge bulge in my money belt and prayed that I wouldn’t get robbed.

I stopped by the office again and asked Stanly if he wanted my money. He said not yet, he hadn’t heard from the other person. So I went back into town and waited…

So I had dinner and then went to a bar for a bit and went to bed. The next morning, I got up, had some coffee and went to look at the submarine. Stanley came down and told me he hadn’t heard from the other person. I said he should call, in case the guy at the hotel had forgot to give her the message.

It turned out he had: The start of a glorious day.

So we waited while my partner went to get six hundred bucks in cash while we were waiting, Stanley and his crew prepped the boat while he told me his story:

He was a big fan of nature shows as a kid, and in junior high he decided to make a deep-sea submarine in his back yard. That’s sort of like building a Lear Jet, it’s not rocket science, but…no, it IS rocket science. You have to find the right materials, understand propulsion and pressure, and make most of the parts yourself.

I guess he tried it out in a lake or something, he went to a trade show and tried to sell it No buyers, which is understandable, who in his right mind would buy the equivalent of a homemade spaceship from a frigging teenager?

So Stanly went to college, getting a BA in American politics or something. I was pretty amazed because I would have imagined he would have majored in Oceanography. I think he took some courses however.

So he took his midlevel tech toy and went to Roatan. The reason was twofold: The continental shelf was only a couple of hundred yards from the beach, and Honduras didn’t have any regulations regarding submarines. That was 1994.

Since then he’s built a better sub and has gone down thousands of times. He complained that he undercharged National Geographic and Animal planet when they went down with him to film abyssal sea life. He was telling me about the politics of the island when my partner and her boyfriend showed up.

We shook hands; I gave Stanly my money and so did she. We were weighed, signed a waiver (he doesn’t have insurance} and off we wen…no we didn’t. She went into the sub and got a massive claustrophobia attack. She got out and demanded her money back. White as a sheet she was. My dream of crinoids was dying right then and there. I still wanted to go, but without another person, it was impossible. I waited while he got out his cell phone and called another person who was interested. He still was and was thrilled he had just gotten someone else to go with him.

I was stuck. Stanly was out twelve hundred bucks and all the work for the morning’s preparations. I felt sick, but then... then he came up with an idea. He was friends with a retired nurse who ran a clinic on the island for the impoverished residents and had promised to give one of the volunteers a free trip. He made the call. Someone was picked. I would only have to pay the per person fee.

Inner space, here I come!

Continental shelves are something that is rather hard to imagine for us landlubbers. Most people who go to the beach generally find that the ground beneath the sea gradually gets deeper and deeper until one cannot stand up anymore. One doesn’t expect a two-mile high cliff. As we went along the surface of the Caribbean, it was like the glass bottom boats that were available for trips at far less money. Bits of coral surrounded by plants and small fish. It was surprisingly drab. Then we hit the cliff face, went out into the open sea, and started going down.

With our backs to the cliff face, things started getting dark,that was about two hundred feet. Then five. It was totally black and our guide decided to turn on the lights, but that wasn’t much of a help until we passed a thousand then at around 1200 feet we hit bottom.

There was a rock. Stanly told us to look for a beer can on our left. The rock was further away than I had thought, and it was huge. There was a chimera, a kind of shark swimming close by. We didn’t see it for long. However we did see sponges, though, lots and lots of sponges.

As we realized we were actually at the bottom of the sea, Jeremy got us off the bottom, turned our sub around, and began the slow ascent to the surface.

Over the last two million years, the polar ice caps have retreated and advanced many times, and with each advance the depth of the ocean has varied by hundreds of feet, and with no pollution to harm it for most of that time, the coral grew and grew. Coral only thrives near the surface, so the reefs down near the bottom are all fossils, but everything else is still quite alive and mostly sponges and crustaceans. We didn’t see all that many crustaceans, but we did see some fish swimming along the cliff face. They didn’t look as weird as I had hoped, but it was kind of strange to see them swimming vertically instead of horizontally. Then we saw one.

There are two kinds of crinoids: stalked sea lilies and free-swimming, stalkless feather stars. Down where were we were, the stalked kind pretty much had the area all to themselves. There one was in all it’s glory with its fronds hanging out, catching detritus from further up. I’d been waiting decades to see this. For a second I was a kid again, dreaming of the Paleozoic, which was what was sitting right in front of me. Jeremy pointed out a nondescript shell, which, he said was worth ten thousand dollars. It was a Monoplacophoran, which was known only from fossils and down around here. Prior to 1952, it was thought they had been extinct for 250 million years. I’d heard of these and wished they were more interesting looking.

The thing about Jeremy’s submarine was that it had a huge front window. The view of the cliff face was really easy to look out of. Life became more common as we ascended, and I got to see more sea lilies and Coral-like Sea Fans. There was a feather star sitting on a sea fan, which would have made a nice photograph, and all sorts of weird sponges and tunicates, which are vertebrates who think they’re sponges. Then at about four hundred feet we saw a lionfish.

Lionfish are an invasive species that got into the Caribbean area when either hurricane Andrew or Katrina freed some from an aquarium breeding company in Florida or Louisiana. They are currently everywhere between the Carolinas and Venezuela and are THE ecological problem of the region, which is saying something.

All too soon it was over. Had that women not gotten claustrophobia, we would have had an extra hour, but I had seen what I came to see. It would be enough.

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