As a child, I dared to dream that someday, I would be able to explore and cultivate the depths of the oceans like Captain Nemo, as immortalized by James Mason, or that I could identify new oceanic species, and promote the environmental preservation of the World’s Oceans, like Jacques Cousteau.
Almost a half century later, I had the extraordinary chance to realize this dream, with our group of companies having been invited to become a sponsor of the research dive into the Great Blue Hole of Belize, in December, 2018. This exciting event was organized by Aquatica Submarines, Inc. of British Columbia, Canada, in association with Sir Richard Branson, Fabien Cousteau (the grandson of Jacques Cousteau), and Discovery Channel–see Discovery Live: Into the Blue Hole. Empire Group (www.empire-group.asia), the asset management organization of Project Galileo (www.projectgalileo.com), was the institution we chose as the sponsoring entity, and its logo was proudly displayed on the 3-person Stingray Submarine that descended into the Blue Hole crewed by Erika Bergman (pilot for Aquatica Submarines), Sir Richard Branson, and Fabien Cousteau.
During the second week of December, 2018, myself and Gianluca Giachero (International Analyst for Empire Group and the grandson of Cleante Vitali, Co-Founder of Project Galileo), embarked from Belize City to join Aquatica’s research vessel, moored on the edge of the Great Blue Hole. Our enthusiasm to get to participate in this research project, together with oceanographers, sonar experts, and aquatic foundation personnel, was immense, and our week at sea (and under the sea) proved to be both a tremendous learning experience, and the realization of a lifetime dream for me, Empire Group’s Group Chairman.
On Day 3, Gianluca and I had our first diving lesson, in order to witness a pristine Belizian coral reef only 30-40 feet below the ocean surface. I put on a diving tank, listened to a 5-minute instructional lecture, and then was pushed over the side (only a mild exaggeration). I was happily shocked that I could at last explore a coral reef, without months of prior instruction, although I needed some support from the captain of our vessel, who grabbed onto me the whole time with professional concern, adjusting my air pressure. I had always dreamed of seeing a shark in the wild, and lo and behold, within 2 minutes of my descent to the sandy ocean floor, a seven-foot reef shark decided to swim straight at me, then glided underneath my diving flippers. The Captain was clearly concerned I would freak out, but there was no time to be scared—I was both fascinated and delighted to witness this beautiful animal in its natural environment, and my calmness helped avoid any unwanted incident. We then swam past massive barrel sponges, a garden of garden eels, a few marauding barracuda, and thousands of brightly colored parrotfish, tiny cryptobenthic fish (a brightly colored food source for other species), and other reef dwellers.
On Day 1, we traveled through crocodile-inhabited mangrove-covered islands, and over clear aquamarine ocean floors and coral reefs, to arrive at the dive site. Seasickness was feared, but was soon overcome by sheer excitement. The nighttime portion of the “full-steam-ahead” voyage allowed us a view of every star in the galaxy, reminding us of the small, rare, and unique planet we must seek to protect.
On Day 2, Gianluca and I boarded the research vessel, and were given full safety instructions by Erika Bergman regarding good underwater citizenship. Our Stingray Submarine was hoisted into the azure blue Belizian waters, and we climbed down the hatch and into the clear plexiglass bubble that would easily survive the pressures of the 400-foot dive. Ascending past the layers of life-giving coral on the edge of the Blue Hole, the submarine gracefully descended vertically down one face of this geographical marvel, past a pair of barracuda (and their prey), and soon we were in the darkness. Stalactites came into view on the cave wall, of gargantuan proportions. We then plummeted through the glass-like layer of H₂S, poisonous to most forms of life, and soon were beholding the moon-like surface of the bottom of the Blue Hole, scattered with the bleached shells of unfortunate conchs, having fallen into this toxic natural underwater chemical lake to become ghost-mollusks. Feeling somewhat isolated from the World, we were soon cheered up by the appearance of the shining bright lights of Idabel, our sister exploration vessel, in bright yellow (looking like a cross between a friendly octopus, and an aquatic Minion). The two submarines lighted each other’s way through the darkness, illuminating the entrances to cave systems and stalactite clusters. Looking up from this sunken arena, Idabel’s crew reported sightings of swirling reef sharks—the top of the local food chain, which were safely observed from the safety of their submarine.
After our expedition, we did not want to leave Belize, with so many natural wonders both in the ocean and on land. We give our thanks to Harvey Flemming, President of Aquatica Submarines, Sir Richard Branson, Fabien Cousteau, Discovery Channel, and all other sponsors for their part in working to save the oceans, contributing to the scientific sonar mapping of the Blue Hole, and inviting Empire Group/Project Galileo to participate in this extraordinary oceanic event.
Please feel free to browse through a selection of the expedition photos through the gallery below.
Christopher Wolf Crutcher
September 21, 2019