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It gets colder and colder with every minute that passes. The silence is almost spooky, and then there is the impenetrable darkness. Until Jürgen Schauer flicks on the headlights, that is. And suddenly he finds himself in a world teeming with life – in an indescribable array of magnificent colours. An electrical engineer by trade, Schauer is more than 100 metres below the surface of the sea. Below, around and above him fish flit back and forth, while a few metres away corals sway gently in the current. Looking back, he describes situations like this – which he experienced a few years ago off the coast of Norway – as the most emotional moments of his research career. He had never expected so much beauty and vitality at a depth of one hundred metres.
The size of a Smart and weighing just three tons
Revelations like this can only be achieved thanks to Jago. That is the name of Germany’s only manned research submersible. Jürgen Schauer helped build it more than 25 years ago, and today it belongs to the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research. Schauer is Jago’s technical coordinator and chief submersible pilot. The research craft is not much bigger than a Smart car, weighs just three tons and can dive to a depth of 400 metres. At such depths, Jago allows scientists to discover and research a largely alien and still unknown world. Little is still known about some cold-water corals that live in the deep sea. The submersible allows researchers to study the incredible diversity of cold-water coral species.
What is the impact of CO2 emissions on the seas?
Schauer and his colleagues are also keen to research the environmental conditions and symbiotic communities in the world’s oceans. One question they are interested in for example is what consequences the acidification of the seas and oceans has: the oceans cover more than two thirds of the earth’s surface, and the water they contain absorbs roughly a third of all human-produced carbon dioxide (CO2). This means that a smaller amount of this greenhouse gas remains in the atmosphere, slowing down the process of global warming. In the sea, however, the carbon dioxide undergoes a reaction and turns into carbonic acid. The water becomes more acidic, posing a threat to marine life both big and small.
Room for two researchers
With its robotic arm, the Jago submersible is able to take samples in places where no human has ever been before, bringing them up to the surface in a basket. There is room for two researchers inside: the pilot and one observer. The view from the research vessel is amazing: through two large acrylic glass windows, the two crew members can explore their surroundings and take high-quality photographic and video footage. Jago moves freely underwater as it is not connected by any cables to the surface.
Scientists all over the world use Jago
Jago has already successfully completed more than 1,200 dives in the North and Baltic Seas, the North and South Atlantic, the West and South Pacific, the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Red and Black Seas and in freshwater lakes. The manned submersible is used worldwide by scientists and engineers in the fields of marine biology, microbiology, biogeochemistry, geology and palaeoceanography. Most recently, the underwater research assistant was deployed for example off the coast of El Hierro, the youngest of the Canary Islands. Five years ago, a submarine volcano had erupted there two kilometres from the coast. Jago provided the GEOMAR researchers, as well as scientists from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (ULPGC) and from the Instituto Español de Oceanografía, Centro Oceanográfico de Canarias (IEO, only in Spanish), with spectacular insights. This gave Spanish experts the opportunity to take a precise look at an apparently younger crater of the submarine volcano in which warm water is still distributed over an area of 100 square metres.
A star of research and television
Jago has probably already spent more than 5,000 hours conducting research underwater, making it in a sense the secret star of German deep-sea research. It not only plays an important role in science, however: it has even made it onto the television, providing some crucial clues a few years ago in an episode of “Tatort” – Germany’s well-known TV crime series.