MRC launches the xSump: the newest edition to the xSeries

MRC xSeries group

June 28 2016, Jake Adams –
The xSump is a new line of central filtration devices from MRC. MRC’s new xSumps are riding a the wave of a new generation of sumps from a variety of different manufacturers, and it embodies the simplicity, features and craftsmanship that MRC is known for.

MRC’s xSumps look simple enough, but the streamlined craftsmanship belies a slew of very useful features. The dual drains from your marine or reef aquarium is directed into individual four inch filter socks, and into a protein skimmer chamber with an adjustable water height.

MRC xSump adjustable baffle

Of course, as with all MRC products the xSumps are made in the USA, with 1/4? cast acrylic which is strong enough to keep these sumps rocking for years to come, without breaking the bank. Other useful features of the MRC xSump include built in dosing lines, easy-fit filter sock holders, and high water flow capacity.

Best of all, the MRC xSumps have tons of room for building the filtration center of your dreams. The four models of the xSump range from 12 gallons to 32 gallons to match up to a variety of aquarium sizes, from 20 inches long, to 36 inches long, so there’s plenty of space for adding media reactors, protein skimmers, drop in refugiums, etc.

MRC xSump dosing line holder

Earlier this year MRC introduced the xSeries media reactors, signaling a return to the company’s roots in the aquarium hobby. After a protracted engagement with the more commercial side of aquatic life support systems for major installations, with the new xSeries sumps and reactors it looks like we might be treated to more of MRC’s design and engineering in the near future.

MRC xSeries group

MRC xSump filter sock

MRC xSump

Click to read the article on Reefbuilders

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MRC xSeries reactor reviewed

by Marcin Smok via
All images by author

MRC x3

The importance of chemical filtration in a saltwater aquarium is undeniable. Unlike most freshwater tanks, a saltwater setup relies on a handful of chemical compounds that bind to and absorb harmful byproducts of the nitrogen cycle, as well as chemicals and decaying matter introduced by aquarists themselves (through medications, feeding, adding new live rock etc.). There is a wide variety of media available on the market, from the most basic- ”fail proof” activated carbon, to various granular ferric oxide compounds, synthetic polymers, and other chemicals.

But how to effectively distribute flow to maximize contact with chemical media and, in turn, to assure its effectiveness? Different media have different flow requirements, and there have been many advancements in the methods used to disperse flow through the various media. The simplest solution for chemical filtration, placing chemical media contained in a mesh bag in a high-flow area of the tank, suffers from the fact that the flow is distributed unevenly throughout the media bag and can also clog with debris. The solution is a separate chemical media reactor. This device is set up with either its own circulation pump, or as a loop from the main return pump, which keeps it from reducing flow throughout the system and allows for a precise control over the amount of water that “feeds” the media.

The device I am reviewing today is a free-standing media reactor from My Reef Creations (MRC) called x3. The company is débuting a line of reactors; there is the x3, as well as a larger model named x5. Let’s take a closer look and see what MRC has come up with.

MRC x3 Reactor

My Reef Creations is well-known and respected in the high-end, custom built aquarium circle, but is largely unknown to the general public. Well, MRC wants to change that by opening their doors to the public, offering quality made products with affordable price tags.

The company designs and manufactures all their equipment on-site in Atlanta, Georgia, using high end materials and computer-controlled CNC machines in their facility. There are a large number of private clients, as well as public aquariums, that have engaged MRC to design and build their filtration systems. The next time you see a gigantic sump or 6-foot-tall skimmer, take a look – there is a good chance MRC built it. However, big aquariums are not the company’s only focus- they are known for custom builds of any size and shape. Back to the review…


MRC x3 retail packaging

MRC x3 follows a proven design – it is a freestanding, large diameter, transparent tube with both inlet and outlet connectors located on the top. The lid of the reactor is held on by six thumb nylon screws and a rubber O-ring that creates a watertight seal. Inside the x3 is a black tube, through which water enters the reactor and disperses on the bottom, and a set of two acrylic plates and two sponge “donuts” that hold the media in place, preventing it from getting back to the tank.

MRC x3 size comparrison

The physical dimensions, holding capability and plumbing parts sizes are as follows:

-the reactor, with lid attached, stands 13” (33 cm)tall, the 90 degree angle fittings add another inch (2.5 cm) for a total height of 14? (35.5 cm)

-the reactor’s chamber is 4” (10 cm) in diameter and holds 1430 ml of media

-MRC x3 footprint is 5.5” (14cm)

-each unit comes with two 90 degree nylon elbow fittings with barbed connections, which accomodate ½” (12/16mm) flexible tubing (I recommend securing the tubing with teflon tape)

-an acrylic hanging bracket comes with each reactor

-MRC x3 is rated for aquariums up to 200 gallons (750 l) in volume

MRC x3 measurements
MRC x3 measurements 2

MRC will be selling their reactors in two versions- as a standalone unit that includes everything I mentioned above, as well as a plug & play package called x3 ECO kit, that included 4 feet of vinyl tubing and a recirculating pump. I also want to mention that the larger model, the x5, has the same diameter and footprint as the x3, it is 21? (53cm) tall, holds 2740 ml of media, and is rated for tanks up to 400 gallon (1500l) in volume

MRC xSeries parts pack


My Reef Creations x3 reactor’s build quality does not disappoint- the acrylic work is superb, impeccably cut and glued. Thumb screws on the lid assembly operate smoothly and match the lid’s keyholes perfectly, creating a watertight seal around the top.

