Episode 218: Exploring Uncharted Depths
Exploring the Uncharted Depths | The Mystery of the Giant Squid, Cutting Edge Tech in Oceanography + Hidden Treasures and Underwater Wonders | Susan Casey
Hi, everyone. Welcome to the podcast. My guest today is a dear friend of mine and New York Times best-selling author, Susan Casey.
I could go on and on about how beautiful her latest book, “The Underworld,” is. I not only read it, but I listened to it as well. You might know some of Susan’s previous works, “The Devil’s Teeth” and “The Wave“. And it’s not often I get to talk to Susan about her work because it takes her about five years to do a book.
This is somebody who wants to see it, who wants to experience it, and then she takes another two years to actually write it. And this book is exceptional because it’s about the deep ocean. And Susan, when she pitched the idea, thought, does anyone even want to know about the deep ocean?
Think about it. Ninety-eight percent of our planet, when you start talking about depths and in a three-dimensional way, is under the sea, and there are things that we don’t even know about that exist. And what’s so exciting is she shares not only incredible stories of shipwrecks being found. There was a series by Victor Vescovo where he created The Five Deeps, and he wanted to go to all the deepest places in the ocean that we know of right now and take scientists down.
And these are scientists that, by the way, they’ve been exploring or researching these things their whole life and never seen it. Or every time they go down on a dive, they find new animals, new creatures, new microorganisms. And sometimes what they’re learning is, hey, what they thought is completely different.
And there’s another sort of downside and emotional part of this book that also felt important to me because it’s about mining the deep sea, about the deep ocean floor because there are little nodules down there that have cobalt, nickel, manganese, and such and now there are companies out there who are lobbying to do that. And what Susan is saying is, listen, if we start messing around with that, we have no idea what kind of impact, never mind what it has on the ocean; if we want to be selfish, how would it impact us and our lives? Because there’s this incredible balance that’s being struck by microorganisms that are hundreds of millions of years old. And if we go down there and start messing around, we have no idea what we’re going to be doing. So not only is the book about adventure and discovery, but it’s an important conversation.
We need to know so we can get involved. It’s a lot trickier than you think. I did get emotional during this conversation. I love Susan deeply, and I just know that her conviction on this is so right. What she said was, Hey, listen, this might be one of the worst greenwashing campaigns that there is because even though yes, we need to be responsible and figure out what’s going on with the planet going down and just start, sucking large swaths of things off the bottom of the ocean is not the answer. We have no idea. She’s intelligent, she’s passionate, she’s funny, and I love her deeply, even though she does like to do deep water swims and sees a tiger shark now and again, and she shares that story. So I hope you enjoy my conversation with the brilliant Susan Casey.
What brought us together is the thing we’re going to be spending the entire time talking about, which is the sea, the ocean. Is this the hardest book so far?
I think it took all the other books, to even be able to think about writing this one, because first of all, the topic is just huge.
People know that the earth is 70 percent covered by the ocean, but the better way to envision it, I think, is to think of it as a three-dimensional living space. And everything on land, everything, everywhere, anything lives; the earth is a biosphere. 2 percent of it is land, 98 percent of it is ocean, and 95 percent of it is deep ocean.
You talked about how we’ve only really explored what, 3 to 5 percent of that?
I don’t even think it’s that much. We have mapped the seafloor at high resolution, about 25 percent of it, but that’s not that much. Whenever they put a sonar array over an area of the seafloor and then get a better picture of what it’s like, the Hubble telescope gets its lens put on it, and they find giant geological features they didn’t know were there.
So in terms of how much of the deep ocean we’ve seen, I’d say it’s like probably .01 percent or something like that. No matter where you go in the deep ocean, you’re pretty much the first person to have ever seen it.
You say in writing the underworld around 2017, you thought, okay, this is the right time because of technology and these new discoveries that are coming. What was it that you thought that I’m ready to take on the beginning of this conversation?
That was the big question. Yes, the technologies would make it possible for me to maybe go into the deep ocean, and that was what was holding me back. I don’t really know how to write about something if I can’t experience it, see it, feel it, and understand it. So it happened to be the right time to do it, but I was also waiting for an opportunity to do it. But even when I started the book, I didn’t know exactly how I was going to get into the deep ocean.
And there are only about six or seven submersibles in the world that can take you there. They’re mostly owned by governments or militaries, and they’re reserved for science. So, when I decided to do this and wrote the proposal, I still didn’t know how I was going to do it. And I’m lucky that I waited this long because, yes, it became possible to do it during the time that I was writing.
So you write the proposal, you don’t know how you’re going to do it, and they say, okay. You have an incredible track record with your other books, so let’s just start with that. What do you spend about five years on each book? Obviously, you have this track record, but once they said, great, Susan, you can do the underworld, what’s the starting point? Who do you call to say, I need to figure out how to get down there?
You have to play the long game. I started contacting scientists who were doing really interesting work and interviewing them and also just getting a sense of who was amenable to me interviewing them once I interviewed them.
And then the next step is I want to come out to sea with you, and I’m going to be hanging around you for years. So certain people float to the surface, pardon the pun, and seem more willing to let me tag along. And as like I will infiltrate your life, and that’s part of the process.
Facing Your Childhood Fears
You grew up in Canada; you really didn’t learn to swim until you were 10.
I was scared of water, and I was scared of fish, in particular. I was drawn to water. But I was also scared of it, but drawn to it, like even swimming pools, just curious about water. And we had a cottage on a lake north of Toronto that, it’s one of those Canadian lakes where you look, and the water looks black, and you can’t see the bottom and but we would fish off the end of our dock, and we would catch, sometimes we would catch pike, which are these strange looking freshwater fish with these long noses, teeth, and everything. And my notion was that there were all kinds of things in there that I’m not aware of, but they’re aware of me when I go in. So it was like a real fascination with seeing them, but I wanted to be on land and see them. But that changed after I started spending time in the ocean. You open your eyes to the ocean, and it’s beautiful.
And it really changed when I wrote my first book, The Devil’s Teeth, and started hanging out at the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco, where there is a huge community of great white sharks. After you spend time with great white sharks, you can’t really be scared of fish anymore, like little sunfish.
Most of us, when we’re afraid of something, though, we avoid it, we move it, we move around it, and this book, when I read it, and I listened to it, I want you to know, it just feels like you’re sharing what you’ve just spent all these years learning.
This fear, is that the thing that is driving you to go down? Because I think most people live their lives trying to put that fear and the things we’re afraid of away, and you’re saying, okay, I’m going to go literally into it
There’s fear, and there’s fear, right? So a certain amount of fear, maybe the better word, would be trepidation. Like, I don’t exactly know what’s going to happen, but I feel compelled to do it anyway, so sometimes I think that when people encounter fear, they see that as a stop sign, like I’m not going to go forward because I’m scared. It isn’t always a stop sign. Sometimes it’s just a sign that you’re going to be moving out of your comfort zone into something really interesting. And you just got to step over that threshold. So at this point, I didn’t feel fear in writing this book, it was more like a fascination and compulsion to see what was in this part of the world that we don’t know, but it’s like most of the world.
So how can you be a citizen of planet Earth and not be curious about what most of planet Earth is? So I guess there’s a certain inherent fearfulness about getting into a really deep-sea submersible, and people are claustrophobic. I’m not, but I do think that it’s one of those things where you take a calculated risk.
It’s not like throwing caution to the wind. It’s basically, these are highly engineered machines that are built for the environment that they’re going into. And in the case of the deepest dive that I made. Like four tons of pressure per square inch. But the sub has done that many times and it has all kinds of redundancies built into it.
So, you’re getting into this extreme machine, and you’re going into the world’s most extreme environment, but you’re doing it with all the knowledge of the past century of engineering to be able to do it, and odds are it’s going to be safe. And it was.
I know this is a terrible example, but there’s a certain amount of that when we drive our cars every day. I feel like we’re going there, we’re doing this as safely as we possibly can, but there’s always this idea that things can happen But what you’re talking about is, and it’s interesting timing with what just happened with this other sub, and I’m not going to go too deep into that, but, I would love, since you are here, your take on that situation. If it was people, not if it was more cavalier, it’s a business kind of thing, or just your take, because I’m sure people will be thinking about that.
So I encountered that company when I first started reporting this in 2017 or 18. They hadn’t built that sub, the Titan, yet, but it sounded good. It was going to go to 4,000 meters. You were going to be able to buy a seat. That was, really, an answer to the question that I had been asking myself, how am I going to get down there?
So I called them up, talked to them about it, and just everything they said sounded fantastic. I didn’t know anything about submersibles then. But then I went back to Hawaii, and I was hanging out with the pilots who have two 2,000-meter subs at the University of Hawaii. And I said, Hey, what do you think of this sub that’s going down to the Titanic?
And they were like, You must never, ever get into that sub. Because what everybody in this very small, close-knit world, in its small world of manned submersibles, knew was that he was building it out of the wrong material and he was building it the wrong shape. And the sphere is a really important shape in deep-sea exploration.
And even if you don’t want something to implode, the sphere is the only shape in which the pressure is distributed symmetrically across the whole shape. So everybody sits inside. It’s either made of plexiglass if it’s not going too deep, or it’s made of titanium.
What’s the plexiglass? 6,000 feet.
And now the deepest part of the ocean is in the Mariana Trench. This one part of the Mariana Trench, and it’s 35, 876 feet. There are four layers of ocean, and that’s the deepest one. It’s called the Hadal zone, which is after Hades, the god of the underworld. But they’re all spheres and military submarines that are built like slant cylinders, but they don’t go very deep. They go 300 feet, and they have to be that shape because people live on them. So he had a business plan that required him to take five people to the Titanic.
So he needed to build a cylinder But here’s the thing, the deep ocean doesn’t care about your business plan. It’s 6,000 pounds per square inch at that depth.
