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Seen from above, the Blue Hole of Belize is incredibly beautiful, like a sapphire pool contrasting with the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea surrounding it. But what does it look like inside? Is there some kind of monster lurking beneath? A research team recently fully explored its depths for the first time in history. But what they found at the bottom horrified everyone.
Fabien Cousteau is a world-famous deep-sea explorer with a passion for ocean conservation. From assessing underwater Civil War shipwrecks to swimming with and documenting sharks up close and personal, he's done it all. In 2018, he set sail for the Caribbean Sea, eager to explore the fabled Blue Hole. The expedition bore a special personal resonance for him and defied all his expectations.
Fabien Cousteau's grandfather was Jacques Cousteau, one of the world's most famous undersea explorers. Jacques came to the Blue Hole in 1971, claiming it to be one of the top five diving spots on Earth. But the tools he had used were not as advanced as the ones his grandson now possessed, and he could only get a brief peek. Now, it was time to thoroughly map and explore its depths. And Fabien had one legendary figure at his side on the mission.
The person was none other than the Virgin Group tycoon and conservationist, Sir Richard Branson. Back in 2006, Branson announced that he would allocate $3 billion of the profits from his business empire to fight global warming. It was his passion for the environment that led him to join the dive trip. Branson and Fabien, along with some scientists, made the voyage in their trusty submarine. Little did they know that their discovery would leave the scientific world aghast.
Unlike prior expeditions, this one was expected to be the deepest venture into Belize's Blue Hole. The unexplored interior of the hole left tantalizing mysteries about its geological and biological history. Branson dubbed the mission as "planetary inner space." The high profile of the participants only increased the intrigue surrounding it. Their descent into the hole would be broadcast live across the world on the Discovery Channel. With cameras rolling, the submarine sped along.
After descending in their submarine for about 10 minutes, the team began to skirt the wall of the Blue Hole. It looked almost like the side of a crater that had been created from the impact of a celestial body. But, when they were able to see it up close, they realized the Blue Hole had been created by totally different forces.
As they headed toward the bottom of the Blue Hole, the visibility began to dissipate. Through the submersible light, they noticed an entire complex of hanging cave stalactites. These dangling formations could only be possible in a cave structure that had once been situated on dry land and created through the dripping of water. But why had they ended up submerged beneath the 420-foot deep ocean?
After a massive ice melt at the end of the last major Ice Age, waters in the Caribbean Sea had risen so dramatically that they swamped vast swaths of land. At 300 feet beneath the surface, the team noticed the shift in the color and variation of the formation that clearly demarcated rock formed underwater from rock formed on land. For Branson, the presence of these cave stalactites was “one of the starkest reminders of the danger of climate change.” But more than that, it could potentially solve one of history’s greatest mysteries.
Before the team's journey, a group of researchers from Louisiana State University and Rice University visited the Blue Hole and took samples of stalactites. The samples, dating back to between 800 and 1000 CE, showed unusually low levels of titanium and aluminum, elements usually worn out of rocks and taken into the sea by tropical storms. This means that the decline of the Maya civilization in Belize had likely been marked by a terrible drought. But what Branson and his team found next marked a more modern calamity.
Close to the bottom of the Blue Hole, the team ran into something no creature could have been able to survive: a deadly 20-foot thick layer of hydrogen sulfide. They measured the oxygen levels and checked the water’s quality. Beneath the hydrogen sulfide were many carcasses of crabs, conchs, and other organisms that had been stuck inside and died of oxygen deprivation. But there was something more terrible up ahead.
Finally, after passing through the mire of the hydrogen sulfide, their submarine reached the bottom of the Blue Hole. All team members were thrilled to see what the bottom of the hole looked like. They would finally be able to properly map this unique geological stunner. As it turned out, there were no monsters at the bottom of the Blue Hole. But they found something much scarier than monsters.
As they mapped out the base of the hole, the team realized just how deceiving appearances can be. From above, the Blue Hole looks like a beautiful, pristine wonder of nature. But deep inside, it is a massive garbage dump. Plastic bottles, covered in dirt, littered the whole base of the Blue Hole. The scene made all aboard sad and disgusted.
What had started out as an expedition to map the Blue Hole turned out to be a harsh reminder that plastic pollution had wreaked havoc in the sea. The pollution that we humans had created was the real monster in the Blue Hole! If action was not taken as soon as possible, discarded plastic and other human-generated waste would surely engulf the rest of the ocean, endangering the ecosystem.
Sir Richard Branson was so prescient that even before the sobering discovery in the Blue Hole, he had contacted the officials of Belize. The mogul hoped to convince them to place 10% of Belize’s national territorial waters under protection and to ban gill nets that damage marine ecosystems. Thankfully, when he was back on land, the officials of Belize agreed to his proposal. In 2019, Belize pledged to phase out single-use plastic. As for Branson, he went on to take a bold step.
After seeing what was at the bottom of the Blue Hole, Sir Richard Branson knew he had to take action to help save the environment, starting with changing the way he managed his own enterprises. Under his leadership, his airline companies have now pledged themselves to stop using single-use plastic on their flights. Meanwhile, he’s devoted to raising people’s environmental awareness, together with celebrities
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