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‘Para sa bayan’: Scientist Deo Florence Onda set to become 1st Pinoy to reach 3rd-deepest spot on Earth

MANILA - “Malapit yata diyan, malapit sa Siargao.”

Deo sends a screenshot of the Philippine map. A red dot marks a spot just off the coast of Surigao, where a shadowy blue line traces the country’s Pacific coastline. 

Even to the untrained eye, the line looks like an underwater cliff that descends to God knows where, darker than the rest of the surrounding waters. This is the Philippine Trench, one of the deepest places on planet Earth. The red dot marks Emden Deep, the deepest section of the Philippine Trench.

In just a few days, that red dot is where Deo is going.

Dr. Deo Florence Onda is a young microbial oceanographer and associate professor at the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines. A known advocate of the West Philippine Sea, Onda is the chief scientist of an ongoing study of the West Philippine Sea’s threatened ecosystems and its connection to Filipinos’ food security. As one of the country’s top young scientists, he also champions the rights and achievements of Filipino scientists in a society that often overlooks it. 

One day, he got a call from an explorer, Victor Vescovo, who gave him an offer he could not pass up: a chance for the two of them to set a world record as the first humans to reach the bottom of the Philippine Trench, the third-deepest place on the planet. 

“Kapag sinabi nating exploration, lagi tayong nakatingin sa outer space. Or yung pinakamatataas na bundok, Everest… pero di natin naiisip na there’s another world down there.” said Deo. 

“Nakita na natin 'yung kayamanan ng Pilipinas mula sa West Philippine Sea, nakita na natin yung bagong yaman natin sa Northeastern Philippines, ang Benham Rise. Baka ngayong pagkakataon, mas mapalalim natin yung appreciation natin para sa Philippine Trench, na actually parte ng Pilipinas.” 

Dr. Deo Florence Onda and Victor Vescovo who are seeking to be the first men to reach the bottom of the Philippine Trench. Photo from Deo Florence Onda's Facebook page

Victor, who leads the expedition company Caladan Oceanic, is an explorer who lives to push the limits of both technology and the human mind. He holds the record for being the first person to descend to the deepest parts of each of the world’s five oceans. 

In 2019, he held the Guinness World Record for the deepest dive by a crewed vessel, descending to newly discovered depths of Challenger Deep – the deepest part of the Marianas Trench, which is already the deepest spot on earth. To get to these places, he launches a specialized submersible called the Limiting Factor, specifically designed to withstand multiple descents into the deepest seas.

Challenger Deep, with a depth of 10,925 meters below sea level, is so deep-seated that if you dropped Mount Everest into the ocean, its summit will still be 2 kilometers below the surface. The Philippine Trench, where Victor and Deo are going, is almost as deep. The tandem again will be boarding the Limiting Factor to reach it. 

“We believe that the Philippine Trench is over 10,900 meters. So it’s really close. It almost is the deepest point in the planet. And it’s still gonna take 4 hours to get down there,” said Victor. 

“We understand that no human being has ever been down to the bottom of the Philippine Trench, which we also believe is the only other 10,000-meter trench in the world that is unexplored. And I thought it was completely appropriate, and in fact morally correct to take down a Filipino citizen to be on that first dive.”

Both admit that a significant driving force for them is the allure of exploration, and the prestige of getting there first. But for Deo, the voyage holds a much deeper significance.

“There’s a lot at stake here,” Deo said. “In most of the records of the deepest divers in the world, those were actually held by foreign explorers. Foreign scientists, like Victor. The Philippine trench is a unique feature that you will find it within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone. And that is actually an extension of our national heritage," he said.

"And I think it is just appropriate that a Filipino would actually be part of that expedition, to hold that record, at least for the Emden Deep in the Philippine Trench.”

Having been working at sea for most of is career, Deo admits that it took a while for the magnitude of the mission to hit him. It took a bunch of fellow Filipinos to drive the reality home: half of the crew of the DSSV Pressure Drop are Filipino, and they always made it a point to let Deo know how big it was.

“They’re more excited than me,” Deo said, laughing. “Every morning during breakfast, they would just welcome me at the galley and say ‘You’re making history.’ It’s really something, to be doing something to make your kababayans proud, it’s really something.”

The more he studied the expedition plan, the more it sunk in that in a matter of days, he would be no more different than the few people who have walked the moon. 