And what is the depth of the Titanic?
3,800 meters. So about 13,000 feet, and carbon fiber is a material that, if the pressure comes from the outside and presses from the inside out, it’s strong. It’s woven fiber. And if it presses from the outside in, it’s incredibly weak. And the way they describe it is you can use a rope to pull a car, but try using a rope to push a car. It just doesn’t have the strength that you need for external pressure.
That sub was terrifying. And so after I heard that everybody was watching with real fear about what was going to happen, and they didn’t actually get it going for the longest time, and they didn’t test it properly, and it, there was some hope that maybe it would never go to the Titanic. Like it just, they’d give up because it was doomed to failure.
But then he did in 2021, get some people down there. Not very many, but a few did. When it imploded, it was only on its 14th dive, which is nothing. Fifty dives are the beginning of a sub’s life, and it was 13 dives. So the thing that happened to the Titan is the thing that everybody thought was going to happen to the Titan.
So over the years, I’m just weaving my way through this world. I encountered people talking about it everywhere and kept a big file on it, hoping that I would never have to use it. But the second I heard it was missing, that’s what I immediately thought was that it imploded.
Do you think that there’d be some kind of standard process to be able to create something like that to go down that deep?
There is, but he just didn’t do it. So it becomes if you want to take people down to submersible inside the territorial waters of the United States, you need to have a third-party organization give it a certification. And that certification starts before it’s even built. They look at the drawings, and then they follow the whole process.
And then, at the end, they call it classing a sub. The sub is classed to go to whatever depth. And they just skipped that whole process. And so they were constantly being told they should not skip that process.
But he then registered his sub in the Bahamas, left from a ship in Canada, sailed out to international waters, and just bypassed the waters of the US. So technically, it wasn’t breaking any laws; the result speaks for itself. There’s a reason why you need that assurance of safety, and it really is hard. It adds cost. It adds time. But it’s the right way.
Cutting Edge Tech in Ocean Exploration
I want to dive into the story because the characters also the people in this book are very compelling. That’s the interesting thing that you’re able to do is give the ocean floor all this personality with these magical creatures, but it’s also the people involved.
Your book tells the whole story by incorporating different elements, including the surfaces of the ocean floor. The ocean itself becomes a character with interesting dynamics. It also highlights the amazing technological advancements that have enabled deep-sea exploration, including submarines and advanced mapping techniques. One noteworthy submarine is the granddaddy of them all, capable of reaching the deepest depths. These technologies allow us to see and discover things we’ve never known before in the ocean’s depths.
That’s right. And every time they look, they find new species. They find, as I said, new geological features that are dramatic and interesting. So along with the human-occupied submersibles that I dived in, there are amazing robots. These robots have a fiber optic cable that that tethers them to a ship.
And then, on the ship, there’s a control van that just has screens all over it. The robots have high-definition cameras, and they roam around, and everything they see goes up the fiber optic cable and into the control room, and they can do all kinds of things with those. They can do construction, they can do all kinds of scientific sampling where they have their manipulator arms, and they take little things, and they put them in jars, and they can fly into volcanoes as they’re erupting.
And the reason that knowledge is important is that being so much a part of the planet, the deep ocean is really the engine that runs the climate. It is the chemical regulator of the earth. So basically everything that enables us to live up here, on our 2 percent of the planet, happens in the deep ocean. And as we get into this time where things are shifting and changing with global warming, we have to understand how the entire system works.
So there is a feature, the largest geological feature, on Earth called the Mid Ocean Ridge. And it is where tectonic plates are moving apart, which is all happening in the deep ocean. They’re drifting, separating from each other. Where that happens, magma comes up from the mantle and creates a new seafloor. And below the seafloor, as deep, we know for sure, as deep as a mile, there’s a full biosphere. It’s microbial life from the entire history of the earth. So life doesn’t actually end at the seafloor. It goes much deeper than that.
And when the seafloor spreads and the magma comes up, all these microbes come up as well. And there are massive eruptions at supersonic speed that we never ever see, but they’re emitting all this chemistry into the water. What keeps this whole planet in balance, and what effect does it have on the ocean overall? Those are things that they really want to find out because we can’t hope to survive this next period unless we understand how the planet works. If something tips in the deep ocean and microbial habitat changes. This will be a completely different planet. And we have to be able to understand how it works quickly.
So these robots are really important because they can fly into places where you wouldn’t send humans and they are also autonomous It’s robots that aren’t tethered, but they have cameras, they have computers that they go out, they do a mission, they come back, and they download all their information.
There are sensors on the seabed and cameras on the seabed in places that are hooked up to cables that are embedded in the seafloor that have electrical power. So all in the seafloor, all of the cables that carry all of the internet, all of the financial data, 98 percent of all of our data comes across the seafloor. It’s not from satellites.
But when you say seafloor, give me an average depth. Because these aren’t the deepest parts.
They avoid the deepest parts. They won’t go into a deep trench or something because they don’t have to. So I would say maybe 15,000 feet would be an average. So that’s the abyssal zone.
From 600 to 3,300 feet is the Twilight Zone. From 3,300 down to about 10,000 feet is the Midnight Zone. From 10,000 to 20,000 feet is the Abyssal Zone or the Abyss. And then below that is the Hadal Zone. And what makes the Hadal Zone – when the plates are moving apart on the other side, colliding with another plate on the other side, one plate is driven beneath another; it’s called subduction. That creates a deep V-shaped trench, and the Mariana Trench is an example of it. And those subduction zones go from 6,000 feet down to 11,000 feet, but say the Mariana Trench is only 44 miles wide, but it’s 1500 miles long.
So they’re not a big part of the seafloor. They’re like 2 percent of it, but they account for 45 percent of the ocean’s depth, and they’re almost completely unexplored. But, they avoid those trenches when they run about 500 seafloor cables. It’s an important part of how we live in the modern world, these cables running across the seafloor.
When did they start laying some of the first cables?
It was about 1880 / 1870.
What are they laying down?
They were laying telegraph cables. That was the fastest way of communicating. They had to put an electrical wire from the UK to, I think, Canada, and then they could transmit telegraph messages across the ocean as opposed to putting it on a ship.
If you could put like a sort of a personality, but of these zones, the midnight zone, the twilight zone, are there these different things happening in these different zones, different personalities? What would that look like?
So the Twilight Zone – the top layer of the deep ocean, I think of it as the Manhattan of the deep. It’s filled with animals. There are more animals in the Twilight Zone than in all the other regions of the ocean combined. And they all glow with bioluminescence. And it’s this sort of place where you eat or be eaten, and everybody’s flashing their lights and trying to eat each other and trying to get away from each other.
And. It’s the scene of the world’s largest animal migration, which happens every day, like trillions of these tiny fish. And everybody’s seen these pictures of these tiny fish with giant teeth, but they’re like four inches long. They look like absolute terrors, but then you see them, and they’re just adorable. They’re just these cute little fish with giant teeth and big eyes. They ascend as much as a thousand feet each night, eat phytoplankton, and then swim back down. And that is the world’s largest animal migration. It’s vertical, and it happens every single day. But they also eat carbon near the surface and swim it back down, excreting it into the depths where it stays for a long time. And so they’re actually pulling carbon out of the atmosphere in a huge way. Like they are responsible for sequestering the equivalent of America’s annual emissions every year. So these tiny little fish are doing this heavy lift, but it’s just a fast happening.
Like you, you go down there, you see how much life there is. And 80 percent of the microbial life on Earth is in the ocean. And you just get the sense that absolutely every little particle is alive. And that makes it so different than space.
And below that, in the Midnight Zone, there’s just more bioluminescence but a slightly less dense congregation of animals. And then, in the Midnight Zone, you also find some larger animals, like a lot of the very cool deep sea sharks that we hardly ever see, goblin sharks, sleeper sharks, and cat sharks. And I always say that if you know the name of a Marine creature, it probably swims in the sunlight layer because most of the animals that swim in the deep, people aren’t aware of them.
And so the giant squid lives down there in the Midnight Zone, and lots of whales can dive that deep. So you get larger creatures in there. The majority of all known jellyfish species are there. And then below that is the Abyss. About half the planet is, has got waters between 10,000 to 20,0000 feet above the seabed. There are these huge abyssal plains, but there are also these giant geological features like the Mid Ocean Ridge, which I mentioned earlier. And that is a 40,000-mile-long volcano that encircles the earth. That happens when the tectonic plates are pulling apart. So these are so much bigger than anything we’ve got on land.
And you get these abyssal planes with very subtle animal life. Some of it’s very small, some of it’s quite big, but there are also some giant animals down there.
When you say big, you mean long. Are those the ones where it’s more like multiple organisms cooperating together as one?
There are giants. There are amphipods, tiny little crustaceans that look a little bit like insects or krill, and a lot of them are very small, but then there are super giant amphipods which are like the size of a cat, and they don’t know why, but it’s must be a strategy to avoid getting eaten. Some animals just blow up to gigantic proportions in the abyss.
So they have like spider crabs with 12-foot-long legs. And all kinds of crazy life forms in the abyss, but spread out because it’s so vast. And then, around the volcanism, there are hydrothermal vents. And so the energy source that powers all of our life above the surface is the sun. But there’s a second energy source on the planet, and it’s the heat and energy that comes from within the planet.
So we’ve got top-down and bottom-up, and there’s an ecosystem in the deep ocean that comes from the bottom up, and all the animals that live there have nothing to do with the sun. They never see sunlight, but they survive by chemosynthesis, the chemical energy coming from within the earth. They have microbes living in their bodies like it’s just a completely different way of being alive. And they didn’t know that it was there until 1977. So it’s all pretty new.
The Mystery of The Giant Squid
Now you actually dedicated an entire chapter to the squid. Why? The squid is a mythical character in so many books and stories, but I was just curious why you did that.
