A Transformative Deep-Sea Odyssey

Ocean Voices Fellow, Sergio Cambronero, celebrates the success of the Octopus Odyssey project, an inclusive and groundbreaking deep-sea expedition off the coast of Costa Rica, revealing new species and emphasizing the importance of involving local voices in scientific research for positive policy impact.

I am returning home with a grateful heart and soul after a successful expedition of the Octopus Odyssey project, a landmark research project that took place between June and December 2023 in the middle of the Pacific Ocean waters of Costa Rica.

Falkor too anchored in Golfito, Costa Rica at the ending of expedition. Credit: Diva Amon
Falkor too anchored in Golfito, Costa Rica at the ending of expedition. Credit: Dr Diva Amon

As I write this, I am surrounded by the blue-green lush of Golfo Dulce in Costa Rica, enjoying my very last day at Falkor too, Schmidt Ocean Institute’s state-of-the-art deep sea research vessel. Over the last 20 days, we have been exploring the deep waters of Costa Rica, collecting data and the most astonishing footage you could ever imagine coming from our planet. 

The objective of these two expeditions was to study a relatively unexplored area 150 miles offshore the pacific coast of Costa Rica. In this area, enigmatic hydrothermal circulation has been detected on the seafloor, supporting rare ecosystems where we have found two of the only five known octopus nurseries in the world thriving at approximately 3000 meters deep.  

Octopus nursery at El Dorado. Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute
Octopus nursery at El Dorado. Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

While these expeditions hold a special place in my heart, they are also relevant to advancing the world’s scientific knowledge of the deep-sea and how to advance the scientific community to work towards more open, equitable and just frameworks for ocean stewardship.  

I have tried to capture the main scientific findings of the expedition, showcasing why I believe this has been one of the most important expeditions that has happened in Costa Rica since the Challenger expeditions back in the 19th century: 

  • Muusoctopus nurseries off Costa Rica supporting baby octopuses all year-round, thriving at 3000m deep. At least four new species of deep-sea octopuses have been identified, which is unprecedented in this small area. 

  • Seamount networks acting as conduits for ocean water, filtering through the ocean floor, absorbing heat from the crust, and venting as warm hydrothermal "springs" at specific locations. 

  • The Tengosed Seamount was revealed as a skate nursery with hundreds of eggs and pregnant skates. 

  • The water column above hydrothermal springs hosting diverse marine life, including giant phantom jellies and black swallower fish. 

  • Nearly 160 deep-sea animal specimens were collected, enriching the University of Costa Rica's Museum of Zoology. 

  • This was the first comprehensive study done in Central America integrating the dynamics of the water column and its association to the seafloor. 

  • Hundreds of hours of 4K footage that will be used to report new faunal interactions, behaviors and distribution of animals in the deep waters of Costa Rica. 

  • Sampling and retrieval of 4 whale fossils, coming from a potential unknown extinct species of beaked whale. 

  • Evidence of areas in which sediment from the Miocene (15 million years old) is exposed on the seafloor surface. 

  • A proposal to national authorities and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) to assign official names to 13 seamounts/features. 

  • Last but not least, a collaborative approach to including local voices in the planning, design and implementation of the deep-sea research expedition. 

Since the deep-sea is such a remote and extreme environment, not all countries have the resources needed to conduct research in this environment. Often, it is countries in the Global North which are able to dedicate the necessary funding to support such research. This has been the reality for many years, which has led to “parachute science”, where scientists from developed countries visit unexplored areas, collect data and conduct research in developing nations without involving the local voices in the design of the research. This is devastating for the local heritage and economies, since the resources, outcomes and results of such research remain locked away from the people that truly own the right to the resources being investigated. 

Personally, the most important result of this project and something that I am very grateful for is the fact that it has shown that doing science in a truly inclusive way is possible.  

My main roles were processing oceanographic data and samples. Here I am photographing an Octopus. Credit: Dr Diva Amon
My main roles were processing oceanographic data and samples. Here I am photographing an Octopus. Credit: Dr Diva Amon

Lots of scientific discoveries, data collection and sampling have happened thanks to a multidisciplinary team of experts from all around the globe, mainly composed of women and early career researchers, led by two incredible people I admire: Dr. Beth Orcutt and Dr. Jorge Cortés. They have successfully envisioned and coordinated a comprehensive expedition that has leveraged both science and communication. The expedition is based on a framework designed by a team of international scientists, from different cultures, and backgrounds, that are committed to elevate the local voices of Costa Rican scientists and are involving us through a collaborative process. 

This is the type of science that can easily become translated to policy. When you involve stakeholders from the genesis of a project, the impacts and results reach beyond scientific papers for the academic world and result in positive change. 

As for me, this is the case for the Octopus Odyssey. Even though the expedition has ended, the most important part has just begun. This time, led by the local young voices, we aim to take all this knowledge and showcase it to the entire world at the next United Nations Ocean Conference, co-hosted by Costa Rica and France in 2024-2025. 

Many things remain to be defined, but one thing is certain, the redefinition of deep-sea science as a space for inclusivity for the new generations to come. I am sure this expedition will act as a model for others in the future, as a source of inspiration for all people wanting to study the deep ocean around the world, to truly think about pathways for science to be translated into policy that reflects the needs of all stakeholders. 

Octopus Odyssey team. Credit: Connor Ashleigh/Schmidt Ocean Institute
Octopus Odyssey team. Credit: Connor Ashleigh/Schmidt Ocean Institute

Author: Sergio Cambronero

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