Life Aquatic

For Diana Garcia Benito, probing the ocean floor for undiscovered sea creatures was a lifelong dream. Her single-minded quest to get there became her greatest adventure.

Some 300 miles off Costa Rica’s Pacific shore and nearly 700 feet below the ocean’s surface, the deep-sea submersible enters a mysterious cloud, a thin layer of gelatinous mist. “Look!” the pilot commands. “Look up! We’re in a big bunch!” The foggy mass transforms into thousands of filmy bodies lunging in all directions above the capsule’s acrylic dome.

Each of the pinkie-size creatures has a tangle of flowing tentacles and a pair of googly eyeballs. The squid are fleeing from a lurking predator, likely a hammerhead shark, and seeing their ghostly forms vanish is like watching an IMAX movie from inside a gliding bubble. (Except, of course, this is the real thing).

After the last squid disappears into the abyss, the pilot, 28-year old Diana Garcia Benito, drops the sub toward a seamount, or underwater mountain, aiming to reach a depth of 1,000 feet. “Copy, copy,” she says into her headset. “We’re going down.”

She’s probing the underwater sanctuary surrounding Cocos Island, a far-flung national park and UNESCO World Heritage site that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Off its verdant shores, hammerheads gather by the hundreds—more reside here than anywhere else in the world. The sharks’ food source is constantly replenished as cold, nutrient-rich waters collide with a volcanic mountain range beneath the sea.

As the vessel approaches a nearby rock, Diana illuminates various guests with the sub’s light. The long and floppy aberration renowned for being half-eel, half-fish? This, Diana explains, is the jellynose. Over there are the pink anthias, their bony heads buried in the sand, presumably thinking nobody can see them (not the cleverest of ocean dwellers). A luminous blue creature that resembles a pulsating plastic bag drifts by and turns out to be a group of conjoined animals: a siphonophorae. “Each of the individuals has its own job,” Diana says. “One is for mating, one is for motion, one is for eating. They are all different parts of a body.”

The creatures down here seem eerie and otherworldly to most people, but to Diana, they don’t just belong—they’re begging to be understood.

Sixteen years before she became an undersea pilot, Diana was a 10-year-old girl digging mud pits in the mountains an hour south of Caracas, Venezuela. Her parents, Alvaro Garcia and Pili Benito, raised their three daughters in a secluded tropical forest with no electricity. Alvaro, an anthropologist, had constructed their home, “La Finca” (the farm), from mud, concrete, wood, and tile. Pili, a chef from Spain, prepared most of the family’s meals with fruits and vegetables from the family garden. They also kept birds, cats, dogs, and honeybees.

Growing up, Diana spent many days with her father maintaining La Finca, learning to repair doors, toilets, cars—anything that broke. After her siblings went away to school, she had no trouble entertaining herself. When she wasn’t leading solo expeditions in the jungle or playing MacGyver, she sought out new reading material, devouring books throughout the day: Aquaman comics, anything by Jules Verne, and a towering stack of National Geographic magazines—her “yellow library.” At night, by the light of a kerosene lamp, Alvaro would read to her from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Diana’s first exposure to the exiled submarine captain Nemo and his seafaring adventures. While her father read, Diana could hear the pitter-patter of gecko feet as they scampered across the roof, chasing some bug or spider. It was a sound she would never forget.

On special occasions she visited her grandmother’s house in Caracas to watch movies. The Little Mermaid was her favorite, though she couldn’t understand how Ariel could possibly want to live on land—all Diana wanted was to be a mermaid living in the sea. That was why she dug the mud pits. In her landlocked corner of Venezuela, swimming in sludge was the closest she could get.

In the distance, manta rays the size of kitchen tables and more hammerhead sharks on the hunt glide by.

Her fortunes changed when she turned 12 and accompanied Alvaro up the Orinoco River to stay with the indigenous Warao tribe as part of his fieldwork. They traveled for five days in dugout canoes on the outskirts of the Amazon. Diana cooed at playful pink dolphins and learned the pack-feeding habits of voracious piranhas lurking beneath the surface. During her time with the tribe, a fishing people who lived on stilted homes above a delta, she often went swimming. “In the water, I fell immediately in love,” she says. “Completely free, calm, amazed, disconnected from everything. I wanted to live underwater forever.”

Diana, 12 years old, on the Orinoco River with members of the Warao tribe.
Diana, 12 years old, on the Orinoco River with members of the Warao tribe.

Hundreds of miles away, tensions were building in Caracas. After a failed coup attempt on the regime of Hugo Chávez, the streets were clogged with strikes and protests in which 19 people were killed. When Chávez returned to power two days later, he expropriated unoccupied residences and announced he was giving them to the poor. One of those residences was a second home Diana’s father had painstakingly constructed in the jungle over the course of nearly a decade. The instability caused Alvaro to fear for his family’s safety. They fled to Spain without savings or work permits.

As the water level rises against the four inches of acrylic encasing the sub, Cocos Island fades from view. An orb of sunlight gleams and then dims at the surface, and the water turns from turquoise to azure to midnight blue. Diana reports the temperature, depth, cabin pressure, carbon dioxide level, and humidity. “All good,” she says, releasing more air from the buoyancy control device to take the sub farther down. This vessel—the “DeepSee” sub—is a $3 million, 17-ton submersible with a clamshell design offering 360-degree overhead views. Built to carry a pilot and two passengers to the final frontier of earthbound exploration, it’s also equipped with a high-definition camera and a sample-grabbing arm for scientific research.

At around 300 feet, Diana points out a finned silhouette working its way across the viewing window. Here, hammerheads behave more aggressively than in shallower waters. “They are actually here to hunt,” she says. On cue, the sleek body of the shark thrashes and picks up speed in pursuit of a squid, darting in one direction and then another. By the time the depth monitor reads 850 feet, the water is completely dark except for the glow of the sub’s light. Diana navigates down the steep slope of an extinct volcano made of basalt rock, dubbed “The Wall.” Moray eels peer out with mouths agape and dip back behind rocks like haunted-house employees. In the distance, manta rays the size of kitchen tables and more hammerhead sharks on the hunt glide by.

These waters are protected from fishing for 12 nautical miles surrounding the island, allowing plankton and other sea critters to thrive, and this in turn compels mammoth pelagic creatures like whale sharks and humpbacks to journey thousands of miles to the feast. Hammerheads are also drawn to the cleaning stations, deep-water areas where small fish cling to the sharks to nibble at their dead skin and parasites. As a result, Cocos National Park contains the largest biomass of predators of any Pacific tropical marine ecosystem.

Her family settled in an apartment near downtown Burgos. It was small and quiet, and strangely devoid of ants, Diana remembers.

While the huge schools of gleaming sharks and swirling jack fish have made the island one of the world’s top diving attractions, the mystique is not limited to its undersea environs. When heavy rains come, dozens of waterfalls surge and the island appears to cry. This source of fresh water—the only one for hundreds of miles—made Cocos Island a refuge for whalers and gold-toting pirates in the 1600s. According to legend, treasure is hidden within the dramatic cliffs and yawning caves, though numerous expeditions have failed to unearth anything.

The more attainable prize at Cocos is viewing undersea life, though at times that too can prove elusive. An ocean current is sweeping through, slowly pulling the sub away from The Wall and toward the abyss. Diana works the thrusters and studies her navigation systems, trying to maintain the sub’s position. If the sub is dragged too far, the rest of the dive will have to be aborted.

Diana arrived alone in Spain in January of 1996, the country’s coldest winter in a decade. Her parents sent her to live with an uncle until they made arrangements for their own move, eventually settling in an apartment near downtown Burgos. It was small and quiet, and strangely devoid of ants, Diana remembers.

She had always been a gifted student—she won several national academic prizes in Venezuela—but the education system in Spain was much more challenging. She enrolled in extra classes and stayed after school, earning a scholarship to the University of Cadiz, renowned for its marine science program. It was the only way she could afford to attend. She double-majored in marine science and environmental sciences, volunteered with the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, and won a yearlong scholarship to study marine biology in Portugal. During these years, nostalgic and yearning for adventure, Diana perfected a drawing of the gecko that scampered across the rooftop of her childhood home during story time. She had it tattooed on the back of her neck.

After graduating, she rarely heard back when she sent dozens of applications to research institutes and laboratories. When she did, she was told she didn’t have enough experience. She picked up an unpaid gig as a stenographer and pieced together a living as a waitress, dog walker, and house cleaner. She eventually moved in with her sister in England. In what seemed like a lucky break, she landed a scuba diving internship in the Dominican Republic, but upon arrival she discovered that the dive shop allowed tourists to take shells and touch the sea life—practices that caused environmental damage. “There was nothing there to see anymore,” she says. “Not even one shark.”