It’s the myth of the Kraken, right? Giant squid. Fishermen had seen it. There were all kinds of legends and myths about it. There were stories of it seizing ships and fighting with sperm whales. And surely this was the biggest, baddest, craziest monster in the ocean, right? We like to monsterify a lot of these animals.
And but nobody had ever seen a live one. They had found pieces of them washed up on shore. They had found bits of dead ones, but it wasn’t until 2015 that scientists actually figured out a way to draw it close to a sub. And they had a sub with a plexiglass hull. So they filmed it. Scientists love these plexiglass hull subs because they can see everything.
It’s like floating in a bubble. So they created a lure. It was a marine scientist named Edie Witter, who really studies bioluminescence and is really creative, and she figured it out. They were probably eating a particular type of jellyfish. And she made a lure that flashed like this jellyfish. And sure enough, here comes a giant squid off Japan. The video footage has been viewed by millions, but what was really amazing about it was they had no idea how beautiful it was and how fluid it was. And it looked like it was metallic. Their skin is just amazing, but when you see a dead one, all the life has gone out of it. But when they’re in their environment, they’re flashing colors. They really do look metallic.
And they got to see it for several minutes and watch how it hunted. We had always assumed that this was the most aggressive killer, but what they think now is that it’s actually a really shy predator. And it’s just very opportunistic and very good at hiding. It has eyes as big as volleyballs, the biggest eyes of any animal on earth. It can pick up very faint bits of light, and they think that’s because when its arch predator, which is a sperm whale, zooms through the ocean hunting, it jostles all the microorganisms around it and emit bioluminescence. So if the giant squid can see trails of bioluminescence, it would know that a sperm whale is maybe coming and be able to flee.
So it’s not actually the aggressor, they don’t think. And they have found that they have a beak in the middle, like it’s like a parrot’s beak and it doesn’t biodegrade or anything. So when a sperm whale carcass is examined, they often find dozens of these giant squid beaks. So they’re not just the hunters. So every time we see these animals that we’ve never seen before, we learn something about strategies for staying alive and strategies for living in such a different environment than ours.
I found it so interesting too. And I learned this from you years ago about, everyone thinks, Oh, sharks, and, when my kids were young, Nemo was very big, and it was like the shark smelling the blood and being like, Oh, it’s, but it’s really an, almost an electrical signal. On the skin. Am I getting this right?
Because obviously, scent means something very different underwater. It’s just basically an interruption of a chemical pathway. So exactly right. And yet that is something in it. Sharks go up and down vertically, and they’re going through different horizontal layers called thermoclines and they perceive that chemical interruption and follow the trail of that.
They think that’s how they mate in the deep ocean. Like, how do you find each other? It’s big. It’s so hard for us to think in terms to take our anthropocentric glasses off, and we tend to think that we’re the show, right? On this planet, where, here we are in our 2 percent of the earth? And there’s this whole big party going on down there that really has nothing to do with us.
Or, actually, we have nothing to do with it. We’re damaging it, but it feels like certainly in the last six months to a year, maybe two years, this whole thing of climate change and the environment and everything. It’s really ramped up. It’s become politicized. It always makes me more nervous when it’s like political parties yelling at each other about it versus scientists or people who are studying the information or could give us kind of a 300-year look at something.
But here we are, and people are yelling back and forth at each other. And I was just wondering, on this journey, what are the conversations? There’s no doubt you talk about microplastics at the bottom of the ocean; we’ve managed to penetrate. So I’m wondering what that conversation is amongst people who are more informed than people who are trying to whip everyone up into a frenzy about what is happening with the planet and with climate change.
It’s complicated because it’s not homogenous, the ocean. So there are certain places where there are things happening at different depths. The thing that is, I remember when I was working on “The Wave” in 2007, 2008, that was when I first started going to scientific conferences because one of the things that I had learned was that waves were getting stronger in certain parts of the ocean. And part of that was because there was more heat in the system and more energy. And that meant the storms were popping up faster. And when storms grow fast, they’re farther away from equilibrium. And that’s when you can get these really destructive waves suddenly popping up and causing havoc. I remember going to a scientific conference about waves, and all the scientists were in the corner just in a panic about climate change. And that was really the first time I had a chance to talk to them about it.
And throughout the reporting for that book, I went to a lot of other places and heard more about climate change and how it was affecting the ocean. And one of the scientists said to me, it’s hard because we don’t have any baseline data from before. So in order to know how fast the ocean is changing, we have to know what it was doing before, and we just didn’t have that much information. So we know it’s changing, but we can’t quantify it. Also, the systems are so complicated. They interact with the atmosphere. They interact with all kinds of larger what they call Regimes in the ocean where certain currents go at certain times of the year.
They distribute heat like it’s just so insanely complicated. How do you put it all together into one neat package? So they knew that something was happening over here that they didn’t know what the impact would be. But they knew it was happening. The thing that is really odd is when I went out on my book tour, people would say to me do you believe in climate change? It just doesn’t really matter what we believe, right? This is happening. It’s the science of how global warming gets trapped by greenhouse gases, it’s pretty simple. The complicated part is exactly what it’s going to do and where. So there, I would say there’s a race right now to try to understand all these systems better. And it’s one of the reasons they have these seafloor observatories now, so they can take samples at different times when the ocean does different things and try to understand it better. It’s just so immense.
But whatever happens, we have built our entire society based on the ocean behaving similarly to how it behaves now. All of our cities are next to the water; we’re not resilient in that way. So any changes are likely to be upheavals for us.
When these subs go out and do samplings, how long would they go out for the robotic ones? How long would they go out for a few hours, or typically, how long would they be able to go out and work?
So the robot, the really heavy-duty robots, can stay down for a week at a time. That’s one of the advantages that they have over people in a manned sub. Because the power is coming through the fiber optic cable, they can keep powering them. And they can stay down for a long time.
Exploring Uncharted Depths
Maybe just share your experiences of the times that you got to go under. It’s funny; you just were sharing on your phone some beautiful video. And it’s not that I feel nervous watching it, but it does feel immense. Then I hear you talking in the video, but you’re way down there, maybe you could just share what was your experience of the first time you got to go down; what that was like, and what you were thinking.
I was excited to the point of like, almost paralysis. This was my dream. I dived in the Bahamas with a group called Ocean X, which takes a lot of media people out. Like Blue Planet Two was filmed – the Deep Ocean episode, which was amazing, was filmed from their subs. And they have two subs that go to 33,000 feet. And that’s just through the twilight zone. So they’re plexiglass-held subs, which makes it perfect for filming. And it was very gentle.
Once you get below the surface, the colors start to fade. It goes through the spectrum, as red light goes first, and then orange, and then yellow, and then green, and then finally you’re down to just blue. And the blue light, when it’s by itself, is just the most exquisite color. It’s like you feel like you’re somehow just transported by it.
And everybody reacts the same way. We don’t see this pure blue light of the spectrum on land. So it’s narcotic. It makes you feel tripped out. And then, of course, you go through to the blackness at around 400 feet. It’s black and all the way down, it’s black, but you’ve got the light of bioluminescence.
So in the Twilight Zone, there are so many bioluminescent animals, and the sub’s lights will shine on them. So you’re just looking at this sea of stars, but they’re alive. And so, it was a really peaceful experience. Once you get below the surface, there are no sensory signposts that tell you’re even in water.
You can’t see wind, you can’t see waves. And it’s clear. The water is super clear, but there is this marine snow that falls down, but the water is crystal clear. And so you feel like you’re floating. You can’t tell that it’s water, you’re in water because there’s a sense of the life swimming around and, everywhere. On that dive, we got to the bottom and it was limestone, this white, beautiful white, almost like snow. And there’s still a little bit of blue light at that depth. Our eyes can’t see it. So when they shine the lights of the sub on it, it just lit up like a swimming pool. So it was spectacularly beautiful. Of all the things that surprised me on that dive, the two were just how much life there was in the water and how exquisite that life was.
People don’t expect the beauty of the deep ocean. They expect the intensity and maybe they expect the immensity, although that’s really hard to wrap your head around. But I don’t know that you really expect the beauty of it. It’s so magnificently beautiful.
So we were going along these dunes that look like we were flying over these dunes that look like a white Sahara, just up and down these dunes. When we had been down there for a few hours, we had to come back up. On the way back up, we stopped in the mid-water, and we turned out all of the lights of the sub, they even put towels over the control panels and the sub, and there were two subs diving side by side. So we both did this, and the pilot said, okay, close your eyes, and I’m going to count to three. And on two, both subs flashed their bright lights on and off really quickly, and on three, we opened our eyes, and all the creatures in the water column lit up; it was like the ultimate firework show, but you could see them as far as you could see and the density of them.
And the fact that we had flashed our lights and they flashed back; light as a communication, as a language. There was some sort of communication going on there. And it just really blew my mind. It was just that I felt like I was meeting the Earth for the first time. On her terms, because in order to go down there to see what really is happening down there, we have to adhere to her rules.
She requires that we go in there and withstand 6,000 pounds of pressure per square inch or, at the very bottom, 16,000 pounds. You don’t get to set those rules, and we’re not used to that. We think we run this joint. And when you go into the deep ocean, you’re submitting to her rules. So it was a really profound experience.
And as I was coming up to the surface, I just started to feel like grief-stricken. I didn’t want to get out of the sub. I thought, what if I never get to do this again? I haven’t been that freaked out since my father died. It was like being torn away from the person you love the most. I didn’t want to get out.
Is there something about being in an environment with that much life, because it’s still more natural that there’s an order, even though of course it’s like things are trying to eat each other and all these things are happening, but it’s a different kind of fairness, if you will.
But when you’re down there, and you see that much life; Because whenever I’m in a place and I feel the abundance of nature, it does something to me that makes me feel, for lack of a better word, I guess hopeful.
