While Investigating Belize’s Great Blue Hole, Divers Made An Alarming Discovery

The Great Blue Hole of Belize, which is located off the coast of Belize, on the eastern coast of Central America, is one of such existing wonders. Researchers say this giant underwater sinkhole was made by the collapse of a cavern formed during the glacial ages tens of thousands of years ago. If you are up to the adventure and wonder of what is down there, join us in this expedition!

#21. History

More than 10,000 years ago, the rising waters at the end of the last great Ice Age led to a series of enormous caverns, which were engulfed by the Caribbean Sea. Geological forces created what is now known as Belize Blue Hole, a nearly perfectly circular expanse of sapphire water measuring 300 meters across and 125 meters deep.

Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

The Belize Blue Hole lies in the center of an offshore atoll called Lighthouse Reef, an island of coral 60 miles from the country’s capital, Belize City. Legendary marine biologist and documentarian Jacques Cousteau explored the Belize Blue Hole in the 1970s and declared it to be one of the top ten best dive spots on the planet. The Belize Blue Hole attracts divers from around the world due to the amazing experience of exploring enormous underwater stalactites and stalagmites and otherworldly beautiful passages in its depth.

#20. Central America

In the Continent of Central America, located between Mexico and Guatemala, sits the tropical country of Belize. Nowadays, Belize is naturally something of a tourist spot, and one of the most important ones and its rich biodiversity draws visitors from across the globe. But while the region’s jungles are home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, its brilliant blue waters are the real attraction.

Photo: Courtesy of Russell Harrison

The Great Blue Hole is a world-class destination for recreational scuba divers attracted by the opportunity to dive in crystal-clear waters and see myriad species of marine life including tropical fish and spectacular coral formations. The marine life in these areas includes nurse sharks, giant groupers, and several types of reef sharks such as the Caribbean reef shark and the Blacktip shark.

#19. Barrier Reef Reserve System

The world’s largest natural formation of its kind, the Great Blue Hole is part of the larger Barrier Reef Reserve System, a World Heritage Site of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Glyn Collinson, a NASA scientist who recently dived the Great Blue Hole, described it this way:

“It was the deepest, deep blue hole imaginable; A chasm that fell away deep into the deep, dark blue. It had been forged out of solid rock as caverns, hundreds of thousands of years ago during the last ice age”.

Photo: Courtesy of Max Pixel

Lighthouse Reef, Glover’s Reef and the Turneffe Islands are all distinct anomalies in the Caribbean. Nothing else in the Western Hemisphere resembles a true coral atoll. The ancient processes contributing to Belize’s atoll development may have begun as many as 70 million years ago. Curiously, the atolls did not develop around subsiding volcanoes. Instead, they originated atop giant fault blocks, made up of limestone covered ridges that settled in steps, providing a series of offshore platforms for coral growth.

#18. Last Ice Age

After the last ice age, with the slow rise of sea level, coral growth continued upward, creating the precipitous outer walls and the shallow inside lagoon that typifies these distinct formations. Many drop-offs surrounding the Belize atolls are thousands of feet deep, while depths in the shallow lagoons average 10 to 30 feet.

Photo: Courtesy of M. Gray97

Born in France in 1910, Cousteau was one of the pioneers of underwater exploration. What matters to us, though, is his 1971 expedition to the Great Blue Hole that put this stunning natural formation firmly on the map. On board his ship the Calypso, Cousteau embarked on a research trip to the sinkhole. And there he learned the story of how it had come to be. He discovered, for instance, that the Great Blue Hole consisted of karst limestone, created back when the sea was at a lower level than it is today.

#17. Great Blue Hole Stalactites

How did Cousteau and his team prove that? Well, they removed stalactites from caves within the Great Blue Hole. And according to researchers, these distinctive formations can only occur on dry land – meaning that the submerged caverns were not always underwater. Experts have also declared that sinkholes may be formed by natural processes such as erosion and rock dissolution.

Photo: Courtesy of Seann McAuliffe

It is a fact that the earth beneath the surface may get worn and then create vast caves. When the ceilings of those caves collapse, they may create distinctive circular holes in the ground. And even though the site is a popular diving location, visitors won’t go down more than 130 feet into the abyss. Below that, nobody knows what is to be seen.

#16. A New Mission

After Cousteau’s trip in 1970, nobody else dared to explore the Great Blue Hole. But in 2018, Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire businessman behind the Virgin Group, headed the effort. Back in 2011, in fact, Branson announced the Virgin Oceanic project. This series of private submarine expeditions aimed to explore the deepest parts of the globe’s oceans.

Photo: Courtesy of Seann McAuliffe

Organizers, though, scrapped the scheme three years later amid concerns about the safety of the 18-foot craft. In 2018, though, Branson was ready to follow in Cousteau’s footsteps once more. Virgin Voyages,  which is Branson’s cruise company, funded a once-in-a-lifetime expedition. This trip would see the first submersible dive in history to travel to the deepest reaches of the Great Blue Hole.

