OceanX Goes 3,000 Feet Under Antarctic Waters

Writer Kat Long

It started with a giant squid.

In 2012, the research vessel Alucia, and team of wildlife filmmakers captured the first footage of the deep-sea cephalopod on an expedition with Japanese broadcaster NHK and the Discovery Channel. After that epic mission, Mark Dalio was hooked on the possibilities of melding science and visual storytelling to inspire the next generation of ocean explorers and founded Alucia Productions.

Mark is the son of Ray Dalio, the billionaire hedge fund founder and philanthropist who established the ocean exploration organization OceanX last year. OceanX’s partners include explorer-filmmaker James Cameron last year. Mark, formerly an associate producer at National Geographic in Los Angeles, rebranded Alucia Productions as OceanX Media in mid-2018.

As the digital production arm of OceanX, OceanX Media seeks out projects that blend scientific research and state-of-the-art filmmaking. One of those projects was the BBC’s critically acclaimed series Blue Planet II. “Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been fascinated and excited about the work that the BBC has done with Planet Earth, Frozen Planet, the first Blue Planet,” Mark tells ROAM.

In Antarctica, aboard the OceanX research vessel Alucia, filmmakers were able to dive more than 1,000 meters below the surface of the Southern Ocean to film never-before-seen life on the seafloor. “We saw the global scale that the Blue Planet II series was aiming for,” he says. “We wanted to not only help them from a scientific exploration side, but also create a larger partnership for the TV series, in terms of research and the actual expeditions into the deep.” Mark spoke with ROAM about the excitement and challenges of filming scenes for Blue Planet II’s second episode, “The Deep.”

Video by OceanX

How did OceanX Media get involved with the Blue Planet II team and wind up filming in Antarctica?

Mark: We always wanted to go to Antarctica. It was definitely the hardest mission, both in the actual execution and in the planning. One of the exciting reasons why we wanted to go there was submersibles. There hasn’t really been much exploration into the depths of Antarctica. There’s been unmanned ROV work, but even with that there’s limited access, limited research. The amount of scientific material and footage you can get out of a manned submersible is much greater. There have been a few submersible expeditions, but not down to 1,000 meters. So it was quite an undertaking.

We go to a lot of remote areas and locations, and we are usually able to uncover some leads to understand what we might find. Working with the BBC across all the expeditions we’ve done, it really pays off to talk to the local scientists and others with those leads. But Antarctica was one of the few locations where there really was very little information to go on—it really was exploring the total unknown.

Antarctica was the last expedition we did for the Blue Planet II series, and I’d say it was probably the most exciting for us and for the BBC.

ROAM: OceanX Goes 3,000 Feet Under Antarctic Waters
The submersible approaches an iceberg; Photo by OceanX

What kind of logistics did you encounter with the submersible? Did you run into any challenges that you didn’t expect?

Mark: There were a couple of challenges that we anticipated, and some that we didn’t expect. We were the first to do a 3,000-foot submersible dive, and depths more shallow than that haven’t been explored much—when they have, it’s been by ROVs and remote-operated means.

We’ve never had the submersibles in water that was so cold, and on one of our first dives, the camera teams and producers saw some condensation that was worrying—they didn’t know if it was a leak or if it was truly just condensation. Orla Dougherty, one of the producers, was asked to taste it to see if it was salt water—then they’d know that it was a leak. She tasted it, and there was a leak. Luckily, they were able to bring the subs back up, check some of the valves, and fix the problem. But it was scary at the time. It was something we absolutely didn’t expect, given that we’d never filmed in super-cold water before.

We also encountered drop stones. What happens is, you have the icebergs up at the ocean’s surface, and they sometimes carry stones from land that can be the size of cars. On one of our dives, this little fist-sized rock came crashing down. A pebble would actually bounce off the sub, but if that was as big as a car or even larger, it would have serious consequences to the integrity of the sub. Again, that’s something we never expected. I guess that’s what you deal with when you’re pushing the limits of exploration in the deep sea.

Here’s one more situation that we hadn’t anticipated. We wanted to get shots of the submersible going down the sides of an iceberg and then travel deeper from there. We actually had a lot of debates about whether we could get this on camera—it had never been done before, so we didn’t know what the full risk was for the divers. If you go for these tabular icebergs, the concern is that bits of the edge crash to the water. If you have a submersible there, that’s obviously a no-go. Other icebergs are big underwater, but only about five feet in height above the water; the danger there is that they move around quite a bit with the current—you can actually see a lot of penguins hitching a ride on those. They also tip over once in a while. So if you have a sub that’s going down this iceberg, and it tips over, that’s a huge amount of weight crashing down on the sub.

We had a big meeting on the ship before we decided to do this. The debate got a little heated when we evaluated what we could or couldn’t do. But we have a really professional, safe team, and they were able to handle the filming in a great way. You can see the footage in some of the videos, it looks spectacular.

Let’s talk about some of the things you saw while the crew was 1,000 meters below the surface in the submersible and you were monitoring the filming from above. What was going through your mind when you saw the footage for the first time?