I agree. I think it would be really sad if there weren’t things that could make us feel humble. And there weren’t things that were so much greater than we are. This is the thing I always tell people is, all you have to do is to look at a giant wave or go into the deep ocean to know that we’re not in charge, actually. We think we are. But we’re not. And so the idea of somehow going with that; you’re never going to conquer the deep ocean. You’re never going to disrupt the deep ocean. We might temporarily do a little bit of damage, but ultimately people say to me, do you think the ocean is going to be okay? I think the ocean is going to be fine. The idea that we’re somehow going to be fine, if the ocean is completely different, is just not true. We’re the ones who will suffer if we don’t live in harmony with it.
You have a quote in your book, actually, that the deep always demands its toll. To go there, to be there, it’s like you said, it’s her rules. And I thought that was really important.
We feel very comfortable blasting rockets into space. That’s what we like. We can see it. We can see the stars. We think we might gain a planet or two. We might be able to have a colony on Mars. We might get more of something. Going inward, the journey inward into darkness is a journey just like it is in your psyche, just if you’re going deep into your own consciousness. The same thing is it’s a journey of subtraction. It’s a journey of surrender. We’re not gaining more of anything. We have to leave our baggage at the surface. So it’s not conquest. It’s more like submission.
We don’t get to have things our way down there. Our sensory perceptions of smell and sight and all that. They’re less useful down there. They’re pretty unuseful. And so we just have to accommodate to what is, and that I find really refreshing, this whole notion of you’re subtracting. You don’t have a horizon. You don’t have day. You don’t have night. One of the things I wrote was, in the deep, you’re never late, and you’re never early. Because there is no time. It’s just deep time. And it’s a completely different chronology. There’s no email. All those things are gone. But what we get in exchange is a glimpse of the biggest nature that you can possibly see, the life force of the planet.
And it has presence, and if it has a persona at all, it’s serene. But often, I think people think of femininity as light and fluffy and all this, but it’s just the fiercest force of all. And that is what you get is that it’s like the life force of creation and it’s fierce, but it’s also incredibly serene.
Especially when you play nice. When you follow, when you follow the rules and know your place, I think sometimes, and that’s good for us. So how many dives were you able to go on?
During the time I wrote the book, I did two. And I got really lucky because at the beginning when I started this, this one sub that I got to dive in was just being completed. I didn’t know anything about it. But it is the first full ocean depth certified sub that can go to the deepest parts of the ocean every day of the week.
Wait, what does that mean, every day of the week?
So it can dive repeatedly. In 2012, James Cameron went to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in his sub that he built. And he was only the third person to ever go. Two people, Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard, went in 1960 in another experimental sub. They made it down there, and on the way back up (Don is still alive and is just this extraordinary human being. And I got to know him really well as I was writing this) he said, we were talking about how, Oh, in about two years, there’s going to be all kinds of people down here. We’re going to be able to see it better.
It took 52 years. During that time, there were something like 2,000 people who summited Mount Everest, 200 people went to the International Space Station, and nobody went to the deepest point in the ocean. So James Cameron came along in 2012, and his sub had all the best technology, and yet when he got down to the bottom, everything broke.
His thrusters all broke. He really couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t fly across the seabed because his thrusters were broken. He had hydraulic fuel spraying across the viewports. He got back up safely, and he successfully went down there, which was really important But that sub never dived again, and it wasn’t certified or classed as I was describing earlier.
So here comes 2018 and a private guy from Texas, a businessman named Victor Vescovo. Victor is like one of these guys that wants to do everything. And he had already summited the highest mountains on each continent. He had skied to the poles. He wasn’t really an ocean guy, but he was shocked when he found out that nobody had been to the bottom of these Hadal trenches, and he decided that he would.
So he commissioned a sub, and he’s very smart, Victor. He found the best company, this company, Triton Submarines which I think of as the “Apple” of submarine design and they created the very first one of its kind, a full oceaned-up sub that took a passenger and a pilot that could go repeatedly, could go every day of the week if it wanted.
And there was no place now in the ocean that was off limits for human exploration. But actually, there weren’t even any robots that could go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. They had one, and it imploded.
How do they jump? How do they bypass? How do they go from not even a robot one to now we have human ones that can go every day of the week? What was developed that allowed that?
I think there were some developments, like figuring out how to make batteries that could go that deep. I think they literally developed every little component of that sub specifically for this. It took about five years to build it.
And I think material science has gotten a lot better. It just moves fast, right? So even from 2012 to 2016, it was easier; although nothing about the process was easy, it was more possible, but it was a real breakthrough. I was lucky that I happened to be reporting this at the time it happened because if I had been doing it two years earlier and that sub came out, absolutely everything I wrote would have been pretty much obsolete.
So in the history of deep-sea exploration, before this sub, it was called the limiting factor, and after that sub, it changed everything. So that was the other sub. I got to dive in.
But who do you have to know or sleep with to get in that sub? I mean, come on.
I just phoned up Don Walsh; he’s the godfather of the deep ocean. He really embraced me at the beginning of my process and phoned around everybody and said, And allow this woman to come in and ask you questions. And so I started talking to the head of Triton Submarines, Patrick Lahey, and it turns out he’s a real ocean obsessive, just like I am. And they were just about to start this year-long expedition where they were going around the ocean to go to all the deepest spots in every ocean basin. And I just said, can I come? And they said, sure. And Victor said, sure, too.
How many people can go down at a time?
Most of the dives that Victor did at first, he did himself. Mainly because he was a test pilot and he also was; when he started this whole thing, he wanted to be the first person down. There’s a whole “codery” of people who really liked that idea that they’re going to be the first. The scientists wanted to go down the walls and look at all the life that was in these walls. So going to the deepest spot in the ocean doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to the most scientifically significant parts of the ocean or the most scenic. But the thing that Victor did, which was so amazing, was he brought along all the top Hadal scientists. So that once the scientists study the very deep parts of the ocean, they have never, ever seen it. They were spending their whole career studying something that they had never seen. And so he started taking them down in his sub and the amount of stuff that they learned over the course of four years when he was just how to ship and the sub and – I just latched onto that crew and became part of it, and they were incredibly welcoming. And then, at one point I said to Victor, very nervously, do you think I could ever dive with you? And he said, let’s go to the Mariana Trench. And I was just like, I was asking to go for like a drive around the block, and now I’m going to the moon. All I can say is I got lucky, and these are all really interesting people.
But your passion, your genuine passion for this, and anyone who spends time with you knows that, and the fact that you do this as responsibly as anybody can do it with the intention, I think it makes it that people want to share that with you. Because then they know that you’ll communicate it in a way that is genuine to what’s happening. So I think that’s also a really big. A big part of it.
So what does that excursion look like? Do you sleep for the weeks coming up to this? What does that look like?
It was really gnarly because there are all kinds of reasons why a dive might not happen, and conditions at the surface are a big one; weather is a big one. COVID came along in there, like I went to Guam and at the height of the early part of the pandemic and, I can remember standing in the Honolulu airport and I was like the only one there. There’s plywood on every store.
And the planes were still flying to Guam because there were military bases there. But I think there were about six of us on a 777. And I got all the way there, and there was something wrong with the sub, so it couldn’t dive. It had to go back to Hawaii and come out of the water for six months.
Where do you go? Do you leave?
I went and turned around and came right back to Hawaii. But it was, it was so six months it took to make sure it was ready to go. They needed to replace a bunch of wiring, so it had to come out of the water. It took about six months. The gnarliest part of it was just what it did to my adrenal glands. I was just so ready to dive and really wanted this to happen. But you just have to go with it. Again, you don’t have control of what the ocean is doing or all the variables; you just have to keep trying.
Do you have a technique? I think people are in pursuit in their lives of a lot of different things that are hard. Do you have a technique to manage yourself and your emotions in, within this pursuit? Because it is, it’s a long pursuit for you to do these projects and write these books. It takes not only a long time, it takes a lot of you. Do you have things that you have in place that support you through that?
I think I’ve learned that you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s one of the great things about writing nonfiction; it’s both the greatest thing and the most innovative thing. So you can write a book proposal and think, okay, I want this to happen. This is what I’m going to do. And then life throws a dozen curve balls at you, and you end up doing something completely different. And I have a little card that I put by my computer with a Virginia Wolf quote on it that says, “Arrange whatever pieces come your way.”
And it’s really what you get in your reporting; the story unfolds, you don’t really get to dictate it. I think I was pretty upset when I didn’t get to dive in the Mariana Trench, but not for long, because I knew they were going to reschedule my dive, and I didn’t know where it would be, but I felt confident it would happen, and that I’ve learned that some of the things that I think are big disasters turn out to be opportunities for the story that I didn’t recognize at the time. But I will when I sit down and look at all the pieces and try to arrange them
So they fix the sub, and we dive. We ended up diving on the submarine volcano that is off the southern tip of the big island, which will one day become the next Hawaiian Island, what was so great about that was those were my home waters. That was where I really spent the most time in the ocean or anywhere on earth, and one of the other characters in the book had dived repeatedly on this volcano and had told me so many stories about it. And the whole idea of diving on an active submarine volcano was really unique to me. We didn’t get to go all the way down to 11,000 meters, but we did get to well over 5, 000 meters, which is much deeper than I ever would have thought I could go because at the time we dived, there were only two subs in the world that could go that depth. One of them was owned by the government of China. So I didn’t think I would get on that one. But it all worked out perfectly in a narrative sense. And I do think if you sit in a sub and you freefall for almost three hours, like if you’re freefalling for another hour and a half, you get a sense of being very deep, and there’s a real gravitas to when you get that deep. And I got that. I really got it.
Did you see something? I’m sure you saw many somethings, but I’d just be interested if there was an animal or some type of surface at the bottom that just really surprised you.