#15. Cousteau’s Grandson

What is more amazing is that Cousteau’s own grandson Fabien – a leading marine explorer and ocean conservationist in his own right – became part of the unique mission. Erika Bergman, a National Geographic Explorer with a background in oceanography and engineering, also joined the Aquatica vessel as the submarine pilot.

Photo: Courtesy of René Beauchamp

In a December’s 2018 post on Virgin’s website, Branson described Erika Bergman as a:

“Very calm and very experienced person, and who had enormous enthusiasm for the ocean. I think she could live underwater”.

Using two submarines, the expedition captured new images and footage inside the Blue Hole and created the first 3D map of its interior.

#14. Great Cave Perimeter

Around ten minutes after they submerged, the expedition found itself inching down the perimeter of the great cave. There, the whole team stumbled upon a mass of stalactites, which Branson described as “breathtakingly beautiful“. But as they descended further, the team realized that the landscape around them told an ominous tale.

Photo: Courtesy of Max Pixel

Erika Bergman, chief pilot, oceanographer and operations manager, told CNN Travel that

“We did our complete 360 sonar map and that map is now almost complete. It looks really cool, it’s this mesh-layered, sonar scan of the entire thousand-foot diameter hole.”

#13. 300 Feet Down

10,000 years ago the sea level rose by about 300 feet when a lot of ice melted all around the world. At 300 feet down the hole, you could observe the erosion of the rock that used to be land and had turned into sea. It was one of the strongest reminders of the danger of climate change that everybody in the expedition had ever seen.

Photo: Courtesy of Matt Kingston

Deeper down the hole, the expedition submarine came across a layer of hydrogen sulfide. Such substance is a poisonous, toxic gas that has formed in the hole over hundreds of years. On the other side of the layer, the explorer emerged into a scary underwater graveyard, where they did not expect to see any creatures alive at all, especially considering sulfide’s toxicity level.

#12. The Bottom

Branson’s testimony sheds light on the things that the crew discovered on their mission:

“”hen we got to the bottom, we could see crabs, conches and other creatures that had fallen into the hole, arrived on the bottom and then ran out of oxygen and died. As for the mythical monsters of the deep? Well, the real monsters facing the ocean are climate change – and plastic“, Branson said.

Photo: Courtesy of Wstera2

One of the things that humankind has to get rid of is single-use plastic. The sponsor of the 2018 expedition, Virgin Voyages, is currently leading the charge of eradicating single-use plastic, the reason for which the crew did not have any plastic on board the submarine. Back on the ship, there were teams of renowned scientists and geologists doing fascinating studies, including creating the first three-dimensional rendering of the Blue Hole.

#11. Blue Hole

KONGSBERG solar expert Mark Atherton wrote the following on the expedition’s company website:

By understanding the geological history and geometric structure at the Blue Hole, we can contribute new data to the scientific community studying sinkholes and cenotes“.

Photo: Courtesy of Greg Rose

The expedition was broadcasted live on Discovery Channel, and their filmmakers captured all the excitement and adventure while it was unfolding. As the explorers descended into the Great Blue Hole, viewers could watch the adventure in real time. But while the journey no doubts captured imaginations across the globe, Branson also took the opportunity to educate the public about plastics, and the dangers that they could pose to the future of our planet.

#10. First Man-Made Plastic

Parkesine is considered the first man-made plastic. The plastic material was patented by Alexander Parkes, in Birmingham, England in 1856.  Parkesine was made from cellulose treated with nitric acid as a solvent. The output of the process (commonly known as cellulose nitrate or pyroxylin) could be dissolved in alcohol and hardened into a transparent and elastic material that could be molded when heated

Photo: Courtesy of Max Pixel

So over the years, the world has continued to create more plastic in order to keep up with demand. As a matter of fact, people now create 300 million tons of this material each year, as the organization Plastic Oceans estimates. A worrying 50 percent of that is even allocated to disposable, single-use products that are quickly thrown away.

#9. Plastic Products

Plastic products are very common in our modern life. According to estimates, every year we use approximately 1.6 million barrels of oil just for producing plastic water bottles. Plastic waste is one of many types of wastes that takes too long to decompose. Normally, plastic items can take up to 1000 years to decompose in landfills.

Photo: Courtesy of Discovery

As early as the 1960s, in fact, concerns had begun to grow about the long-term impact of the plastic industry. From the 1970s onwards, recycling has become a big business that encourages consumers to reuse their waste. Yet despite this, we are still producing plastic at an alarming rate. In fact, in the past decade alone, the world has produced more plastic than all the amount created over the previous 100 years, according to Plastic Oceans.

#8. United Nations Environment Assembly

Sadly, over eight million tons of the material finds its way into our oceans each year, according to the United Nations Environment Assembly. And wherever it falls, it wreaks havoc. In fact, plastic waste in our seas is one of the major threats to marine life, including vulnerable species such as sea turtles and whales.

