Story | 06 Jun, 2024

Getting deeper

Under the Pole explains its work to explore and protect the uncharted parts of our oceans.

content hero image

Mesophotic coral ecosystem

Over 70% of our planet is covered by the ocean, yet only the surface of the seas, which makes up just 5%, is well studied. The mesophotic zone, which lies between 30m and 200m, remains virtually unknown.

Mesophotic ecosystems connect life on the surface and the deep, and understanding them is essential to properly preserving the ocean

Yet in national and international ocean protection frameworks, attention to oceanic transition stages, such as the mesophotic zone, is not clearly formulated. Unique habitats and species are disappearing before they have even been discovered.

Under the Pole is an underwater exploration programme launched in 2008 which uses deep diving and navigation in difficult-to-access environments (polar regions, isolated islands, mesophotic depths) for the service of science. It raises awareness among the general public, school children and decision-makers of the challenges of preserving mesophotic environments.

The difficulty of accessing deeper ocean environments has led to a compartmentalisation of knowledge between well-known surface ecosystems and unknown mesophotic ecosystems, limiting effective measures to preserve coastal zones. Recently, exploration of the mesophotic zone has found a new lease of life, thanks to diving innovations such as the rebreather (breathing apparatus that absorbs the CO2 of a diver’s exhaled breath). Now fast and nimble specialised divers are an effective alternative to scientific trawling and dredging techniques.

Our fourth major programme, DEEPLIFE 2021-2030, focuses on the coastal zones of the oceans, including in the polar regions. The work will enable us to explore marine animal forests (structures created by animals like corals, sponges and gorgonians) to decipher their ecological importance and the ecosystem services they produce, and to determine their vulnerability to climate change. On the scale of the oceans, marine animal forests could prove to be as essential as equatorial forests in preserving biodiversity.
The expeditions began in 2022 with the exploration of Arctic ecosystems in the Svalbard archipelago, before reaching the Canary Islands and their incredible black coral forests. DEEPLIFE continues in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Sea in 2024.

Research from our earlier DEEPHOPE programme, in partnership with the French National Centre for Scientific Research, revealed that the mesophotic zone can act as a refuge from global warming. With more than 1,000 dives over a period of 14 months across the five Polynesian archipelagos, we found that deep reefs (beyond 40m) escape coral bleaching, and coral’s diversity is greater at depths of 40-60m than at the surface. We even found photosynthetic coral at 172m deep – a record.

Under the Pole works with IUCN to help give a voice to these ecosystems, but also to learn more about and work with the scientists and players involved in protecting the oceans

Our ambition is to see the data generated by our expeditions translated into conservation action, and to develop tools for decision-makers and managers for the conservation of these vulnerable marine habitats. We hope to develop collaborations to identify the needs of IUCN and the way in which the data can effectively develop knowledge and conservation of the mesophotic zone.