When you get that deep, there are lots of animals, but you’re in a titanium orb. You have a little viewport. And so it’s a little harder to see than it is in the plexiglass one. So we saw lots of animals. There are all kinds of things on the seafloor and all kinds of things zipping around in the water.
But what was the most dramatic at that depth was the volcano itself. So pillow lava is coming out of the seafloor, and it just looks like the intestines of a giant beast, and it’s got all this microbial life all over it. And when we would go past it, these microbes are eating iron. All the Hawaiian volcanoes have an iron-based ecosystem. So it’s eating iron and excreting rust. And when you swirl them around, they look like fire.
So it’s like you’re being engulfed in fire. So we’re going up this lava wall with just these loops and S-turns and intestinal shapes of lava. And then there’s this it’s fiery orange microbial life. Like you just know that you’re in a really intense place, and there’s something really beautiful about it, but in a serious way, like you’re, it’s not a pretty field of wildflowers here.
So you were talking about Victor going down to the deepest and now I know he’s slotted. to go up into space too. Is that right? So he went to the bottom, and then he went out into space. And there’s a chapter that talks about the, we know we’re familiar with astronauts, but aquanauts. And you said something about, after the first dive, feeling sad when you’re coming back up. Do those guys experience, because you hear about that, about astronauts all the time when they come back, that’s they’re all, all off kilter. Do those guys talk about that?
I think everybody feels it, but a lot of the people that I was around, that’s their business to go into these subs, so they knew that they would be doing it again.
I didn’t know that I would ever get the chance to do it again. You’re lucky if you get a chance to do it, and I really hope that changes, because anybody who’s not claustrophobic could get into one of these subs and go down. Prior to the Titan implosion, subs didn’t have any accidents or fatalities for 50 years. They’re literally the most safe mode of transportation on earth. So I hope people don’t use that sub as an example of what might happen because nobody’s sub implodes. A sub has never imploded before. So you don’t really have to worry about not coming back to the surface. If you’re claustrophobic, you might find it a little uncomfortable, but anybody else, what you gain from it is an awareness of the ocean and an awareness of your place on earth and your place in the overall scheme of life and the scope of life and an altered perception about what the earth is that really, I think it is like astronauts when they say it was really impactful when they looked out the window and saw the planet that I think that there’s even a name for it, like the overview effect or something. It just changes your perception of life and the cosmos and everything. It would be so great for awareness of the ocean if people could actually meet the ocean.
Tonga ended up being right outside of Tonga. Wasn’t that kind of a really interesting spot where they were submerging? Maybe you could just touch upon what was interesting about that or that they were talking about that was interesting.
One of Victor’s dives was into the Tonga Trench, which is the second deepest trench beside the Mariana Trench, but Tonga is a more extreme trench. It has all these really gnarly volcanoes in it. Like the one that blew the Hunga Tonga / Hunga Hapai.
It literally blasted ash into the mesosphere. It was so powerful. And so the Mariana Trench gets into undersea horror movies, and people are always meeting monsters down there on the film screen. But Tonga is actually the scarier one. I called it the Twisted Sister of the Mariana Trench.
And it’s only about 17 meters shallower, so it’s not that much shallower. So he dived there, and he had on the bottom, they noticed that there had been a landslide, and when there’s a landslide of the seafloor, a submarine landslide, that causes enormous tsunamis. And that happened. They saw it on the Java Trench. They saw releases along these giant cliffs of places where sediment had slid, and probably these were old, but there had been huge tsunamis in that area before, and no one had known that this was happening underwater. So it was really an intense experience to land on a fresh submarine landslide. And everything was just completely quiet, like eerily quiet. There were no animals. He showed me some video, and he had a feeling of foreboding because it was a ghost town. And it just looked like fresh, fallen snow. Because everything had been covered.
So in the book, on this quest for the five deeps, you have all these personalities. You talked about Walsh and all these people. I thought about it because I felt like this would make an amazing movie or show like this kind of quest and like all these personalities. If you could choose one of the people to base the story around and I was just curious if there was a character that you would say, okay, he’ll be the driving character behind this.
That’s an easy question because there is. And it’s Alan Jameson, who is the chief scientist of the expedition. He’s from Scotland, and he’s just hilarious. And he’s also brilliant and plays a really mean blues guitar. But he’s just so funny. But he had set out immediately to study the most inaccessible parts of the ocean. He also had a kind of engineering mind where he created instruments so they could drop off the sides of ships and go down and film what was down there. And he was the one who figured out how deep fish could go and filmed the deepest fish and has written, just extensively about the Hadal Zone, the deepest part of the ocean. So he’s like the Gonzo scientist of the deep ocean. I would definitely make a TV series around him. He has a podcast, and anybody who is interested in the deep ocean would find it.
It’s not just for scientists. Lay people would say it’s fun because they’re so funny.
Did you go on and talk about your book with him yet?
Not yet, but I’ve been on the podcast before just talking about storytelling for scientists because they have the best stories, and the same brilliant minds that go out and collect the data and write peer-reviewed papers about it are not always so good at explaining it in like human language.
But they understand that it’s important because they want people to know what they’re doing, and a lot of it is just so cool. But he’s got all kinds of crazy stories because he’s been to all kinds of extreme places. He was the first scientist to ever go down with Victor into the Hadal zone.
And one of the things that he was studying was the deepest fish, which is called a Hadal snailfish. And the Hadal snailfish is just the coolest animal in the whole ocean because it was a shallow water fish that over the course of about 15 million years evolved to go almost to 30,000 feet and no fish can go below 30,000 feet because their cells will implode.
They need to evolve more ability to withstand pressure before they can go any deeper. But this little Hadal snailfish is made of like pink jello. Its body’s made of gel; it has this big wide head and these fluttery fins, long angel fins basically, and a long ribbony tail. And you can see right through its body to its internal organs.
It doesn’t have a swim bladder. It doesn’t have a closed skull. It doesn’t have any cavity in its body that could implode. It’s skeleton is even demineralized, so it’s floppy. And so here you’ve got this sort of gelatinous fish. It has a big wide smiley mouth and these little black button eyes, but it needs the pressure to maintain its body form.
And when he brought one up, and I saw it on the ship, it was like basically gel in a baggie. But it eats amphipods, and it doesn’t have any predators that eat it. So it’s just delightful to me because the top predator in the harshest environment on earth is a pink gummy bear. It’s just it’s not got big teeth. It’s got two mouths. It’s got one mouth that sucks in amphipods and the other mouth that grinds them down so they can’t eat their way out of the gel. So it’s perfectly suited for its environment, but it looks nothing like you would think this gnarly predator would look like.
Because we are always so fixated on sharks and killer whales and all that and what those look like.
It just shows you how to really survive in this world. You have to roll with it. You can’t be a predator. There was a tale that I would love to hear in your voice about Dooley and his findings off of Columbia because what this also displayed was the amount of like kind of politics and layers, not to mention how hard it is, but you have these people that they’re like scientific pirates in a way and how they’re like, Oh, I think the treasure is there. Maybe you could just share the story about Dooley and his finding, probably one of the most, if not the most important, shipwreck of its – has there been one that’s maybe since then?
No, I think this is a really unique situation, and that’s what’s so interesting about it. So UNESCO has estimated that there are about 3 million unknown shipwrecks on the seafloor, which is just when you think about what is buried in the sediment, just prehistory. There are so many things that we could find if we went down there and looked. But one of the things that makes it valuable or makes it worthwhile for people to go out and look is if they think the ship is carrying a bunch of treasure. So this particular ship was called the San Jose, and it was a Spanish galleon. It was built in, I think it was 1698, and it sank in 1708.
And they know the history of this because they kept the Spanish colonial empire. They kept a lot of documents, and he was a researcher, a very unusual guy, grew up in was born in New York, like in the Bronx, and then moved to Havana and was part of Castro’s revolutionary army. As a kid, as a 14-year-old.
But when he went to university and studied marine archeology, it just lit up his imagination. And what was great about being in Cuba was he had access to all these archives that nobody else did; it was closed off. So he started doing research and found a packet of letters describing that the San Jose galleon had been sunk in a battle, and the battle was off the coast of Columbia.
It was sunk by the British, and they knew that it had come and it filled up with all the gold, all the silver, all the emeralds, 600 people. They knew exactly what was on that ship. And so did the British. So the British intercepted it outside of Cartagena and ended up sinking it, which is not what the British had wanted because, obviously, they didn’t get the loot. But it sank in about 2,000 feet of water and the way it sank, its hull went straight into the silt.
And because it was wood, at that depth, there’s none of the mollusks that bore through wood. They’ll just eat a shipwreck. But it was beyond the depth of those. And it had been basically sealed in sediment. So everything that was on that ship was completely intact. All it would need is somebody to go in there with robots and do an archaeological excavation, and we would be like opening a portal to the 17th century.
And nobody could find it, even though they knew where it sank. It was at night when it went down, and the ocean is much bigger than people think. So people had been looking for this for a long time. But Dooley had access to all these archival documents from Cuba and other places that nobody else had. And he also… just was obsessed with finding this and went to a great deal of trouble to get the president of Columbia on board. He gave him permission to look, and he hired Woods Hole, which is a very fine oceanographic institute that has great robots. And they went out there, and they basically found it.
So it was a really big deal. And everybody thought this was going to be the first major archeological excavation in the deep ocean. Because it’s going to cost 50 million dollars to get this ship excavated; they don’t want to just go in there and rip up the treasure. They want to understand this historically take care of it and do this scientifically and rigorously.
But they’re estimating that this ship is probably worth like 17 to 30 billion dollars. Also, its historical value is just priceless. So Dooley found an investor who was willing to put up the $50 million dollars and build a museum in Cartagena. And I watched him go through this. The government of Columbia changed hands, and the new president said, we’re not going to let anybody take anything from the ship.
