May 14, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

Helping marine biologists go where few divers have gone before: Oded Ben Shaprut, head diving officer at the Interuniversity Institute of Eilat.The Twilight Zone became famous as the name of the hit TV series, but what happens in the real ‘twilight zone,’ at depths between 40 meters and 100 meters in the sea, may be even stranger than fiction – at least in the eyes of a marine biologist.

There are less than 10 dedicated teams in the world studying the dangerous twilight zone, and one of them is stationed at the northern shore of the Rea Sea in Israel. There, Oded Ben Shaprut, head diving officer for the Interuniversity Institute of Eilat (IUI), who heads the team, is helping marine biologists go where few divers have gone before.

The special diving unit he commands, called Marine Twilight Zone Research and Exploration, uses high-end technical diving gear such as rebreathers to study and explore these zones, which are normally too difficult and dangerous for the average diver to reach.

The special tools, which extend underwater diving times, allow 57-year-old Ben Shaprut and his team to remain at depths of about 70 meters for up to 25 minutes, where they survey and sample coral reefs and marine life.

Down there in the Red Sea, there is enough light to see says Ben Shaprut. However, unusual things can happen at great depths, he tells ISRAEL21c. For example, he knows of a grouper which lives a solitary life in the shallow zones. But deep down below, one can find them living communally. “An orgy,” he says.

“These depths are beyond typical sport SCUBA limits, and therefore have not been as extensively explored by marine scientists,” Beverly Goodman, an underwater archaeologist at the IUI, writes ISRAEL21c,

“Their research is significant because it has recognized, recorded, and is disseminating information about the condition and damage being incurred by deeper reefs – a zone without any protection at the moment – and regularly discovers new species, as well as extends the known depth limits of already recorded species.”

Busy with training Jordanians on special diving techniques, Ben Shaprut compares what’s found below the sea to a rainforest. “There has been so little research at these depths that there is a good chance of finding new species,” he says.

And diving up to 100 meters is not a simple undertaking. If something should go wrong, there is no chance that the diver can return to the water’s surface without decompressing – which in some cases can take up to two hours. “With 70 meters of water above you, you haven’t got the option of shooting up to the surface. That option would kill you,” he explains.

“Every dive we make is not a simple dive,” says Ben Shaprut, who has seen a shark only once, a few years ago: “We take on a lot of preparation.”

The benefits of this work outweigh all the risks, however. Unlike in the terrestrial world, the deep sea is for pioneers who may one day report on new phenomena or species. “This is virgin ground,” says Ben Shaprut, who expects new publications on the physiology of coral reefs at depths, to be published by the IUI in the coming months.

“There is much that’s unexplored. It’s the complexity of getting there,” he adds.

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Jason Harris

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