A submarine explored the Cayman Rise (aka Trench) last week – and the Department of Environment’s own Sabrina Douglas was fortunate to be a crew member.
Douglas was inside the 20-ton Alvin, seated next to veteran Alvin diver Tim Shank. She screamed with excitement when it dived. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard someone scream when we hit the water,” Shank laughed.
It’s not the only first - Douglas made history as the first Caymanian to dive in Alvin, and she was about to become the first Caymanian into the depths of the Cayman Trench.
Atlantis Captain Derek Bergeron was in command along with expedition leader Randy Holt. Growing up in Savannah, Grand Cayman, Douglas spent much of her childhood in the ocean. She learned to swim as a toddler and started scuba diving aged 10.
“The first time I ever went diving, I felt so calm,” she said. “It was exactly where I wanted to be, watching the marine life and the whole ecosystem - seeing how every little part does something. From then on, it was marine biology all the way.”
Two decades later, Douglas works for the DoE as a geographic information system and field support specialist. While her education took her abroad - she studied biology at the University of Guelph in Canada, then earned a master’s in Marine Resource Development and Protection at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland - Douglas returned home to be close to family.
As a lover of ocean science, she has always been aware of research vessels and the unique studies they facilitate. It was inevitable she would eventually work in one.
“She seemed like a total natural when she started taking imagery and logging observations,” Shank said. “She had exceptional situational awareness that you don’t often see in first-time divers.”
During their dive, the crew traversed an other-worldly landscape of sulphide mounds teeming with shrimp, large anemones, and squat lobsters.
While she stays focused on her tasks, Douglas also appreciates the sheer beauty of the bizarre landscape and the plentiful animal life. She listened closely as Shank described the distinctive biology found there.
“This species of shrimp only lives here in Cayman waters - we haven’t found them anywhere else,” Shank said. “It’s one of the things that makes this place so special - a different evolutionary lineage exists here.”
This vent site also contains a higher copper content than any other known vent site in the world.
Douglas said of Shank: “Tim is great because you ask him any question and he’s happy to answer it. It’s just easy to talk to him. And when you’re spending eight hours in a small sub together that’s important.”
While her dive in Alvin was certainly a highlight, Douglas enjoyed every day of work on Atlantis. After each dive was completed, she created a GIS track to show exactly where Alvin went.
Her interest in ship operations and navigation stems from her seafaring lineage. Her father spent his early career working his way up from able-bodied seaman to chief mate on various cargo vessels and has been involved in the leadership of the Cayman Islands Seafarers Association for years.
“My dad is really proud of me since he’s a seafarer,” she said. “Both of my parents are thrilled, but I think my brother might be the most excited. When I told him about the dive, he said, ‘it’s like you’re going to the moon!’”
She added: “This seems like a really nice mark to make in the world. For such a small nation, it’s a big point of pride to say I was the first Caymanian to do this.”