Nicole Yamase visited the Challenger Deep trench, which lies nearly 11km below the surface

It is a place that has been visited by fewer people than have flown to the moon – pitch black, 11km down, the last frontier.

In March 2021, Nicole Yamase became the first Pacific Islander, the third woman, and, at 29, the second-youngest person to visit Challenger Deep, the deepest known part of the Mariana Trench.

The roughly 50km-long, 6km-wide Challenger Deep lies within the territorial waters of Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and FSM president David Panuelo said it was “fitting that a Micronesian has finally seen the bottom of the Challenger Deep”, adding that Yamase’s work was “awe-inspiring in its importance and breathtaking in its beauty”.

Yamase took personal mementoes into the submersible for the 10-hour mission, which took her nearly 11km below the ocean’s surface. They included the FSM flag, a traditional mwaramwar cowry shell necklace, and a small model wooden canoe, a gift from her father and symbol of her navigator heritage.

She said the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore the depths of the ocean that sustained her ancestors, made her feel more connected to her culture and appreciate the complementary nature of science and traditional knowledge.

“Our ancestors were scientists from the very beginning. They observed and collected data … they tested and tried new things,” she said.

Yamase grew up in Palau, Saipan and Chuuk and Pohnpei, and is now studying a PhD on the effects of climate change on macroalgae and nearshore marine plants at the University of Hawaii.

The expedition was organised by deep sea explorer Victor Vescovo, owner of the DSSV Pressure Drop, a support ship used to transport the DSV Limiting Factor, the only Triton 36000/2 submersible built to dive to full ocean depth (nearly 11,000m).

Vescovo is on a mission to map the seafloor. He also wants to expand access to independent scientists and inspire tomorrow’s explorers. He said it was important having a Micronesian scientist make the journey, given Challenger Deep lies in FSM’s territorial waters, adding: “I think more women need to be involved in science.”

To reach Challenger Deep Yamase first flew to Guam where she joined the roughly 30-person crew of the Pressure Drop for the daylong journey to the southernmost part of the Mariana Trench.

On the morning of the dive, Yamase wriggled into the confines of Limiting Factor, seated beside Vescovo for the descent to the seafloor.

Surrounded by oxygen tanks and blinking control panels, there would be no bathroom break for ten hours but the ship’s Austrian chef insisted they follow tradition and bring his apple strudel along as a snack.

During the four-hour descent to and ascent from the seafloor, Vescovo and Yamase kept the mood light by listening to music (ABBA) and watching movies (Blue Planet).

Although a myriad of mysterious sea creatures inhabit the depths, Yamase described Challenger Deep as akin to a desert or moonscape where “marine snow” – tiny particles of organic material – float down from above. They also spotted waste – pieces of rope – on the seabed.

Increasingly, the seafloor is a place of competition and potential conflict as industrialised nations and corporations eye deep-ocean resources with plans to extract mineral-rich polymetallic nodules in what remains largely uncharted territory.

Yamase hopes her experience will inspire Pacific Islander women to pursue STEM and higher education. “If I can do it,” she said, “they can do it too.” And while women traditionally stayed near the shore, she called her experience a way to break gender boundaries and expectations.

“We belong on shore,” said Yamase. “We belong all the way at the bottom, and everywhere in between too.”

This story was produced by Jon Letman, originally published at The Guardian on 03 April 2021.

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