One of their plans was to take all the gold coins and look at which ones were the most interesting, photograph them all, conserve them all, and then put some of them, the duplicates, on the open market to fund the excavation. Otherwise, you have a million coins that you have to insure. You need to keep them in a vault, and even the people who study coins work from the high-resolution imagery of the coins – you just don’t need 10 million coins. So let’s take some of them and sell them so we can get a historical record here.
But the Colombian government just said no. So it looked like he was completely stymied, and this thing was never going to be excavated, which happens a lot. There’s just a big issue of who’s going to pay for it, who owns it?
But now there’s yet another Colombian president who wants to go ahead and do this and is willing to – I guess there’s some economic model that they’re pursuing that will satisfy everybody. And so I think maybe ten years from now, we’ll be able to go to Cartagena and look at everything that was on the ship, which will just be unbelievable.
And what I appreciated is how Dooley was like, it’s not that I don’t care about the money, but I care about the learning, about the things inside.
It’s just priceless.
The things we’ll learn about that era. And what do you think that must feel like? Because who was the other gentleman with him? There was someone else, Gary Kozak.
Kozak is a search expert. So like if something goes down, he’ll go out there. When you see sonar images, they don’t look like much to you or me, but like he knows how to read them and could tell, okay, that’s an acoustic shadow. That’s a rock. This might be a ship. . .
Imagine you’re spending however long you’re spending thinking maybe it could be here and making educated guesses and all this stuff, and then actually, it’s there.
I don’t know what that moment would be so extraordinary. I mean, you see something on the sonar, a lot of the times they’ll see things on the bottom on the sonar, and they’ll come up to it, and it will be a bunch of oil drums or something like that, but there was a video that was taken of the moment they saw the cannons poking out of the silt, and they had these very distinctive cannons with dolphin handles. And he knew what it was, and he just was speechless. This guy had been looking for this for his entire life.
How do you keep your life together? Because you’re in a relationship and your physical health, like, how do you keep your life together in this pursuit? Because It’s hard and there’s a lot of internal work that you have to do to produce the book, to edit the book…and I know you have experience, but how do you where’s the balance? How do you do it?
I don’t think there’s ever any balance The first half of it is going out and talking to people, like being out there in the world having to constantly coax people into letting you do stuff with them. So being very extroverted, and I’m not an extrovert.
I was going to say you’re very shy. And also there’s a politeness to you that you wouldn’t infringe. So you must be very passionate about it.
I try to be very tenacious and pleasant. And I try to make sure that I’m not like a pain in the ass to have around; that’s one thing. But I also have a kind of a different personality when I’m in pursuit of a story. I become much more focused and driven on that thing. I don’t actually like to make phone calls. I don’t like to cold call people up and introduce myself. I’m a reporter that doesn’t like to make phone calls. But when I’m actually working on a story, that’s just gone, and I’ll do whatever I need to do.
And it’s like putting on goggles or something that makes me a much more assertive and determined person. So there’s two and a half years or two years of hunting for material. And then there’s the other half is completely interior where you sit at a desk, and like the thing about writing is – I always tell people, are you prepared to sit for incredibly unreasonable amounts of time? Because that is what it really takes. It’s going inward into that still place in yourself where you can hear the voice because great writing is really, it should sound like somebody’s talking to you, telling you a story.
And in order to hear that voice, you have to be still. And as like everything in our lives conspires to make us not be still, to distract us, to bring us to the surface. I always thought that it would be very hard to be involved in a relationship while I was writing a book, but then I got married.
And so, for the last two books, my husband has been around while I’ve written them. And I think it’s hard for him because there are times when I can’t talk to him, or I have to tell him he can’t watch TV or listen to music or do anything. I just need complete stillness. So it’s not a balance so much as it is just a yin and yang of complete extremes.
And he’s an artist, so he maybe understands the elements of that. Do you have a trick about sitting at a desk? Are you on a ball? Do you have a certain kind of chair? Do you stand? What do you got going?
I’m so un-ergonomic. I have a regular visit to a chiropractor is what I have, and masseuse.
I sit curled into a little ball, and it just works for me. I just sit there, but it is hard. And especially as I get older, I think sitting is just brutal. My hips get all tight. My neck gets all tight. After it became really clear that I was spending so much time at the computer, probably not with very good posture, it became really hard for me to just pursue other sports. Because I would get up and suddenly, anything that involved my neck, like paddling or even stand-up paddling – I couldn’t lift my neck like that. It was just like the straw that broke the camel’s back. So I try to swim because that’s my decompression. But it is more sedentary. I can’t – the treadmill desk thing, I can’t imagine. It’s just too much information.
Let’s talk about your swimming for a second. So I mentioned earlier that you didn’t learn really to swim it until you were a little bit older, 10. And then you moved at least part-time to Maui, and you were doing these deep water swims you were part of, like a swimming club. And, it’s interesting because I really also enjoy you through your relationship with Laird because then you guys talk in a different language. Also, you’re talking about water and waves and wind and currents and all different types of things.
So you were living in Maui. And I remember when you called Laird, maybe you could just share your story of when you were with a friend swimming and you got, you, you ditched the rest of the group.
So we swim once a week. We do a long-distance swim in the same relative area on the south shore of Maui. That’s where Wailea is. That’s where Kihei is. There’s when they go out to tag tiger sharks, that’s where they find them all. Most of them. So you see whales in the channel. You see every big animal off there. And we were aware of the fact that there are tiger sharks, but once you start doing a lot of stuff in the ocean, and particularly when you’ve seen the ocean in a storm, or you’ve seen the giant waves that Laird surfs, and you realize that sharks are not the scariest thing at all.
They’re just fine. They live there, and they’re beautiful. So it’s fun to see them. But you think about it, and we often won’t swim alone. We don’t swim when we can’t see the bottom because a lot of the times if you get bitten, it’s a case of mistaken identity or whatever, but it was a beautiful clear day, and we went off, and we went in a slightly different direction, and we swam along these lava tubes that went out to sea, and we were looking for a sunken landing craft that’s supposedly out there. We were pretty far offshore, maybe 2,000 yards. But it was still clear enough to see the bottom. We were about 70, 60 feet of water. And I was swimming along with a university swimmer and his father. And I was just drafting on their heels, and we had nothing but bathing caps and goggles. We didn’t have anything else.
And all of a sudden, the son stops and puts up his goggles. And so we all stop, and we’re treading water. And he goes, what’s that? And he points underwater. And I put on my goggles, looked under, and there was a tiger shark right next to us, with its dorsal fin just below the surface of the water. So it was at eye level with us, and it wasn’t super big, but it also wasn’t very small. It was maybe 13 or 14 feet. And I had seen so many sharks. I’ve been in the water with great white sharks. I actually really love sharks, but I had never seen a tiger shark, and they’re like junkyard dogs. This fish was so angry.
What do you say it was angry? What does that mean?
It literally had a look on its face like it was angry. I’ve seen a stingray look angry when I almost stepped on one. It showed emotion. It was angry. What happened was it had just caught a turtle, and one of the things that we had seen was there’s this white thing on the bottom, and we were looking at it, and it was the turtle, but upside down. It had a big bite out of it. So I think what happened was that it caught this turtle, and then we swam up to it, and it dropped the turtle, and it was angry because it was eating.
So I knew enough about sharks to know that what it was doing with its body was a precursor to attacking. It had pectoral fins pulled in. It had its back hunched up. It had its membranes rolled over its eyes like it was swimming in a sort of weird way. But we all knew enough to just drop in. It occurred to me at one moment that maybe I should swim towards it or kick at it or something because, with white sharks, they say to do that; they don’t like to be aggressed. They like to sneak up on you. But I’m glad I didn’t do that. I had enough instinctual understanding that it wouldn’t have been the thing to do because some sharks also take that as a game-on kind of signal, but we just treaded water and stared at it.
And I can’t even remember being particularly scared because it was so fascinating. And it made its weird movements around us. But then what happened, which was great, was two more swimmers that were in our group came up behind us and said, Hey, why are you guys here stopped? And we were like, look down, and here’s the shark doing its thing.
But once there were five of us there, it started thinking, I think it was like, I don’t know if we really want a piece of this. And it went below us and started circling. And then it swam off the back towards some other swimmers that were coming up behind us. And one of them had a camera and filmed it and, but then it came back, and it did another few circuits around us. And by now, there were about seven or eight of us. And then, finally, it just dropped down to the seafloor, picked up its turtle, shook it, and went out to sea. And then we swam to shore. Not particularly in any sort of scared way, because it was really an awesome encounter. But two humpbacks swam right in front of us as we were swimming back.
It was just this bizarre day for wildlife viewing. And I still think about that moment. It was an interesting experience. And they definitely have a different vibe than white sharks. I think we were lucky.
Because Spielberg villainized, with Jaws, Great Whites. And it’s funny, I know Michael Muller very well, and Laird and Viola Reese got to go and be in the cage. They went to Guadalupe. And Laird said this, is that you see the Great Whites, they all have these personalities. Some are tentative. Some are more curious, and some are naughty, like juveniles. But that also, because you can see their eyeballs. You see them.
And so it’s interesting because you had the same reaction, but something else that you said, and you’ve said a version of it today that really stuck with me, is I asked you, the most obvious and dumb question, I was like, were you scared? And you go, Oh, no, I wasn’t. Because also you said you knew, you’re in their world, that being scared wasn’t going to really do anything. It’s not that you didn’t have a chance, but it was in charge; the shark was deciding, and you were just observing this whole thing. And I thought that was so interesting.
I’m really interested in the concept of the sublime, which is like beauty and fear mixed. It’s an interesting word and an interesting concept because humans can make incredible things, beautiful things, terrible things, but we can’t produce the sublime. Only nature can produce it. It’s like being in the middle of a tornado. It’s like seeing the fire all around you. It’s like seeing the top of the Matterhorn.
