To reach seamount expedition, the ride of a lifetime

© Conservation International/photo by Mónika Naranjo González

Editor's note: Greg Stone is on his way to take part in a National Geographic expedition to explore seamounts off the coast of Costa Rica.

As Continental’s Boeing 737 touches down late evening on the runway of San José’s airport, I realize I have finally made it to Costa Rica, but sadly 12 hours too late! I was delayed due to a missed flight from Los Angeles, and spent two frustrating days waiting for another one. The research vessel Argo, with the rest of our team and equipment, has departed without me; I have quite literally “missed the boat.”

The expedition’s main goal is to explore a seamount located over 300 miles [483 kilometers] off shore. To do this we have chartered Argo which operates a submarine, named Deep See, that will take us down to a depth of 1,500 feet [460 meters] to survey the summit and sides of this underwater mountain. We also have a robot to help with this work, called a remotely operated vehicle (ROV).

The combined costs per day for these assets are significant, so the team was forced to head off shore on schedule, to achieve our objectives with the precious 10-day charter. Each day counts and is critical to success. In order to get me to the ship, we have chartered yet another vessel, the storied Undersea Hunter, which will provide me, the sole passenger, with the most luxurious oceanic taxi ride of a lifetime.

Outside the airport, a man named Marco holds a sign with my name; bleary-eyed from travel and many hours waiting in airports, I greet Marco with a smile and my few words of Spanish, which match his few words of English. Thus, the three-hour drive to the coast is pleasant, albeit silent, as we occasionally look and smile at each other, unable to share a common language. The nighttime world of rural Costa Rica — restaurants, bars, farms, small homes, dimly-lit stores, people walking — all of it flashes past my window, as I drift in and out of sleep. The air is acrid from fires.

A bump in the road jars me awake; it’s now just after 1 a.m. I see the lights of the dock shining on the white hull of the 90-foot [27-meter] Undersea Hunter, as she sits patiently upon the still waters of the estuary of Punta Arenas, which connects us to the Gulf of Nicoya, and the vast beautiful Pacific Ocean beyond. Undersea Hunter is a live-aboard dive vessel that I have long heard about; she pioneered diving around the spectacular Cocos Island. This boat was one of the very first vessels to take people from all walks of life to some of the most amazing undersea places on Earth — places that had only previously been visited and dived by scientists, explorers and the likes of Jacques Cousteau.

I feel like Jason Bourne, as I am the sole person boarding this large vessel at such a late hour under cover of darkness, off a remote side road in Costa Rica; it feels very clandestine. Since I am the only passenger, I have my pick of her 10 cabins. The captain jokes that I can move every two hours into a new cabin if I like. I can tell the crew has never taken only one person such a long distance — especially departing at this time of night, it all feels like something from a movie. But this is the only way for me to get out to our research site and join the team to accomplish our mission.

I drop my dive gear with a thump on the aft deck, the crew stores it, and they show me to Cabin 5. There I fall into a lovely double bed, and just before sleep overtakes me, I hear the engines rumble to a start, a few calls from the crew as they loosen dock lines, and we are underway.

Greg Stone is CI’s chief scientist for oceans. This expedition is supported in part by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1114251. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.