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Salas y Gómez: Tiny Speck of Land in a Vast Ocean

After a 20-hour crossing, we arrive at the tiny, rocky speck of land that is Salas y Gómez Island. We drop cameras in transparent spheres to probe the depths, don masks, tanks and fins for our first dive into the waters of Chile’s remote and spectacular new marine park.
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Salas y Gómez Island
By Enric Sala
The Navy’s speakerphone system woke us up at 7:30 a.m. Sleep was light last night because the boat rocked for awhile, and we feared bad weather. Because Salas y Gómez is so small (only 700 meters–less than half a mile–long) we will only be able to dive under calm sea conditions. Any swell or wind-caused wave will cause breaking waves near the island–the only obstacle that the sea encounters for hundreds of miles in any direction. But as we left our cabins on the lower deck and climbed the stairs to the outer deck, our fears were extinguished. There was a little swell, typical of the high seas, and little waves caused by a warm wind; we should be able to dive.
We saw Salas y Gómez when we were about 16 kilometers or 10 miles away from it: a dark, rugged line breaking the horizon. Three kilometers or about two miles before reaching the island, we dropped three deep-sea cameras–“dropcams”–to depths between 150 meters and 600 meters. Eric Berkenpas, a genius from National Geographic’s Remote Imaging department, brought these cameras. They can descend to full ocean depth–12 kilometers! Here we will drop them to a maximum depth of about 3 kilometers.
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Eric Berkenpas preps a deep-sea camera before it is dropped into the water
The dropcams are transparent spheres the size of a giant basketball, packed with electronics, including LED lights and a high-definition video camera. Equipped with reflectors to increase the area of the seafloor lit by the LED lights, they look like the probes that NASA has sent to explore the most remote confines of our solar system.
Like those spaceships, the dropcams will take images of unexplored worlds. Where they’re going in the deeper waters off Salas y Gómez, sunlight is unknown. The cameras will return to the surface six hours after we drop them to the seafloor and we don’t know what they will find.
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Close-up of dropcam
At 1:30 pm we made it to our day’s ultimate destination.. Salas y Gómez is one of the wildest places I’ve seen and certainly the smallest remote island I’ve ever been to. On the southern side, waves were crashing on the tiny speck of land, but the northern side–the lee side today–it was calm. We pulled on our scuba gear and dove there.
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Enric Sala gears up for a dive
The water was very clear, with at least 30 meters of visibility. The bottom was quite flat, with some bumps here and there, all covered by abundant, healthy coral, and many sea urchins. We saw five sharks, all smaller than 1.5 meters (five feet).
This first dive was a test dive. All equipment works, and we came back to the ship safely. I’m relieved. Now we only need to continue with our diving safety protocols and ensure that we will all come back home in one piece–full of data and images to captivate people’s imaginations.
Tomorrow we’ll report on the first full day of work: three scuba dives, exploration of the seafloor with an underwater remotely operated vehicle, and more deployments of the dropcams. We get so excited about what’s coming, and fall asleep like tired babies, after many months of anticipation.
Photos by Ford Cochran

The science team will share frequent updates and media from the expedition, including photographs, videos and links to Google maps, here on the National Geographic News Watch blog. You can also follow the expedition on Google Earth by clicking on the blue ship icon located where the expedition begins near Easter Island, roughly 2,000 miles (3,300 km) northwest of Santiago, Chile. (Make sure the “Places” layer is turned on).

National Geographic and Oceana are members of Mission Blue
View all dispatches from the Salas y Gómez expedition here