You’re just… taken aback by the awesomeness of it, and my own experience has shown me that when you’re in that place of having the privilege of witnessing nature writ so large that there isn’t actually room for fear to come in that moment because you’re so in the present moment nothing else can come in.
So fear might come beforehand. It might be like, I’m about to get in the sub, or afterward, Oh, I almost got bitten by a tiger shark, but at the moment, you’re just so absolutely channeled into the present moment of staring at this magnificent thing, that fear doesn’t really enter into the equation.
That really stayed with me. That was a lot of years ago.
So there’s some things, there’s some elements at the bottom of the ocean, cobalt and some other things that are very valuable. And so you have a deeper understanding of maybe, what’s coming next, where people are going to try to figure out ,companies are going to try to figure out how they can get their hands on it.
And there’s also, if I’m not mistaken, trees, if you will, that are, I don’t know how old, hundreds of thousands of years old. Vegetation, things at the bottom that are older than probably almost anything up here, we’re not going to know about this until after it happens, until it’s already in progress, as far as the disruption that’s possible because of the resource, what’s your take on that? Or even just shedding some light on that. So people have an understanding about…we’ve established this equilibrium that impacts us and our environment, and people talk about global warming, but there’s other things if they go down there and start messing around with things at the bottom.
There’s the overall chemistry of the oceans which creates the overall chemistry of the planet, and a lot of that is from microbial activities that are, like, microbes run this place. We don’t see them, but they- everything that makes the earth habitable relies on microbes.
They could go the opposite way too. Microbes are the mightiest biological force on earth, and a lot of them are in the deep ocean. But what happens at, on the abyssal sea floor, is that there will be a little, say,, nucleus of a fossilized shark’s tooth or a little piece of coral or something like that. And then, over the course of tens of millions of years, metals from the seawater (because it contains all kinds of dissolved metals) start to accrete in atomic layers around this nucleus and eventually form a kind of a little plum or something, but it’s made of metal. And if you cut it open, you see these, like, it forms like a pearl almost, but it’s not completely inert because microbes are also involved in the creation of these; they call them manganese nodules.
But they have manganese, cobalt, iron, and nickel, as well as some other trace metals. But they’re more like; they are like trees. There are no plants in the deep ocean because there’s no photosynthesis, but I compared them to trees in the book because they have life inside them and on them and under them.
And in certain parts of the seafloor, you just see these nodules carpeting the seafloor. They’re half embedded in the sediment. What they want is to get the cobalt and the nickel and, ironically, what the reasoning behind that is so we can have a greener future, but this is complete greenwashing bullshit; it is not started right now; it’s deep sea mining hasn’t begun on any sort of industrial scale, but it seems like it’s imminent and it is going to happen first, in the waters beyond national jurisdiction. So, any country could go out today and mine its own continental shelf, but the nodules are on the high seas.
And so it’s complicated, but there’s a group called the International Seabed Authority that basically administrates 54 p ercent of the planet’s seafloor. And that group – if a country has signed that, and ratified the Treaty of the Law of the Sea, they can be allocated mine sites from the International Seabed Authority, and they can have at it.
But why do they have authority to give authority?
Because the Treaty of the Law of the Sea established this organization. But the U.S. didn’t ratify that treaty, so the U.S. isn’t part of this, which is interesting because here we have this, if we do it, largest extractive industry on earth, like by an order of magnitude.
And it will be the most destructive thing we’ve ever done on earth also, by an order of magnitude because the scale is so vast. The average mine site will be 30,000 square miles, and they will not just take the nodules. They’re going to take the top bits of the sediment. So imagine clear-cutting a forest and taking 20 feet of topsoil with it.
But the thing about those sediments is they’re completely alive with microbial life. It’s like nature’s DNA archive. So whenever they study the seafloor sediments and these really subtle microorganisms and life forms that live down at that depth on these nodules, under them, in them, they’re like 90 percent new species.
They’re not just new species. Most of them are like new forms of life, new branches on the tree of life. And there’s a lot of pressure from countries like China and Norway; a handful of countries really want to start mining. And there’s a handful of private companies really in particular, one company that is really trying to…
Do you want to say their name?
It’s The Metals Company. And they are very aggressive. They act as if what they’re going to be doing is some environmentally sound thing, but it’s just about money. And they’ve partnered with this little Pacific Island nation called Nauru, I think eight square miles, Nauru 11, 000 citizens, and Nauru did ratify the law of the sea so they can have a seabed mine.
And they’ve basically partnered with The Metals Company. The Metals Company will keep most of the money, but Nauru will get some crumbs. And they’re the ones that have really been pushing forward for a decision to start. And that came to a head this summer, and the ball got punted to 2025, but this is a fight that’s going on now.
And there are just a lot of reasons why this is a bad idea. First of all, the battery chemistries for EVs and such all want to move away from cobalt and nickel because cobalt is really problematic to mine, even on land. And so we don’t know exactly what metals we’ll really need more of in five years. The batteries are not necessarily going to be cobalt. And some of the stuff we do need is not down there, like lithium, is not going to be mined in the deep ocean. So the whole idea of this being somehow better than mining on land is really nonsense because, first of all, this is the largest intact wilderness on earth, and even though we do have our plastics in the seabed sediments, and we don’t have, it’s not pristine, but it’s the closest thing we’ve got to pristine.
The most important thing is we don’t know what’s down there. And so this would completely destroy this ecosystem that we don’t even understand. It might be the most important thing we’ve got. And they’re going to reach down through three miles of water, vacuum these nodules, and all the animals that are on them, all the animals that are under them, all these living microbial sediments, blast it up a pipe, take out the nodules, and then release all the sediment and the dead, bits of dead animals at about 12,000 meters, so in the area of the ocean where all the animals signal and hunt and mate and survive because of light bioluminescent communication. We’re going to put a haze of sediment fog in there, and there’s going to be vibration in parts of the ocean, lights in parts of the ocean that were, this is just, no animals adapted to this. They’re going to, they’re filter feeders, all their gills will be clogged like the, just every bit of the mined site that is mined, there will be no living creatures left in it. And I really try to talk about this whenever I can to make people aware of it, because I honestly feel if we go forward and do this, it’s a wisdom test, and we need to pass one, for a change.
This is the womb of the earth. And even if they are able to mine this whole area from Mexico to Hawaii. It’s 2 million square miles, that’s the area that’s earmarked to go first; it would only add a small fraction to the global output of cobalt and nickel. It wouldn’t replace a single terrestrial mine.
So it’s just yet another thing of us going in there and taking. Yet, in this case, it would be even more destructive because we don’t even know what we’d be doing. So all the deep sea scientists have banded together globally and said, we recommend a moratorium of 10 to 30 years of studying this.
And if we do decide that, we have to go down and get this; we have to make sure that we’re doing it in the least harmful way. We have to make sure that the people who are doing it are not just worried about their stock price and try to make a bit of a killing and then take off. And there’s just, it has to be done very carefully because it really, it’s so much of the earth. There’s a lot of things that I don’t like that we do, but this is the worst I’ve ever…
Is there anything a householder person can do, or are we just going to have to wait and see and hope that a few people who have some power and intelligence are going to get involved? Is there any way that people can? I know you said the U.S. is not part of this, but I’m just curious because sometimes it feels like all those decisions are getting made behind closed doors, and then policies are made, or things have been going on for three to five years before the regular population even knows about it.
So it is outrageous that this one little group of bureaucrats in Kingston, Jamaica, is in charge of more than half the earth. And it’s not a democratic process. There are 36 countries on their leadership council, and I think they only need 12 to vote yes in order to make it go ahead. But what’s been effective so far, and the reason why it’s not already been green-lighted this summer, is that people are becoming more aware of it, and it’s becoming unacceptable. Some big companies like Google, BMW, Samsung, and Volvo have already come out due to consumer pressure and said, we are not going to use seabed minerals in our supply chains.
And Victor Vescovo, he actually, because he’s a really successful guy in the material world, like a financial wizard, and he obviously doesn’t want to see this happen, but he believes that what we have to do is make it just impossible for the funding to happen. And also, he thinks they’re underestimating how hard it’s going to be.
And so seabed minerals, that would cut off the – They need billions of dollars in order to be able to go out and do this. And if we could somehow have them classified as conflict minerals like blood diamonds, then that would cut off the US, which would be a major market, and that would probably cut off the funding.
So, I think the best thing at this particular moment to do is just make people aware of it because, out of sight, out of mind, three miles down, and you’re hearing all this greenwashing about it like this is just the least destructive form of mining we can do. But it’s not the case at all. It’s, in fact, the opposite. You can never replace what has been lost down there. Those nodules will never come back on anything approaching a human time scale. And we just, to give you a sense of what would be lost, there was a microbe that was found in deep-sea sediments at that depth in the Atlantic, and they have for the past 20 years been working with this really unique microbe and discovered that it creates a compound that kills cancer cells dead. And in particular, it kills glioblastoma cells, which is a brain cancer that killed John McCain. Didn’t have a cure. This compound can get through the blood-brain barrier, and it kills glioblastoma cells.
Now they’re finding out that it actually has an effect on all cancer cells, and it’s in its final clinical trials, and that repository of knowledge and strategies for survival and strategies for resilience, those are the things that are going to help us through this next period, to understand how things actually work. The idea of ripping this up so we can have a few more cell phones and EV batteries, it’s truly insanity.
On another part of cleaning up the ocean, and there are all these projects trying to attempt to do that, are there any groups that you like what they’re doing as far as on a more superficial level of cleaning the ocean and trying to get plastic out? Are there groups out there that you really like what they’re doing? So people know, and if they want to support a group because I think people, they always want to do something, but they don’t know what to do.
