National Geographic


Expedition Journal

Visitors View the Sub

Jacquinot Bay, New Britain Island, Papua New Guinea

This morning, Captain Stuart Buckle eased the 2,000-ton Mermaid Sapphire to within 400 yards (366 meters) of the Cape Jaquinot shore. The ship was so close we could see the trunks of big trees, the smoke of a cook fire, and the blue shadows of the coral reef. For the experienced sea captain, the move was as safe as parking a car—no wind or waves and a seafloor so steep he had 500 feet (152 meters) of water beneath the keel of his ship.

Within minutes, a small flotilla of outrigger canoes approached the Sapphire. The Papua New Guineans slid their slim boats off the beach and paddled them out to us as if they had been born to the blade. When they arrived in the lee of the big red ship they stopped and looked upward, as curious about us as we were about them. They stared at our white superstructure, big cranes, and satellite dome and wondered why we had come. We stared at their fragile wooden craft and felt the centuries slip backwards.

A short time later, Rich Robles and Sako Palagin brought the small black Zodiac up to the ship’s port side and Rob McCallum and six Papua New Guineans came on board the ship. Rob is our Papua New Guinea logistics coordinator. As a young boy, he spent four years in this country and learned to speak Tok Pissan, the shared language of Melanesia. As a young man, he returned to work on a U.N. conservation project. “The people of this part of the island are a combination of fishers, hunter-gathers, and farmers,” he told me. “They’ve been here for at least 30,000 years and have a special relationship with the natural world. The ocean gives them fish and shellfish and the land yields taro, yams, figs, and sweet potatoes. This is a coastal tribe that knows the meaning of bounty.”

On the main deck, Rob introduced the visitors to Jim, who invited them into the hanger to see the sub. They walked through a side door into the cool white space that houses the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, stared at the long green object lying on its back, and leaned in to get a better view of blinking battery lights and black thrusters. Two men followed Jim up the ladder to the starboard side of the crew sphere. The older man, Eric, was the chief of the local tribe. The younger man, Michael, spoke English.

“I go in there,” said Jim, pointing to the open hatch. The two men peered down into the spherical, instrument-jammed space and nodded slowly.

“I go under the ocean,” he continued. The old man and the young man looked at each other in silence. Then they started making a soft clicking sound with their tongues. The air between them vibrated in an older-than-language expression suggesting something akin to awe.

Written by Dr. Joe MacInnis

Photograph by Joe MacInnis

Science Partners

  • Additional major support provided by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  • NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • University of Guam