Hundreds of feet below the surface of the Caribbean Sea, a submarine glides through one of the most mysterious places on Earth. This is the Great Blue Hole, a 1,000-foot-wide abyss formed thousands of years ago in the middle of the ocean. And now a band of explorers is finally plumbing its vast depths – but what they find has scary implications for the future of mankind.
In Central America, between Mexico and Guatemala, sits the tropical country of Belize. The Mayans, an advanced civilization that built many monuments and cities across the region, actually thrived there until around 1200 A.D. But when European explorers arrived in the early 16th century, they changed the face of the country forever.
Today, Belize is naturally something of a tourist spot, and its rich biodiversity draws visitors from across the globe. But while the region’s jungles are home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, its brilliant blue waters have proved the real attraction over the years. In fact, the country is one of the most popular scuba diving destinations in the world.
Why is this? Well, in the seas around Belize, rare coral atolls provide divers with opportunities to spot all sorts of marine life. And what’s more, a vast barrier reef stretches beneath the surface for almost 200 miles – the second-longest formation of its kind anywhere in the world. However, there’s one place that’s at the top of almost everybody’s underwater bucket list: the Great Blue Hole.
Located just over 40 miles off the coast of Belize, the Great Blue Hole is a huge sub-aquatic sinkhole that measures over 1,000 feet across and reaches depths of more than 400 feet. This deep blue chasm is actually large enough to fit a Boeing 747 airliner inside twice over and still have space. It was made famous by the marine explorer Jacques Cousteau in the 1970s.
Born in France in 1910, Cousteau was one of the pioneers of underwater exploration. And when he co-invented the first aqua-lung breathing apparatus in 1943, he opened up a whole new world of scuba diving for generations to come. For our purposes, though, it was his 1971 expedition to the Great Blue Hole that put this stunning natural formation firmly on the map.
On board his ship the Calypso, you see, Cousteau embarked on a research trip to the sinkhole. And there, he learned the story of just how this marvel had come to be. He discovered, for instance, that the Great Blue Hole consisted of karst limestone, created back when the sea was at a lower level than it is today.
Interestingly, Cousteau and his team managed to prove this when they removed stalactites from caves within the Great Blue Hole. And according to researchers, these distinctive formations can only occur on dry land – meaning that the submerged caverns were not always underwater.
Experts have also declared that natural processes such as erosion and rock dissolution form sinkholes. Over time, in fact, the earth beneath the surface can get worn away, leaving behind vast caves. And when the ceilings of these caverns collapse, they sometimes create distinctive, circular holes in the ground.
But despite Cousteau’s initial success in exploring the Great Blue Hole, its depths have remained largely a mystery ever since. For although the site is a popular diving location, visitors seemingly rarely go down more than 130 feet into the abyss. Below that, in fact, the territory is mostly uncharted.
After Cousteau’s trip, for instance, it would take almost 50 years for another band of explorers to shed light on the world within the Great Blue Hole. And this time, it was Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire businessman behind the Virgin Group, who headed the effort. Apparently, the entrepreneur has been fostering an interest in marine adventures for a number of years.
Back in 2011, in fact, Branson announced the Virgin Oceanic project. This series of private submarine expeditions aimed to explore the deepest parts of the globe’s oceans. But organizers scrapped the scheme three years later amid concerns about the safety of the 18-foot craft. In 2018, though, Branson was ready to follow in Cousteau’s footsteps once more.
That’s because Branson’s cruise company, Virgin Voyages, funded a once-in-a-lifetime expedition. This trip would see the first submersible dive in history to travel to the deepest reaches of the Great Blue Hole. And in December 2018 Branson himself became part of the team of underwater explorers who set out to unravel its mysteries.
Also sponsored by Aquatica Submarines and the marine technology company KONGSBERG, the trip saw two very special guests join Branson on his adventure as well. Amazingly, Cousteau’s own grandson Fabien – a leading marine explorer and ocean conservationist in his own right – became part of the unique mission.
Submarine pilot Erika Bergman, a National Geographic Explorer with a background in oceanography and engineering, also joined the Aquatica vessel. Branson described his colleague in a December 2018 post on Virgin’s website. He wrote, “She was very calm, very experienced and had enormous enthusiasm for the ocean. I think she could live underwater.”
So the team set off into the unknown. Branson described the moment in his post too, alluding to the ancient civilization that had once inhabited Belize. He wrote, “We were journeying to the bottom of the world’s largest sinkhole, an unexplored legend of the deep filled with Mayan mysteries and myths of monsters and wonder. What would we discover?”
Safely inside the submarine’s huge dome, the explorers then began descending down into the Great Blue Hole. And after around ten minutes, they found themselves inching down the perimeter of the great cave. There, they stumbled upon a mass of stalactites, which Branson described as “breathtakingly beautiful.”
But as they descended further, the team realized that the landscape around them told an ominous tale. Branson explained, “The Blue Hole is made up of a complex system of caves that once formed on dry land. It is proof of how oceans can rise quickly and catastrophically.”
“Sea levels were once hundreds of feet lower,” Branson continued. “10,000 years ago the sea level rose by about 300 feet when a lot of ice melted around the world. At 300 feet down, you could see the change in the rock where it used to be land and turned into sea. It was one of the starkest reminders of the danger of climate change [that] I’ve ever seen.”
