On a balmy Caribbean night in August, crew members aboard the 184-foot exploration vessel the Alucia tied lifeless fish to the entrance of a small yellow submarine.
They tightly wound the fish to a steel pole extending out from the undersea craft to tempt no matter is likely to be lurking, three thousand toes under.
However Dean Grubbs, one of many researchers getting ready the bait, didn’t intend to catch something. Grubbs, a shark scientist at Florida State College, solely hoped to draw a little-seen creature that largely dwells within the lightless ocean depths: the sixgill shark.
“They’re one of many oldest lineages of dwelling sharks. That, by itself, makes them cool,” Grubbs, who together with his lengthy black hair and darkish beard seems like he would match proper in at an Iron Maiden live performance, stated.
In contrast to the charismatic sharks typically noticed close to the floor — hammerheads, nice whites, and tiger sharks — the sixgill spends most of its life within the deep ocean, some 700 toes to three,200 toes (200 to 1,00zero meters) under the floor. It is not simple to know the sixgills, although Grubbs has glimpsed the sharks’ mysterious existence by tagging their dorsal fins with GPS units.
Far beneath the ocean, the sixgill has carved out a distinct segment as the most important, dominant predator of the deep tropical and temperate latitudes — an enormous swath of ocean.
It is largely lightless down there, no less than to people. However the sixgills, and their creepy, vivid inexperienced eyes, are tailored to this black world.
“It is pitch darkish to us, however to them, it is daylight,” stated Grubbs.
The three species of sixgill sharks are additionally historical. At some 200 million years previous the sixgills — so named for his or her sixth gill when most sharks have 5 — predate most dinosaurs.
Past their mystique, Grubbs has good purpose to hunt out these sharks.
For years he is been monitoring the place these historical creatures go, why they go there, and the position they play within the deeps. However this requires catching the large beasts, hauling them to the floor on a fishing line, and attaching a GPS tracker to their dorsal fin earlier than releasing them again into the water.
It rattles them, stated Grubbs.
So he is come aboard the exploration vessel Alucia, operated by the deep sea exploration group OceanX, to strive a brand new concept. He’ll meet the sixgills the place they stay, 1000’s of toes beneath the floor. Because the sharks swoop by to analyze the lifeless fish hooked up to the submersible, Grubbs will try and tag them with a GPS dart.
Credit score: Cape Eleuthera Island College/OceanX Media
On that night at sea in August, Grubbs climbed via the hatch atop the Alucia and sat down contained in the craft’s large bubble, which is sandwiched between two yellow slabs holding cameras and propellers.
The bubble could initially seem susceptible, however it’s constructed out of seven-inch thick plexiglass, designed to face up to the unrelenting weight of water urgent down on the craft, and the three occupants inside.
Utilizing an awesome hook dangling from the Alucia’s crane, submarine crew members raised the submersible into the air earlier than gently plopping it into the Caribbean waters off of Eleuthera, an extended, skinny island within the japanese Bahamas.
A wild-haired diver leapt off the Alucia’s close by dinghy to unhitch the bobbing submersible from the crane, after which Grubbs, together with one other scientist and submarine pilot, started to sink beneath the floor, and shortly disappeared.
Credit score: OceanX Media
The submersible dropped all the way down to the ocean flooring like an area capsule parachuting all the way down to Earth in gradual movement.
All remains to be on this ceaselessly wilderness, save the robotic sounds of the submersible. At first, an omnipresent blue glow pervades every little thing, dying human pores and skin an alien, indigo coloration. Then, the sunshine dims to nightfall because the craft continues its descent. Finally, there’s little to no mild. Right here, the sixgills dwell.
Down at the hours of darkness, one realizes why the sixgills developed eons in the past, however stay unchanged. That they had no have to evolve.
“They’ve been dwelling in a fairly fixed atmosphere for a really, very very long time,” Chip Cotton, a marine scientist who additionally researches sixgills, however took no half on this expedition, stated in an interview.
On the floor, volcanoes rumble, continents collide, ice ages cross, and warfare ensues. However the sixgill shark, who holds dominion over this distant black realm, doesn’t flinch.
The shark has spent tens of millions years passing lethargically via the deep sea, stated Cotton. And for good purpose.