Once their mother ship, the DSSV Pressure Drop, reaches the vicinity of the Philippine Trench, it will try to locate the Emden Deep and launch the Limiting Factor somewhere above it. Deo and Victor will be the only two people inside the small watercraft. 

The DSSV Pressure Drop. Photo from Deo Florence Onda's Facebook page

“The whole mission will probably last 12 hours – 4 hours down, 3 or 4 hours at the bottom, and another 4 hours back up,” said Victor. “What’s interesting is because the only way we can communicate to the surface is by sound waves, it takes seven seconds for a transmission to go from the surface to the bottom of the trench, and another seven seconds up. 

"It actually is quicker to talk to the moon than it will be to talk to the doctor and I when we’re down at the bottom of the Philippine Trench.”

As the submersible descends, powerful lights will be turned on and cameras will start recording from all directions, capturing images of life in the depths of the earth.

Victor cannot help but be thrilled for his traveling companion. “I think more people have been to the moon than have been below 10,000 meters. So Deo will be one of the few people who have been down that deep.”

Deo, for his part, is already thinking of the stories he’ll tell his countrymen the moment he gets back. 

“This is a privilege but also a responsibility. Not a lot of people are given the opportunity to actually be on this vessel and then go down. But I think of it is a responsibility. Whatever I see down there, it is my responsibility to share it, and tell it to people. Especially to the Filipino people," he said.

"They should be able to experience the Emden Deep through my experiences.”

He’s also thinking of his students, too.

“I’m a professor. Nagtuturo ako tungkol sa deep ocean. Pero lahat ng alam ko tungkol sa deep ocean galing lang sa libro. Natutuwa ako na pagbalik ko, hindi na lang base sa libro yung make-kwento ko. I’ve seen it in person, I’ve experienced it myself," Deo said.

Victor briefed him about all the things he might feel and encounter on the 12-hour expedition down. “You never want surprises on a deep-ocean submersible dive, let me tell you that,” he said. “You want it to be as boring as possible.”

The Limiting Factor’s titanium walls are 90 millimeters thick, allowing them to stay at a constant atmosphere that is even less straining on the body than a long-haul flight. It is the mental game, though, of staying in a claustrophobic space shrouded in darkness that Deo needs to prepare for. 

The Limiting Factor. Photo from Deo Florence Onda's Facebook page

“Now it does get cold,” Victor adds. “The ocean is just about freezing at these deep levels, and so the whole submarine cools down over the long time that we’re in there. So you get a little bit cold, but nothing more than about 5 degrees Celsius or something like that.”

He may not fully know what to expect until he gets there, but there is one thing Deo packed carefully for the trip. Once the vessel hits the bottom, he will unfurl it. 

“I’m going to wave the Philippine flag down there,” Deo said, smiling as he held up a big flag to the camera. “It’s a symbolic way of asserting Philippine sovereign rights in that part of the exclusive economic zone in the Philippines. Hopefully, it will also bring pride to the many Filipinos who will get to see and watch it.”

“Oh, I have one, too!” Victor said, raising a smaller Philippine flag to the screen.

Pushing through with the mission at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was meaningful to them, an assertion to fight against the difficulties of life and make a push for your dreams.

Deo is himself no stranger to the debilitating effects of the pandemic and the many lives it derailed. Last year, when all expeditions ground to a halt, Deo took to the streets of Manila and volunteered everyday to drive stranded medical frontliners to work.

In the process of picking up sleepless, exhausted nurses, hospital workers, and even patients from the street, Deo got a glimpse of the hardship and heroism of the COVID frontlines.

Now he’s the one being driven to the frontline he knows best.

“Nung panahon ng pandemiya, scientist ako, pero hindi kinakailangan yung propesyon ko nung panahong iyon kasi mas nangangailangan yung mga health care workers. Pero ngayong may oportunidad, yung propesyon ko naman bilang isang scientist yung kinakailangan. And I think I’m just fulfilling that role for the benefit of the Filipino. Sabi nga nila lagi, hashtag Para sa Bayan. And I will always be proud to be a scientist for the people.”
 
Deo, Victor, and the rest of the crew aboard the DSSV Pressure Drop are now in the Philippine Sea, inching their way to the launch site over the Philippine Trench. Weather permitting, they will have touched down at Emden Deep on March 22.

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