Rolex continues the legacy of its founder, Hans Wilsdorf, by supporting explorers who venture into the unknown and strive to further a mission that affects us all: making the planet perpetual. In this sense, the watch brand launched the Perpetual Planet initiative in 2019. One of the strands of this project is the Under The Pole underwater exploration program.
The Under The Pole program aims to explore the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean to study the small ecosystems rich in biodiversity called forests of marine animals and, at the same time, raise public awareness of them, since Arctic biodiversity is among the most endangered on our planet. Especially as warming from greenhouse gas emissions is happening faster in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world. In fact, the floating sea ice that covers much of this ocean has halved in the last forty years.
It was in this regrettable context that, last February, an expedition took place to Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Sea belonging to Norway, and which became the first activity of the Under The Pole program, inserted in the Deeplife 2021-2030 project. Their mission was to find and research forests of marine animals to help raise awareness of these fragile ecosystems and find clues on how to protect them. This task was not easy, as during the first series of dives, the team faced some problems, but on the final dive of the series they found the first forest of marine animals in the Arctic, between 50 and 80 meters deep, formed by hydroids: marine animals related to jellyfish and corals that resemble bells, flowers and ferns.
Between 30 and 200 meters deep, in the mesophotic zone, the ocean receives little light. And in this twilight world, living organisms, including algae that depend on sunlight, cannot survive. Therefore, the ecosystem is dominated by animals such as corals, gorgonians (soft corals) and sponges that anchor themselves in the rocks. Conditions within these deepwater forests are more stable than in open water and have the potential to form important havens for underwater life, although they are rarely included in marine protected areas. And unlike their terrestrial counterparts, many underwater forests remain unknown and misunderstood.
“These underwater forests are exactly like the ones we have aboveground on land,” says Ghislain Bardout, co-director of the Under The Pole project. “These are three-dimensional structures that harbor life, much of which remains unknown.” Bardout led a team of divers and scientists who navigated the icy waters (below -30 °C) off Spitsbergen, the largest island in Svalbard, off the north coast of Norway. For Emmanuelle Périé-Bardout, co-director of the Under The Pole program, says “it is very exciting to think that we have found the first underwater animal forest. We’ll be able to go back and see how it evolves, which is extremely important for science. If we succeed in showing these forests to the world, and if they end up being protected, that will be our greatest achievement.”
In addition to the different species that lived in this forest, the researchers were able to collect environmental data, such as the temperature level, to discover the conditions that favor the formation of these ecosystems. “The knowledge we acquire is fundamental because it brings hope and gives humanity an opportunity to change its behaviour”, explains Ghislain Bardout. The Deeplife program will run for the rest of this decade, with the goal of having a world where such forests are protected.
In fact, the Under The Pole project changed the paradigm a little. With a team of experienced divers and marine scientists, their expeditions have taken us around the world, where they have already made pioneering scientific discoveries, raising awareness of neglected marine ecosystems and pushing the limits of deep diving technology.
With support from the Perpetual Planet initiative, the program launched the Under The Pole – Deeplife 2021-2030 expedition series, which aims to document the forests of marine animals in each of the planet’s oceans – furthering our understanding of these deep oceans and how best to protect them. This latest discovery represents an important advance in marine science in the Arctic, where biodiversity at this depth has long been a mystery. Divers developed their research program, recording the species that inhabit the forest and collected environmental data such as temperature. This knowledge is shared with an international consortium of scientists to help define the importance of this rare Arctic habitat as a hub of biodiversity and campaign for its protection.
Without the extensive exploration credentials of the Under The Pole project, exploring these forests of marine animals would be a much greater challenge. But by tackling Svalbard’s unforgiving waters and making this unlikely discovery, Under The Pole has given its scientific collaborators a much greater opportunity to advance knowledge and understanding.