We wait patiently as the boys get their nutriment for the day ahead. Ant Atoll is our destination and the suspense is rising. The ocean is mirror calm, the weather benign — perfect for our 1.5 hour journey across the water. Our initial sojourn to the south side two days ago equated such conditions and the reef did not disappoint: pure joy! Therefore, we anticipate more of the same.
Ant Atoll is, in fact, a considerable size, being half the size of Pohnpei (129 square miles/334.1 square km), yet with a human population of 10 — how peaceful! Today we target the west side, with a supermoon rendering the corals of the reef flat exposed. From the reef crest a shear wall descends to more than 300 m (1000 ft) in depth, a small ledge is located and we anchor in. I drop in first and whilst awaiting the boys, am met by a curious and somewhat territorial White-tip reef shark.
On descent the thermocline is unusually mild as we hit ~122 m (400 ft); now it’s time to get busy. Brian is to the right capturing an old friend: Chromis circumaurea Pyle et al. 2008, described previously by himself, Richard Pyle and John Earle.
I’m surrounded by gorgonians sufficiently so that it’s overwhelming, perched on an overhang I collect in earnest, there’s not a moment to waste. Acanthogorgia, Paracis, Keroeides, Heliania, Annella, Astrogorgia…. hmmm finding those a little deep, interesting, yes Parisis – now I know we’re past the temperature gradient, this one’s fantastic and most definitely new. Brian glides past now to my left; “how’s it going Sonia?” “Awesome!” I reply in the typical ‘Smurf’ through-Trimix dialect; you can’t help but giggle when you sound like an animation – it never gets old.
BOOM! This one is a new genus…. more comparative investigation awaits! At Bishop Museum we have an excellent library of taxonomic literature, which is a peaceable past time to dissolve into: numerous different languages and subjective taxonomic opinions renders an interesting experience that crowns the delight of collecting the colonies in the first place.
The rush of being at depth and doing the work masks any awareness of the cold, which is typically less than 17°C/62 F. On ascent passing into warmer clines is always a welcome surprise, but not, however, for my catch! Gorgonians are particularly sensitive to temperature even moreso than pressure — numerous species oxidise (begin to turn black) at elevated temperatures when bought up from the deep ocean (e.g., > 500 m) and this is also true for colonies at twilight depths.
Here, on the western side of the atoll, there appears two distinct differences to that of the southern side; firstly there is only a mild temperature gradient, whereas two thermoclines exist towards the twilight zone on the southern side. Secondly the topography involves a shear wall with enticing caves on the western side compared to a gradual incline on the south side. Both yield different results in terms of the biodiversity present, confirming the influence of the environment on the reef and thus inherently intriguing to us all. The water clarity however, is astounding at both sites > 50 m (164 ft) for sure.
To me diving takes me to a place that is without definition, and for fear of sounding corny or shooting for a plug, I can honestly say that using the Poseidon SE7EN is like a second skin! Feeling so free and nimble under the water is ideal for what we do. Everything runs like clockwork, yet to understand the true algorithms behind this technology is no easy feat. The bottom line is that there are more built-in safety tests in this electronically-controlled rebreather to ensure the optimal diving experience and comfort than anything before.
Greeted by my friend from the start, will he be there tomorrow?