So plastic is a tricky one. The thing to do for plastic is to stop it from getting into the ocean because in the deep ocean, a lot of the plastic that’s in there now, which is all of our plastic, right? It gets down there, and it’s a nanoparticle. It’s microscopic. It’s like part of the organic; there’s a plastic sphere as well as a biosphere. So anything to do with plastic, like the cleanup that they’re doing on the surface, I haven’t really studied, so I don’t know, but what does bother me about that is it’s just the most visible part of the problem. And also, if you go along and scoop up all that plastic, you’re scooping up a lot of really microorganism life that’s in the top layer of the water. I’m not a hundred percent sure how effective that is, but anybody who does anything is probably helping; the really big problem is that’s the very tip of the iceberg.
They’ve now found animals in the Mariana Trench that aren’t fully organic. They have plastic embedded through their entire body. So they’re like hybrid plastic, organic cyborgs. And one of the scientists, Alan Jameson, said, when I asked him how many other animals do you think have this plastic embedded in their bodies? And he said, all of them. That’s the final sink. But there’s a really good group for deep sea mining for people to learn more about it called the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. Their website is savethehighseas.org. And they’re a bunch of lawyers, and they also work with destructive fishing, like trawl netting and stuff like that, which is another insanity. And they have a really good website that gives fact sheets so that you can understand some political and complicated things quickly. I think that would be the best place to refer people for deep-sea mining.
And besides that, we just have to stop it from actually getting into the ocean.
And we have to rethink how we use plastics. The thing about the plastic is, we’re just using this material completely wrong, and it’s a design problem. We should be using plastic for things that we want to last forever, like roof tiles or heart stents, or things that we don’t want to have to replace. Instead, we’re using it for our most disposable stuff, and it’s with us, and it’s a sponge for all these really toxic chemicals because it has petroleum in it, and they all bind to fats, and oils.
I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but just on an airplane, you see them just giving out plastic cups, any Starbucks on any given day. We just have to stop it. My deepest hope, and maybe this is a kind of fantasy, is that there’s going to be some microbe that eats plastic that we can find. Because they do just about everything else, and they’re just pretty astonishing at what they can actually transform. Maybe there’s a microbe that will save us. We will never know if we rip up the seabed.
This book, it’s like an adventure book, but it’s also educational. It just has so many components to it that I know how much work it is. Because I talk to you periodically throughout the process, and I can hear your voice and where you’re at in the process. And I just really, I just want to thank you. I know it’s a labor of love, but it also, it’s a lot. It’s a lot of work.
Books, I always compare them to bricklaying, and you really do not want to break down the per hour fee because it’s just so much, but, I always say to people, you should write a book if you have to write a book. If there’s a story that absolutely has to come out, you just have to do it.
That’s really the best reason I can think of to do it. But this was really my love letter to the ocean, and it encompasses everything that I’ve learned to date about the ocean. Hopefully, it will enchant people as much as it enchants me. I think it’s an enchanting realm, and then just like great white sharks, it’s got this sort of bad rap for being, Oh, it’s spooky, it’s creepy. It’s actually very feminine but in a fierce way, very beautiful, very serene, so many personalities. It’s very not what people think.
People think of any time we go downward like it’s trouble, right? We’re going to hell. Enlightenment is up here; to go downward is not what we like to do. The answer is always down. And our culture, the idea that down is bad, is just our culture. There were all kinds of other cultures that knew that’s where the treasure is. It’s Gilgamesh going down for his plant of immortality. It’s Odysseus going into the underworld and Orpheus; it’s not the easiest journey, but it’s the one that brings the most riches, in terms of just knowledge and life and all that. So it’s a journey worth making.
Do you feel that marine tourism would help increase more awareness, much like space tourism, and would that help get more funding and research to this, or would it be a detriment?
I think it would be great, but it has to be done right. Obviously, the Ocean Gate episode was actually a good one. It was like, let’s let people go into a sub if they want. These deep-sea subs are not that accessible, and obviously, it was very expensive to do it. But I think that it would be great for anybody who wants to go, particularly through the Twilight Zone because it’s so magical to look at. I would love to see more people do that. And I think that we will have the chance to do that. And I think it would change people’s awareness of the ocean. Anybody who’s ever been down there says it’s the most extraordinary experience of their lives. I would love for more people to have that.
I wish you guys could also, because right now it’s cost prohibitive, but just the few, the little video I saw and stuff, like even if we could create some kind of viewing or show or something where people got to enjoy that and see it. I think maybe you could talk to Victor about that somehow.
That’s what Ocean X does. They have three subs, and they take media companies around the world to be able to film places, and I have to say it’s great to watch these documentaries. Some of the footage is extraordinary; but it’s just nothing can really compare to it. And there was a moment in time I think when it looked as though manned exploration of the deep ocean was going to be subsumed by robots because they’re more cost efficient. They can do more science. They don’t have to come up at the end of the day, but what would be lost is human minds, eyes, imaginations, insights. It really is an actual place. Like, I think we think of it as a concept like, Oh, there’s a deep ocean down there, but we don’t think of it as an actual destination.
There’s all kinds of destinations there. And to go there and see it with your own eyes- you obviously don’t see a panoramic horizon down there because it’s dark, but you see all kinds of stuff as you come upon it, and you realize that you’re traveling through the actual destination of the deep ocean. It’s not just a concept.
Susan, the book is “The Underworld.” If people want to read it, it’s available, and obviously, you read the book itself. So if you’re a person who listens to books, it’s also available. And is this the first book you read yourself?
No, I read “The Devil’s Teeth” as well. It’s so hard to read a book. I’m not a voice artist. But I did feel like I wanted to see if I could convey the emotion that I felt being in that environment that is pretty unique. And I don’t know if I have the voice talent to actually pull that off, but I wanted to try.
It’s a good idea. You did it. I’m saying it’s a good idea.
The book came out on August 1st. Can you just remind people of all the places they can find you if they want to reach you or talk to you?
I have a website, SusanCasey.com. I’m on Instagram at Susan L. Casey. I’m not great at social media. I’m trying to get better, but I’m on Twitter, but I don’t really tweet, but mostly I will hang out on Instagram.
You’ve been busy. I really appreciate you, and I love you so much.
I love you too.
I’m so glad I saw you. Thank you. Congratulations.
Always fun to talk to you. Thank you.
Thank you for listening to this week’s episode. If you want to learn more, there is a ton of valuable information on my website. All you have to do is go to GabrielleReece.com or head to the episode show notes to find a full breakdown with helpful links to studies, research, books, podcasts, and so much more.
If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out and send them to at @GabbyReece on Instagram. And if you feel inspired, please subscribe. I’ll see you next week.
- The Underworld
- The Devil’s Teeth
- The Wave
About Susan Casey
Susan Casey is the author of the “The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean,” and “The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks.” Both books are New York Times bestsellers, with “The Wave” named one of 2010’s Most Notable Books. Her latest book, “Voices in the Ocean: A Journey Into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins,” was published by Knopf Doubleday in August 2015, and became a New York Times bestseller in its first week on sale. Voices was also chosen as one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2016.
“The Devil’s Teeth” was also a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, a San Francisco Public Library Book Club Selection, a BookSense bestseller, a Barnes & Noble Discover Selection, a Library Journal Best Book of 2005, a 2005 NPR Summer Reading Selection, and a Hudson News Best Book of 2006. Outside magazine included it in “The New Adventure Library: The 32 Best of the 21st Century’s Books, Movies, and Videos.” Apple featured The Devil’s Teeth on its list of ten “iEssentials” in the Adventure and Travel category.
“The Wave” was also a Hudson News Best Book for 2010, an Indies Choice Award winner, and was featured on dozens of bestseller and critics’ best of the year lists. It won the North American Society for Oceanic History’s John Lyman Book Prize for Science and Technology, and an Indies’ Choice Award in 2011. Mens Journal named it one of “The 50 Greatest Adventure Books” of all time.
From 2009–2013, Casey served as the editor in chief of O, The Oprah Magazine. The publication is one of the country’s largest, with a monthly readership of 15 million women. In 2012, O won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence and the Clarion Award for Best Overall Magazine; during Casey’s tenure the title also garnered numerous other accolades and awards. Along with editing the magazine, Casey contributed to O as a writer, with features that included an odyssey into the world of spiritual healing, and a global scavenger hunt to discover nature’s most powerful superfoods.
In the course of reporting, Casey has lived among great white sharks, faced 70-foot waves off Maui’s north shore, ventured into the heart of the Gulf oil spill, trained as a sharpshooter, and performed as a mermaid in a giant tank, among other adventures. In 2008, she won a National Magazine Award for her Esquire feature, “75,” an investigation of what aging really means, as examined through the life of one exceptional man. In 2006, she received a National Magazine Award nomination for her story, “Our Oceans Are Turning to Plastic…Are You?” an environmental exposé on the dire impact plastic pollution in the oceans is having on planetary and human health. Her writing has appeared in Esquire, National Geographic, Fortune, Time, and Sports Illustrated, as well as the anthologies: “The Best American Science and Nature Writing,” “The Best American Sports Writing,” and “The Best American Magazine Writing.”
From 2000 to 2009, Casey was the development editor of Time Inc; the editor in chief of Sports Illustrated Women; and an editor at large for Time Inc.’s magazine titles. From 1994–1999, she was the creative director of Outside magazine, where she was part of the editorial team that published the original stories behind the bestselling books “Into Thin Air,” and “The Perfect Storm,” as well as the movie “Blue Crush.” During her tenure, Outside won three consecutive, history-making National Magazine Awards for General Excellence. Casey is the only person to have won this prize in all three disciplines: editing, writing, and art direction.
Casey has made frequent TV and radio appearances, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “Charlie Rose,” “Conan,” “Anderson Cooper 360,” “Nightline,” “Good Morning America,” “Today,” “The CBS Morning Show,” as well as many NPR outlets including Fresh Air, The Takeaway, and Life on Earth.
Casey lives in New York and Hawaii.