Deeper still, the submarine passed through a layer of hydrogen sulphide – a poisonous, toxic gas that has formed in the hole over hundreds of years. And on the other side, the explorers emerged into an eerie underwater graveyard. Branson wrote, “We didn’t expect to see any creatures below.”
“But when we got to the bottom, we could see crabs, conches and other creatures that had fallen into the hole, arrived on the bottom and then ran out of oxygen and died,” Branson added. Yet this sinister sight was not the only terrifying thing that greeted the team as they neared the bottom of the Great Blue Hole.
“As for the mythical monsters of the deep? Well, the real monsters facing the ocean are climate change – and plastic,” wrote Branson after the groundbreaking expedition. “Sadly, we saw plastic bottles at the bottom of the hole, which is a real scourge of the ocean. We’ve all got to get rid of single-use plastic.”
And while Branson, Cousteau and Bergman were spotting plastic in the deepest reaches of the ocean, the team back on the surface were busy conducting vital studies. In fact, with the data that they collected, the researchers managed to construct the first three-dimensional model of the Great Blue Hole.
In time, then, the information collated from the site will help those who wish to study this phenomenon further. KONGSBERG solar expert Mark Atherton wrote on the company’s website, “By understanding the geological history and geometric structure at the Blue Hole, we can contribute new data to the scientific community studying sinkholes and cenotes.”
“I am confident that our sonars and underwater positioning equipment will provide an accurate, high-resolution picture of the secrets the Blue Hole hides,” Atherton added. Meanwhile, filmmakers from the Discovery Channel captured all of the action as it unfolded – culminating in a live broadcast of the team’s adventures inside the hole.
So as the explorers descended into the Great Blue Hole, viewers could watch the adventure in real time. But while the journey no doubt captured imaginations across the globe, Branson also took the opportunity to educate the public about plastics – and the dangers that they could pose to the future of our planet.
The first uses of more natural plastics actually date back thousands of years. But an artificial version, known as Parkesine, got its original patent in England in 1856. And during the 1940s, factories around the world began producing plastic on a mass scale. Today, it is used in everything from packaging to building materials and cars.
So over the years, the world has continued to create more plastic in order to keep up with demand. In fact, people now create 300 million tons of the material each year, the organization Plastic Oceans estimates. A worrying 50 percent of that is even allocated to disposable, single-use products.
And because plastic is cheap and has so many use cases, it has become almost ubiquitous across the globe. The problem seems to be, though, that once it is disposed of it takes a long time to decompose. As early as the 1960s, in fact, concerns had begun to grow about the long-term impact of the industry.
From the 1970s onwards, then, recycling has become a big business that encourages consumers to reuse their waste. Yet despite this, we are still producing plastic at an alarming rate. In fact, in the past decade alone the world has produced more of the material than we created over the previous 100 years, according to Plastic Oceans.
With all of that production, the planet’s landfills are also fast filling up with products that could take as long as 1,000 years to decompose. Yet if plastic is polluting our land, what is it doing to our seas? Sadly, over eight million tons of the material finds its way into our oceans each year, according to the United Nations Environment Assembly. And it wreaks havoc wherever it falls.
Now, in fact, plastic waste in our seas is one of the major threats to marine life, including vulnerable species such as sea turtles and whales. Meanwhile, the material has been spotted in some the world’s most remote locations. It has even been found on the ocean floor at depths of around three miles.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that Branson and his fellow explorers spotted plastic at the bottom of the Great Blue Hole. But how can we stop the spread of plastic through our waters? According to the Virgin boss, the answer is to eliminate disposable, single-use plastics for good.
“Virgin Voyages, which kindly sponsored the expedition, is leading the charge,” Branson wrote. “Our team all feel passionately about the environment. With every item we buy, every piece of food we serve, the environmental impact is paramount. There will be no single-use plastic on board.”
And apparently Branson doesn’t plan on stopping there. In fact, back in 2015 the charitable foundation Virgin Unite established Ocean Unite – an organization dedicated to conserving our seas. By bringing some of the world’s best thinkers together, then, it hopes to foster positive change for the future of our planet.
Among the goals of the project is the 30X30 initiative – a call to safeguard 30 percent of our planet’s oceans by 2030. Currently, the world’s leaders have agreed on a target to protect ten percent of our marine environments by 2020. However, Ocean Unite believes that this isn’t enough to safeguard the diversity and resilience of underwater ecosystems across the globe.
Furthermore, Ocean Unite wants to establish marine reserves and create regions where ruinous practices such as mining and fishing are banned. This way, the organization hopes to secure the future of our oceans for many generations to come. Such measures would also apparently help to fight the effects of climate change. And they would further protect the livelihoods of those who depend on the sea.
Yet while Ocean Unite is calling for individuals and governments to support its 30X30 initiative, other steps are being taken to fight damaging waste across our planet. In fact, back in 2002 Bangladesh became the first country to implement a ban on certain plastic bags. And in October 2018 the European Union voted to outlaw all single-use plastics from 2021 onwards.
So, back in the Caribbean Sea, Branson rounded off his expedition with a dip in the oceans that he is keen to protect. He wrote on the Virgin website, “I also wanted to see the reefs up close and personal myself so went for an exhilarating scuba dive and saw an incredible array of fish and ocean life thriving. Long may it continue.”
Finally, Branson highlighted the importance of tackling climate change – another of the huge threats facing our planet today. He wrote, “My grandchildren will be in their thirties by 2050. I don’t want them to grow up in a world without corals, without the wonders of the ocean.”