water world

I explored the Antarctic deep seas for a BBC series – and it was like going back 350 million years

Few fish can survive in these freezing waters, so invertebrates are the dominant predators.

“It has always been our ambition to get inside that white space, and now we are there the space can no longer be blank,” wrote the polar explorer Captain Scott, on crossing the 80th parallel of the Antarctic continent for the first time in 1902. Fast-forward more than a century – and the deep ocean floor around Antarctica still offers a “white space”, beyond the reach of scuba divers, only partially mapped in detail by sonar from ships and seldom surveyed by robotic vehicles.

So I jumped at the chance to join a team from the BBC on an expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula for Blue Planet II, to help them as a scientific guide. Thanks to the crew of the research ship Alucia, we dived in minisubmarines to 1km deep in the Antarctic for the first time. And while we didn’t face anything like the physical hardships endured by early polar explorers on land, those dives did give us the opportunity for some unique science.

The deep ocean around Antarctica is a special place for several reasons. Because Antarctica is pushed down by the weight of its ice sheets, the submerged continental shelf around it is deeper than usual, around 500-600m deep at its edge rather than 100-200m deep. It’s also cut by even deeper channels close inshore, some plunging more than 1km, scoured out by larger ice sheets in the past. So although the continent itself is remote, we can reach the deep ocean close inshore here – handy for us diving in minisubmarines, despite the need to dodge icebergs.

Giant sponges found in the deep waters of the Antarctic. BBC NHU
Giant sponges found in the deep waters of the Antarctic. BBC NHU

There’s a gateway to the deep for marine life here too. Some deep-sea animals come into much shallower depths than usual around Antarctica, because the water temperature near the surface is similar to the cold temperatures elsewhere in the deep ocean. And in the past, shallow-living ancestors of some deep-sea animals spread out across the deep oceans from the Antarctic, via this cold gateway between the shallows and the deep.

One of my favourite animals that we saw on dives was the octopus Graneledone antarctica, whose ancestor ventured down from the shallows around 15m years ago, when the water temperature at the surface cooled to the same chilly temperature as the deep. Her descendants then spread out across the abyss like wagon-train pioneers, giving rise to several different species of deep-sea octopus found around the world today. Some stayed behind, however, becoming the species that we saw.

The ocean around Antarctica is also the lungs of the deep. Much of the life-giving oxygen in deep waters across the world begins its journey from the atmosphere here. As seawater freezes around the white continent in winter, it leaves behind very cold and salty water that sinks and flows into the depths of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans – even the deepest water in the ocean, at the bottom of the Marianas Trench 14,000km away, came from here. As this deep water flows out from the Antarctic, it carries oxygen, dissolved from the atmosphere at the surface. So the Antarctic is where the world’s deep oceans breathe in – and its waters are among the most oxygen-rich on our planet.

Another of my favourite animals from our dives takes advantage of those oxygen-rich waters: giant sea-spiders, with legspans up to 40cm across. Sea spiders lack a respiratory system, which usually limits their size, but can grow much larger in the oxygen-rich conditions here.

‘Ancient ocean ecosystems’

Diving in the Antarctic is also a journey back in time, to glimpse what ancient ocean ecosystems were once like. Fish dominate as predators in most marine ecosystems today, but few fish species can cope with the -1.5℃ conditions where we were diving. The “ice dragonfish”, Cryodraco antarcticus, is a notable exception, however, and another of my favourite animals – with antifreeze proteins that stop its blood from icing up. Its blood is also clear, without any of the oxygen-carrying haemoglobin that gives ours its red colour – in the cold waters, enough oxygen dissolves directly in the fluid of the fish’s blood to keep it alive.

But there are few fish with remarkable adaptations like the ice dragon, and so invertebrates have diversified to dominate as predators in the deep ocean here, just as they did throughout the oceans more than 350m years ago. A final favourite from our dives epitomises that: the Antarctic sunstar Labidiaster annulatus, which is a relative of the familiar five-armed starfish. Nicknamed “the Death Star” by those inside the subs who watched its behaviour, it has up to 50 arms and grows larger than a dinner plate. It uses those arms like fishing rods, holding them up off the seabed to snag passing krill, thanks to tiny pincers on its skin that snap shut when anything brushes past them. Unlike other starfish, Labidiaster can wave its arms to catch prey here because there are relatively few predatory fish to chew them off.

A feather star dances in the deep waters of the Antarctic Sound. BBC NHU
A feather star dances in the deep waters of the Antarctic Sound. BBC NHU

Overall, seeing the deep Antarctic sea floor close-up from our minisubs should help us to understand how “dropstones” shape the pattern of life here. “Dropstones” are car-sized boulders that fall from passing icebergs – they provide “islands” of rocky habitat for filter-feeding species which otherwise don’t get a look-in on the soft mud of the Antarctic seafloor. But where the dropstones settle depends on the undersea terrain. As we found on our dives, they slide down steeper undersea slopes, actually scraping off marine life. But if you’re at the bottom of a gully, then lots of dropstones end up there, giving a major boost to local biodiversity. That pattern of life is hard to see from samples collected by nets or trawls in the past, so our first minisub dives to 1km deep in the Antarctic should help to make that “white space” no longer such a blank.

Jon Copley, Associate Professor in Ocean Exploration & Public Engagement, University of Southampton.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.