Diving Into an Ocean in a Bottle

April 25, 2016

An ocean in the desert?

How?

What for?

This sounded like a myth to me.

It all started with my final assignment for my Environmental Journalism class with Carol Schwalbe, a retired National Geographic senior text editor. I found myself with an exciting idea that allowed me to channel my interests in science, scuba diving and photography — and a concern about the current bleaching event plaguing coral reefs around the world.

Over the past few weeks, it seemed every day a new article was being published about the record percentages of coral reef systems showing bleaching — a process that was killing them. Naturally (or not so), the Biosphere 2 ocean and its researchers seemed like a good entry point for me to begin asking questions.

I first visited Biosphere 2 to meet the people behind the ocean and to get a good sense of the "desert sea" itself. I also wanted to test out an old Nikonos IV, an underwater analog film camera I would potentially be using to capture images for an infographic for my feature story assignment. It turned out OK.

Two weeks later, the day to dive arrived.

My scuba gear was packed and a roll of film loaded into the old Nikonos. Planning to photograph the long-dead coral reef on this trip, I was pleasantly surprised and extremely fortunate to learn from Franklin Lane, the Biosphere 2 ocean projects technician, that Julia Cole, the new director of research for the Biosphere 2 ocean, also would be getting into the water that same day. Not only that, but there were also going to be a slew of volunteers working on the ocean. The tide seemed just right for the project.

Suited up in my wetsuit, I stepped onto the deck overlooking the ocean, gripping my weighty gear bag in my hand and my camera in the other. The sound of the wave maker expanding and compressing resembled that of waves crashing. I slowly pulled in a deep breath of moist ocean air and felt the oxygen rejuvenate my blood as I exhaled. It was go time.

I assembled my diving gear, and got help lifting it onto my back.

My body weight went from 70 pounds extra to weightless as I sank into the water and neutralized my weight. Peering through my window into the world below, it took me back to the sensations I felt on my certification dive in the San Diego bay. The sound of pulling breaths from my respirator rang in my ears and calmed my nerves. I was free to roam the depths of this desert ocean to my liking.

I glided effortlessly over the algae-covered rocks that once boasted vibrant coral reefs. It gave me a sobering image of what might become of our ocean's reefs should they continue to bleach and die at alarming rates. But my hope was restored as Cole and Lane discussed their plans to repair this system to a healthy, subtropical ecosystem in order to better understand the global bleaching crisis happening in similar climates.

As I wrapped up my day with a terrific interview with Cole about the dire state of the world's reefs, the nervousness of working on my first big story was giving way to excitement and gratitude. The gravity of the story and the opportunity I had been afforded washed over me like one of the artificial waves of the ocean pushing me forward toward my goal of telling this story.

As we were leaving, I climbed into the car with former Biosphere 2 post doctorate Dragos Zaharescu and journalist John de Dios, a photographer with whom I have been working in Environmental Journalism. I remembered how my late grandfather had gotten me started with photography. Playing with his old Canon and Nikon cameras, I never would have thought I would be spending a warm spring afternoon photographing a dead reef in an ocean inside a bottle in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.

Photography by John de Dios

Matthew C. Buster is a sustainable plant systems major at the University of Arizona. In January, he transferred to the UA from Yuma, Arizona, after having completed his first three years of college. He became a certified diver in November 2015 to help overcome a lifetime of being afraid of the many creatures in the ocean.

Watch a behind-the-scenes video, produced by John de Dios, of Buster as he dives into the Biosphere 2 ocean: