(L) Marine scientist Deo Onda beside “Limiting Factor,” the submersible he and explorer Victor Vescovo used to descend into the Emden Deep. (R) “Limiting Factor” underwater. Collage: VICE / Images: Courtesy of Deo Onda, Caladan Oceanic, and Verola Media
When traveling to a previously unexplored portion of Earth, you might expect to find any number of things. Strange plants, neon sea creatures, maybe even aliens? In the Emden Deep, however, marine scientist Deo Onda found a teddy bear.“We saw it from the window [of the submersible]. First we saw eyes and thought it was a creature, but no, it was a teddy bear,” Onda told VICE.
At about 10,400 meters down the ocean, the Emden Deep, off the coast of Siargao Island in the Philippines, is the third-deepest point on Earth. No person had ever been to the Emden Deep, a part of the Philippine Trench, until March, when Onda and American undersea explorer Victor Vescovo touched down at 10,045 meters deep during the first crewed descent into the spot. Born and raised in Brooke’s Point, Palawan, Onda is no stranger to the water, but he said he never dreamed of becoming a marine scientist. “I didn’t know that something like that existed. When people asked us what we wanted to become, the usual answer was medical doctor, priest, or policeman,” he said, adding that his parents let him play around nature a lot, which helped instill in him a real appreciation for the environment early in life. “I always knew I was interested in science but I didn’t know how to get there. At the time, there was just no figure, no model to look at.”
Today, he’s a full-time microbial oceanographer. He studies marine microorganisms like bacteria and plankton, how they interact with the ocean, and how they ultimately affect aspects of everyday human life. From permits and logistical arrangements, to physical testing and clearance, preparing to dive down the third deepest point in the world could take a few good months, if not more, but Onda said he didn’t know he was meant to do the actual diving until much later. “I thought they were only inviting me to observe from the boat, to see how they do it, not to actually dive down,” he said. It was only while undergoing medical tests a month before the excursion did he realize that he’d be a part of it. “Oh, wait. I’m meant to dive with the submersible,” he remembered thinking. Even then, he didn’t think anybody would care very much. “I didn’t even tell my parents or girlfriend about it.”Onda rode a submersible, called “Limiting Factor,” along with its owner Vescovo. The entire expedition took 12 hours—four hours to descend, four hours to explore, and four hours to get back to the surface. “I was awake the entire time,” Onda recalled. “When you get to 12 hours, you realize how tiring it is. We’re asked to fast and limit liquid consumption the day before, because there’s no toilet in the submersible. I also couldn’t sleep the night before because I was so excited.”
He said that the journey “feels like you’re going up Baguio,” a mountain region in the Philippines. He explained that the tech in the submersible is so advanced that it made the journey comfortable. Aside from losing light and gaining air pressure, the biggest change was the temperature. It was 35 to 37 C on the surface but 2 to 5 C on the way down. He and Vescovo wore winter clothes, boots included.
As they descended, Onda saw everything he had studied come to life. “I was like a kid watching a fantasy turn into reality.”But reality quickly interrupted this fantasy. Apart from the random teddy bear, they saw many other objects not meant to be under the sea. As he and Vescovo got closer to the western wall of the trench, they saw something floating. It was white, and they thought it was a jellyfish; it was a plastic bag. “We let out a sigh, and then there was a long silence,” Onda remembered. It was the first of many pieces of plastic they found. “There was really so much of it. Plastic wrappers, bags for chips, all that,” he said. Onda remembered Vescovo looking at him to say, “I’m sorry to tell you, Deo, but this is one of the dirtiest trenches I’ve ever been to.”Onda said hearing that was disheartening, especially because it happened in the Philippines. “It was like waking up from a dream,” he said. “The plastic was a manifestation of our life on Earth. We were the first humans there [in the Emden Deep], but human contamination was there long before us.”
We hear of turtles stuck in plastic rings and dolphins dying because of plastic waste but these animals live closer to the surface. According to Onda, plastic sinking as far down as the Emden Deep can have unknown effects. “Sinking means [the plastic] can reach other organisms. The problem is we don’t understand the repercussions,” he said. “The ocean, it’s all connected, and we’re connected to it. It’s a succession. I’m very concerned.”
Having grown up so close to nature, Onda feels strongly for the state of the ocean and how it affects people, especially children. He wonders if they’re experiencing the same childhood he did, playing in abundant nature. “It’s our moral obligation to make sure the environment our kids grow up in is the same one we had,” he said.Onda did not have a scientist to look up to when he was a kid, no figure to get people to care and prevent the mistakes that led to trash sinking into the deepest trenches of the ocean, but he could be that figure for Filipinos today. “Why are Filipinos interested in this story? It’s so far, why would they care? It’s because there was a Filipino there. There was a connection. Hopefully, that connection translates into care,” Onda said. “I hope they realize that this is not just a fantasy of discovering something. The deep sea is part of our heritage, and we need to protect it.”Follow Romano Santos on Instagram.