AS TOLD TO BC PIRES
My name is Dr Diva Amon and I’m a deep sea biologist.
The terms “oceanographer” and “marine biologist” are kind of interchangeable. But I prefer biologist. Because I study the life.
Every time – and it’s every time – I’m introduced, I get, “So you could sing?”
I asked my parents why they named me Diva. I guess the name didn’t have (today’s) commonplace connotations.
I sometimes tell people (it was because) “diva” means “celestial being” in Hindi (but the truth is) my mother’s favourite perfume was Diva and she thought it was a beautiful word. So I feel I just have to own it.
I was surrounded by nature from young. My family has lived in Moka, Maraval, this obscenely beautiful part of Trinidad, since I was four. Not only did we have a garden, which is itself a privilege, but we were so close to the golf course. Really old-old, big-big trees.
It’s so lame, but I found these notebooks with these naturalist-type notes (I made) when I was little. Nature as a solid part of my life was fostered not just from going to the beach and the ocean, but from where I grew up.
I come from an unusually small family, for Trinidad. It’s literally just my mom and dad and one younger sister.
And now my parents are separated so it’s, like, even smaller, I guess.
Paul, Rosalind and Alexandra.
It’s one of those things you hesitate to say (but secondary school) was St St Joseph’s Convent.
I know, right? Convent girl, Convent accent. You’re immediately in a box.
Same thing with Moka.
And, sure, all those things are true but they all (also) open you up to being put in boxes. And people judge you before they know you.
My second career would have been nun.
No. Absolutely kidding. I don’t believe in God or organised religion. I’m an atheist.
There are lots of things to say about religion but, from a scientific and environmentalist perspective, I don’t think it gives nature enough credit.
I could not get home from London because of the closed borders. So I got into this really bad habit of, “Well, I might as well just work.” I’m a stereotypical overachiever, perfectionist, all those things.
So I worked an insane amount. In London, you literally could not leave the house.
Coming back to Trinidad was really lovely, to be able to do things I love, other than my work, and to remember I’m a total water baby. If I could, I’d be snorkelling, free-diving, standup-paddling
all the time.
A deep sea biologist studies the little-known habitats of the deep ocean.
My particular work also focuses on how humans are impacting them. There are very few careers like it. That allow you to (move) amongst the first peoples, see new species, habitats and behaviours – and yet that happens
every single research cruise. That’s a phenomenal thing to be part of.
I spend a lot of time sharing the wonders of the deep ocean with the public. It’s such an immense privilege, I feel this real obligation to share that experience of the deep ocean.
Pre-covid, research cruises would be two, three times a year, each cruise three-eight weeks long. You’re at sea that entire time. There’s a good chance, depending on where you are in the world, that you don’t see land.
(Adding up the days) over 16 different expeditions, I’ve spent over a year of my life at sea.
And still, if I’m on the deck at night, even on a humongous ship, deep inside, (I sometimes think): “What if you fell overboard?” No one is going to (a) know or (b) come back for you anytime soon. That walking the plank was a serious thing.
Because, 34 years ago, there weren’t real things to do in Trinidad, I spent a lot of time with and in and on the ocean and developed this love for it. Looking down into the murky ocean and being, like, “I wish I could just pull away all this water to see what’s down there.”
Both space and ocean exploration are absolutely essential.
My sister is an astrophysicist, so this is a pretty common discussion. You can look at the huge difference in the budgets and easily see space is and has been favoured over ocean science.
During covid, in 2020, I was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. It was really exciting and completely (unexpected).
Yes, BC Pires, it was exactly like they rang me up and said, “Hello, is this Diva? This is National Geographic, would you like to be an Emerging Explorer?”
I get these e-mails, not often, but more than the average scientist, I think, and they say, “We’d love to talk to you about…”
And I got one in May 2019 mentioning (the Hollywood star) Will Smith. And I was, like, what (nonsense) is this? I’m not even going to bother to respond!
My thing with Will Smith is (the six-part Disney/NatGeo TV series) Welcome to Earth, airing in early December.
(Earlier) I did a one-off show with CNN International. Then I did, like, very very tiny little things with the BBC.
But Welcome to Earth was like nothing I ever experienced before and probably will never again. Shoots would (involve) flying to destinations with 100 pieces of equipment.
On the Will Smith shoot there were, like, 60 different crew, and it would have been more, if we weren’t on a ship. The scale of it was just completely mad.
The first time I went down deep in a Japanese titanium sphere submersible, doing my PhD, 2013, in the Cayman Trench, I was sitting on the padded floor.
Each of the three people inside had a tiny window, five or six inches across. I spent a lot of the time in foetal position, to be able to see out the window.
Most of our work is now done with remote technology. It’s still a very rare thing to be able to go down into the deep sea.
Going down deep is nerve-racking because you’re in a very small space, always (physically) touching the one or two other people you’re with.
And no toilet. In that tiny space for, like, nine hours. You can wear an adult diaper – not very glamorous in my eyes. Plus I’m pretty sure everyone would know at once ‘cause it’s such a small space.
You can wear a “she-wee” contraption. Not very appealing.
You’re often with men you don’t know.
So, from 6 pm the night before, I stop drinking completely and don’t drink anything again until I am nearly or am right out of the submersible.
Whenever you’re going back to the surface, you start to see the light come back and colours start coming back, because you’ve lost wavelength (underwater).
Your blues, greens, yellows and then your reds (come in) and, when you break the surface, that sunlight, it’s like you’re home, you’re back.
It’s a wonderful experience to be able to go deep down there but there’s nothing like where we live! Which is on the surface! When you come out of the submersible and you’re hit with the smell of the salt in the sea, the smell of birds--t and diesel, they’re all signs that you’re home again and that’s always wonderful.
Yes, BC Pires, it is a kind of rebirth. There is this transition from darkness to life. The coming of the day! It’s like Carnival! That transition from J’Ouvert to pretty mas.
I think we’ll see many more people going down deep in our lifetime.
In the acrylic sphere submersibles, you don’t feel claustrophobic at all because it’s like sitting in a bubble, completely underwater but not wet. The submersibles the billionaires have nowadays are much comfier.
Still no bathrooms, though.
If you are very tall, it would not be at all comfortable.
But it’s still an amazing experience.
The deep ocean is the largest ecosystem on the planet. It is fundamental and vast and we’ve explored next to none of it.
And in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean (it’s even bigger). Like, 65 per cent of our area in Trinidad is deep sea.
For the other Caribbean islands, the deep sea is, like, 90 per cent-plus. So it’s the biggest part of the Caribbean.
Why should the average person care about this? (Because) it’s not like a faraway place. It’s really central to all of us.
You will never laugh as hard as you do with a Trini.
To me, a Trini is an ole-talker. Trinbagonians could talk. And we like to talk. And laugh. And those two often come together. Someone in that terrible situation with you will bus’ a joke and immediately transform the mood.
Having lived in the US and the UK, I know now that skill (is rare).
To me, Trinidad and Tobago is this feeling of belonging to this massive group of people who carry this collective proudness of being a Trini.
And underneath all of that, this innocent hope that everything will always be all right.
Read the full version of this feature on Friday evening at www.BCPires.com