Mark: What really surprised me about the footage was that it looked like a blizzard of marine snow—particles of organic matter that sift down to the seafloor from waters closer to the surface. In other parts of the world, these particles look like tiny specks, like dust that’s collected on your bookshelf. But when looking at the marine snow in Antarctica, it looked a huge New York City blizzard, with these big, fluffy flakes coming down. If you would have shown me a picture and said it’s a classic New York City blizzard, I would have believed you.

What also surprised me were the invertebrates—they were absolutely massive. Where you would normally have very small sea stars and other creatures, they were huge, because they don’t have any predators. It almost looked like an alien world. One of the scientists had a good line: it was ‘like traveling back in time.’ We have a shot with a sea spider-looking creature that would normally be very small, but here it looked like something out of Star Wars, or the face-hugger from Alien.

Video by OceanX

I remember seeing some of the footage and I was really stunned by the size of the sponges—they were enormous! The scenery has almost a prehistoric feel because people really haven’t been there to disturb the ecosystem.

Mark: Those sponges, as well as the sea stars and the other creatures, are able to take advantage of how nutrient-rich the waters are, and again, there aren’t things trying to eat them. And they have quite a lot of space to spread out. It is one of the most nutrient-rich areas of the world.  

Were there any moments in which the people in the submersible were thinking, “I’m worried that I’m not going to get any good shots”?

Mark: Leading up to the expedition, there was the some worry that we weren’t going to find anything, because there was so little previous research. But after we actually got there, there was life everywhere. Around every corner you looked, there was something to be seen and studied. And we also knew that no one had seen it before; no one had filmed or studied it to this extent.

There are areas of the deep that are definitely more deserted. But one of the struggles that I think we had, overall, was that there were too many shiny objects, above water as well as underwater. Luckily, this is the project for which we brought the most people to really achieve the topside as well as underwater portions of the filmmaking.

What was your favorite moment of the whole expedition?

Mark: There was one shot that was really exciting. Parts of it were in The Deep episode. It was what we’re nicknaming the ‘Death Star,’ the Antarctic sunstar—this massive sea star that has about 50 arms with pincers to scoop up all these krill that pass by. It was just so iconic, you really don’t see sea stars that are that active. Usually they’re very slow-moving. This guy was just snapping up krill left and right! It was pretty incredible to be able to witness that. Normally, when you think of sea stars, you think they’re cute, they’re slow, but here’s one on the stranger side. Almost like in Stranger Things: you’re in the Upside Down!

Before, you mentioned the feeling of discovering a place that no one has ever laid eyes on. Why is exploration important in the 21st century? Is there a misconception that every place has already been discovered?

Mark: There has been a lot of exploration in the world from the terrestrial side, and because people have explored some of the ocean, like Cousteau in the Calypso, people might have the misconception that we know the underwater world like we do the terrestrial world. But we really don’t. Only a fraction of it has been explored, a fraction of it is known. On a lot of dives, we’re able to uncover new species and behaviors that aren’t very well documented. I think one of the struggles that we deal with from an animal behavior side is that in the terrestrial world, you can witness it when you’re out scouting and looking for it. But there’s so much happening underwater, and so many different variables that change depending on the temperature or the time of year. It’s constantly moving, constantly evolving. And because we still are learning about it, we still don’t have a grasp of what we’re doing underwater.

So, I think it’s important to spark that interest, that idea that there’s still more to be explored, and to inspire people with what we have seen—to take people on a journey and encourage them to care for our oceans. We can encourage people to explore their own backyards or become scientists themselves.

With natural history programs, the animals are front and center—but there’s a whole team, not just the cameramen, but also the scientists, the expedition leaders, the locals in these areas—that we want to shine a spotlight on. If there’s a kid out there who’s able to see that, there’s a chance that kid will want to get involved themselves and be the next ocean explorer.

What’s next for OceanX Media?

Mark: We’re moving to the next stage of our expeditions with a new research vessel, which right now is Alucia 2. We’re really excited about it. We used to be limited with the number of berths and people we could bring along. And between the 12 to 15 scientists and the media folks, it gets eaten up pretty quickly. So, we’re now retrofitting what used to be an oil vessel to a science research and media platform for the next generation. That’s going to have huge implications for the scale of our technology and the capabilities of the ship, as well as our partners. It has roughly 60 berths and capability for much deeper ROV missions, down to 6000 meters.

We’re also retrofitting state-of-the-art research labs, media labs, and wet and dry labs, all integrated in a much more seamless fashion between media and science. It’s the USS Enterprise of the ocean. We’re going to be going to the Indian Ocean for the launch of the ship later this year.

With Alucia 2, we’re building a much larger brand and voice for the oceans, and much larger platform to tell stories about the oceans, about the science, the people, the creatures. We can create that next generation to care, and be inspired, and come a long on the journey.

ROAM: OceanX Goes 3,000 Feet Under Antarctic Waters
Photo by OceanX
ROAM: OceanX Goes 3,000 Feet Under Antarctic Waters
A feather star crinoid; Photo by OceanX
ROAM: OceanX Goes 3,000 Feet Under Antarctic Waters
Deep sea life in Antarctica; Photo by OceanX

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