Photo: Courtesy of Discovery

Meanwhile, the material has been spotted in some of the world’s most remote locations. It has even been found on the ocean floor at depths of around three miles, and even in the Great Blue Hole’s deepest parts, as the expedition has reported. According to the Virgin boss, one of the solutions is to eliminate disposable, single-use plastics for good.

#7. Ocean Unite

Back in 2015, Virgin Unite established Ocean Unite – an organization dedicated to conserving our seas. By bringing some of the world’s best thinkers together, then, it hopes to foster positive change for the future of our planet. They support key global events, build and create new business relationships, engage a growing global audience, and disrupt the status quo when necessary.

Photo: Courtesy of Discovery

One of the most important goals of the Ocean Unite initiative is 30X30, as they intend to protect 30% of the sea by 2030. While world leaders are beginning to recognize the importance of Ocean to Earth’s survival, much work is needed if humanity is to move from recognition to action, catalyzing change and delivering concrete, positive Ocean conservation outcomes.

#6. World Leaders

Currently, the world’s leaders have agreed on a target to protect ten percent of our marine environments by 2020. However, Ocean Unite believes that this isn’t enough to safeguard the diversity and resilience of underwater ecosystems across the globe. Furthermore, Ocean Unite wants to establish marine reserves and create regions where ruinous practices such as mining and fishing are banned.

Photo: Courtesy of The Asahi Shimbun

Marine reserves can help reduce and buffer the impacts of climate change on the Ocean, and they can help to rebuild species’ abundance and diversity, restoring and restocking marine life. They are the best tool we have to help the Ocean regenerate. Marine reserves must be declared around the world, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and everywhere in between, covering at least 30% of our Ocean by 2030.

#5. Plastic Bags

Nonetheless, other steps are being taken to fight damaging waste across our planet. In fact, back in 2002 Bangladesh became the first country to implement a ban on certain plastic bags. And in October 2018 the European Union voted to outlaw all single-use plastics from 2021 onwards.

Photo: Courtesy of Discovery

According to the website Reusethisbag, in the United States, only two states have completely banned plastic bags: Hawaii and California. All five Hawaiian islands (Big Island, Honolulu, Kauai, Maui, and Pala) individually banned plastic bags at various points, the last of which took effect in 2015. The bans, which aim to fully phase in by 2020, range in definition and severity, but generally still allow for the use of 100% recyclable plastic bags.

#4. Bans

In San Jose, California, for instance, a ban was put into place in 2012 — and since then, there has been an 89% reduction in plastic bags in storm drains, a 60% reduction in creeks and rivers, and a 59% drop in residential plastic waste. In nearby San Francisco (ban enacted in 2007), the city has saved a reported $600,000 per year in plastic processing fees alone.

Photo: Courtesy of F. Cousteau

California, on the other hand, passed a unilateral, state-wide ban in September of 2014, and it went into effect in November of 2016. The law bans single-use plastic bags at all large retailers and imposed a 10-cent charge for paper bags. Before the law was passed, more than 100 California counties already had various bans in place.

#3. International Bans On Plastic

America is far from being the most progressive country when it comes to plastic bag bans. At least 32 countries around the world have plastic bag bans in place — and nearly half are in Africa, where plastic bags frequently clog drains, leading to increased mosquito swarms (and, as a result, bouts of malaria).

Photo: Courtesy of Reciclado Creativo

In China, plastic bag waste was so bad that it led to the coining of the term “white pollution”. A full ban was adopted in 2008 — and since then, plastic bag waste has dropped by 60% to 80%, an effective reduction of some 40 billion bags. The country does, however, still face enforcement issues. And in India, where an estimated 20 cows per day die from plastic ingestion, a ban has been in effect since 2002.

#2. Taxes

Some 18 countries also have taxes in place, which have proved to be a viable alternative to a full ban. In Ireland, a 22c plastic bag tax has reduced usage by as much as 90%. Portugal has seen a drop in excess of 85%. And since imposing a tax in 2003, Denmark has seen the lowest plastic usage in Europe, with an average of just 4 bags per person, per year.

Photo: Courtesy of NASA

Globally, as many as 160,000 plastic bags are used every second — and currently, only 1 to 3% of them are recycled. This simply isn’t sustainable behavior. The easiest and most affordable thing you can do is purchase reusable grocery bags, and the most important thing: they last more than 12 minutes.

#1. Future

Branson also wrote on the Virgin website

“I also wanted to see the reefs up close and personal myself so went for an exhilarating scuba dive and saw an incredible array of fish and ocean life thriving. Long may it continue”.

Finally, he highlighted the importance of tackling climate change – another of the huge threats facing our planet today.

Photo: Courtesy of Max Pixel

On his last message in the post, Branson said: “My grandchildren will be in their thirties by 2050. I don’t want them to grow up in a world without corals, without the wonders of the ocean. We need governments to act now to protect at least 30 percent of the ocean by $2030 and reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible with a goal of zero net emissions by 2050″.

  • About Author

    Luke H.

    Certified Translator recently graduated at the Universidad de Buenos Aires.
    Gamer. Bookworm.

    What we do in life echoes in eternity.

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