Still determined to pursue her dream, she quit and flew to Costa Rica, where a friend from Spain was living. She arrived with $100 in savings. She found a temporary job teaching science and eventually heard about a job opening for a submersible pilot with Undersea Hunter, a company that runs dive trips to Cocos Island. It was her shot at becoming a real-life Captain Nemo. When she applied, the curt response was the most disappointing setback yet. “Thanks for your interest,” the company wrote. “But we don’t work with women.”

Two decades earlier, Cindy Van Dover faced similar obstacles in trying to become one of the world’s first female submersible pilots. An accomplished oceanographer and biologist, she persisted for years before the all-male Alvin team would give her a chance. (The Alvin sub, operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was famously used to explore the Titanic wreckage in 1986.) Van Dover made countless dives, helped maintain the equipment, and literally wrote the manual on how to repair the sub. In 1989 she finally got the chance to earn her pilot’s license. Today, submersible pilots are still overwhelmingly male, but women are beginning to break through. The Chinese government is training two female pilots, as is the sub manufacturing company Triton Submarines LLC, in Vero Beach, Florida.

She reread Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, marveling at how her life could soon resemble it.

At Undersea Hunter, women had previously held jobs as dive masters, but they never lasted. The trips required being at sea for 10 days at a time, so the company felt that hiring another woman was risky. A month after getting the rejection letter, Diana scored an invite to the departing pilot’s going-away party thanks to a friend of a friend. There, she struck up a conversation with Shmulik Blum, the sub program’s director. They chatted about life at sea, and Diana told Blum how much she wanted the job. Blum was impressed with her resolve and promised to speak with his boss, Avi Klapfer.

Klapfer had doubts. How did she expect to do this job with no engineering background? Would she be able to live at sea for weeks on end? Diana explained how her dad had taught her to fix cars on La Finca, and how she had lived with the Warao tribe for nearly a month when she was 12.

“The Warao tribe?” Klapfer asked. He knew of the tribe and had canoed up that same river. He was stunned that Diana had spent time in such a remote place as a child. He gave her a training manual.

Diana studied on the bus, during breaks at the school, and in bed late at night, memorizing the entire thing. She reread Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, marveling at how her life could soon resemble it. To build strength, she exercised maniacally. Worried friends asked Diana what she would do if she didn’t get the job. “I’ll figure that out afterwards,” she told them.

She performed well at the weeklong tryout, and when the phone call from Blum came, she nearly fell out of a hammock. She was hired. “This is the job of my life,” she said.

With the sub hovering at 500 feet, some sunlight still penetrates. Diana turns out the lights, and creatures start to emerge. Slowly, fish drift in from the darkness and pass over the top of the sub. Their numbers steadily grow—first dozens, then hundreds, then a thousand, shining like dark, wriggling stars in an emerald-green firmament. “You see,” Diana says. “There is so much life here.”

Diana flips the lights back on. “I know a rock where we can find a little moray eel,” she says. This particular eel is an unknown species, still unnamed. “Let’s see if she’s around.”

The eel peeks out from a crevice and begins to hunt by the sub’s light, revealing the tiny cream-colored spots on its thin ribbon of a body. “This is the only specimen we have seen here,” Diana says. “The specialists in the U.S. are crazy about getting a sample, but I said, ‘I’m sorry. I love science, but I cannot do this.’ She’s the only one.”

In fact, many of the creatures Diana encounters at this depth are still unknown. She could someday be the one to remedy that: She’s currently working on a classification of all the deep-water fish near the island, and she recently contributed to her first scientific paper, on the discovery of a new species of frogfish off Mexico’s Socorro Island. She’s begun working toward a Ph.D.

At the end of the dive, as Diana guides the sub back to the surface, a shower of small, writhing crabs rains over it. They look like miniature helicopters, spinning downward like some kind of adorable plague. These crabs turn out to be a harbinger.

Two days later, millions of large, pelagic crabs drift to Cocos Island and surround the Undersea Hunter ship. It’s a red species nobody recognizes—members of the crew who have been coming to the island for 25 years have never seen anything like it. Along with the dive masters, Diana rushes for her mask and fins and leaps headfirst into the water. She swims toward the enigmatic crustaceans, laughing and screaming through her snorkel, gliding through the water like a mermaid.

Ashley Harrell writes for Lonely Planet, National Geographic Traveler, and Travel + Leisure. Send her a note at ashley.p.harrell@gmail.com.

Photography by Brian Skerry/National Geographic Creative

Originally Published November 2015