“If you concentrate on power expenditures, meals is sort of a luxurious down there,” defined Cotton, saying that the creatures don’t needlessly waste power by zipping across the sea flooring.
The sixgills are masters of consuming the lifeless. Their tooth, which have remained largely unaltered for some 200 million years, are uniquely designed for twisting and tearing off large chunks of fallen whales, or giant lifeless fishes.
“It’s a great way to make a dwelling,” stated Cotton.
Down at the hours of darkness, Grubbs waited patiently for the sixgills to reach on the submersible.
The evening earlier than, a curious sixgill swam proper in entrance of him, simply past the glass bubble. However he couldn’t get off a protected shot to tag the shark on its cartilaginous fins. The shark solely uncovered its underbelly, an space Grubbs didn’t wish to danger harming.
Nonetheless, when Grubbs returned to the floor, he thought-about the mission successful. It virtually labored.
Now, down within the depths once more for 5 hours, Grubbs hoped different sixgills can be tempted by the straightforward meal perched immediately in entrance of the submersible, and close by of the dart weapons.
Credit score: Cape Eleuthera Island College/OceanX Media
However on this evening, no sixgills came around the bait.
Grubbs mused they wanted to deliver a bigger hunk of meat, maybe a pig.
But, the mission wasn’t a failure. It’s exactly the kind of experiment that pursuits OceanX, which in 2012 captured the primary and solely footage of the legendary big squid wrapping its tentacles round a part of the exact same submersible Grubbs sat in.
“We’re into attempting unprecedented issues on the market,” Vincent Pieribone, a Yale neuroscientist who oversees OceanX’s science operations, stated in an interview. “What’s attention-grabbing to us is the untested, high-risk, high-reward sort stuff.”
Grubbs hopes to return to realm of the sixgills once more, and provides the mission one other shot.
Defending the sixgills
Sharks that stay in deep waters are usually susceptible to overfishing. They get caught in nets like different fish, and hauled to the floor.
However not the sixgill. These giant sharks have been largely protected of their darkish realms. Right here, they’re quite a few, however onerous to seek out.
“We don’t go to their home typically on the lookout for them, so that they’re perceived as uncommon,” stated Cotton.
They’re usually too large to catch, and too robust for hooks and contours, stated Grubbs.
However each infrequently, somebody by accident snags a sixgill, they usually take the sharks’ useful livers.
Credit score: Edie Widder and Dean Grubbs
“They throw the remaining overboard,” stated Grubbs. “The rationalization was the sharks had been going to die anyhow,” as a result of trauma of being caught and brought from their ordinary waters.
However Grubbs questioned, is that true?
In 2005, he determined to do one thing that had by no means been finished to seek out a solution. He wished to catch the elusive sixgill sharks, to see if they might survive the trauma after being compelled out of the water.
Grubbs was informed that it merely couldn’t be finished. Capturing a big deep sea shark is a frightening process. Doing it many instances is past purpose.
“We took that as a problem,” stated Grubbs.
Grubbs set out at sea, and has since caught 23 sixgills in an ongoing undertaking that continues immediately.
After releasing them into the water with GPS tags, he discovered 90 p.c of them survived, and continued roaming the depths.
It appeared sixgills needn’t be slaughtered simply because they had been hauled to the floor.
“Lo and behold, that assumption was completely unsuitable,” stated Cotton.
Of their darkish ocean houses, the sixgills is likely to be king, however it’s not as if different predators aren’t lurking in these waters.
Tiger sharks, giant dominant predators close to the coast, typically enterprise into the sixgills’ realm. It is possible they chew up smaller sixgills stated Cotton.
“I might be stunned in the event that they did not,” he stated, emphasizing that it is likely to be the sixgills’ territory, however there aren’t any partitions holding different predators out.
“None of this stuff exist in a vacuum,” stated Cotton. “All the things is interconnected indirectly.”
And within the a chilly, lightless world the place meals is scarce and one eats what is obtainable, each Grubbs and Cotton stated the sixgills additionally hunt one another.
Even the monstrous 17-foot lengthy sixgill Grubbs as soon as hauled aboard a analysis vessel must look over its shoulder.
“There’s at all times an even bigger predator,” he stated.