MRC xSeries flange

This chamber design is virtually fail proof, much better than the standard threaded lid other reactors have; they tend to leak. The acrylic and filter sponges match the reactor’s inner diameter seamlessly and are easily removed for cleaning.

MRC xSeries deconstructed
MRC xSeries deconstructed 2

In summary, MRC x3 is a proven design executed extremely well- you can see and feel the build quality MRC is famous for, and there’s nothing to complain about. The only thing I would like to see in the ECO kit is a small, inline swing arm valve to have a little control over the flow.

MRC x3 bracket

To test the flow dispersion through the reactor chamber, I filled it to ¼ of its volume with large size particles of activated carbon, attached an oversized pump, and observed how the particles moved around.


Unsurprisingly, the outlet at the bottom of the inner tube shot water in all directions, dispersing it evenly throughout the media. This is important, because it assures uniform flow through all media particles, a reactor’s most important characteristic.

MRC x3 with carbon


Perhaps the most surprising aspect of MRC reactor is its price. The smaller x3 will retail for $89, which is only slightly more than the lesser quality, screw-on type reactors we see dominating the market in the “under $100” price range. The x3 ECO kit will sell for $114.99 and x5 will cost $129.99

MRC xSeries lid

The x3 reactor can be summarized as follows: it is built in United States and conforms to the high standard that the company is known for, it works flawlessly, and it will be offered at a price that makes it a great alternative to the Asian-made reactors you can find in many chain retail stores. It doesn’t surprise with any technological innovations, but shares the same proven design of the much more expensive reactors on the market. It can be placed on the floor or hung on the tank’s rim with an included bracket, and works with various kinds of media. If you are looking for a new media reactor for your saltwater tank, MRC x3 offers an excellent quality/price ratio.

For more photos, follow the link to

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MRC Nilsen reactor reviewed

Reefbum recently used and reviewed the MRC Nilsen reactor on a project. For a nicely done instructional video with a bonus review, check out the video below and let him know what you think.

Video and review by

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Tenji completes MRC powered installation at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s ARCC facility

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s ARCC (Animal Research and Care Center) houses some of the amazing animals that you’ll see in the aquarium. The ARCC houses mola molas, pelagic rays, Hammerhead sharks, bluefin tuna, green sea turtles, barracuda, yellowfin tuna, bonito, a sandbar shark, as well as countless other fish.


Tenji Aquarium Design + Build just recently completed an installation that includes 10 independent quarantine systems with 44 tanks designed to hold either tropical or temperate (cold water) animals. MRC protein skimmers will handle all of the heavy duty skimming this facility will need.


For more photos, check out the article.

For more information regarding their work, Tenji can be contacted directly via their website:

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MRC xSeries Reactors brings commercial grade to hobbyist aquariums MRC xSeries reactor lid

December 22, Jake Adams via Reefbuilders–

The MRC xSeries Reactors is a new line of media reactors from one of America’s most trusted acrylic manufacturers, My Reef Creations. The new xSeries Reactors are just the tip of the iceberg for many new products we hope to see from MRC which will feature top level design, materials, and quality construction. MRC xSeries reactors

In recent years MRC has been focused on building commercial grade aquarium equipment, most notably very large skimmers and battle-ready sumps for exceptionally large tanks. But the MRC xSeries reactors is the first indication that My Reef hasn’t forgotten about its roots in the home marine aquarium hobby.

In addition to the exacting attention to detail, the MRC xSeries reactors have an exceptionally well designed diffusion plate to promote ‘True Reverse Flow’ in the reactor volume. The MRC xSeries feature custom blue ¼” translucent acrylic that enable a complete visual inspection of the bonds for quality control measures.

The freshly announced reactors from the xSeries includes two models, an X3 which holds 1430ml of media, and the X5 which holds 2740ml. Both the X3 and X5 are four inches in diameter with a 5.5 inch footprint, the X3 is 13 inches tall while the X5 is 21 inches tall.

There will also be an xSeries x3 ECO Kit from My Reef Creations which is a plug and play design that comes standard with the same efficient technology as the non kitted x3. plus 4? of vinyl tubing and an ECO 132 pump. The xSeries reactors are priced starting at $89 for the smaller X3 and will become available early 2016. MRC xSeries reactor with media

Read more:

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Acropora cervicornis larvae collection

Steinhart Aquarium's Richard Ross  packing A. cervucirnis larvae.

Steinhart Aquarium’s Richard Ross packing A. cervucirnis larvae.

Every year, the endangered staghorn and elkhorn corals mass spawn. FLAQ leads a program involving several institutions – Florida Aquarium, Steinhart (California California Academy of Sciences), Georgia Aquarium, Coral Restoration Foundation, NOAA, University of Florida, Sea World, Akron Zoo – to better understand the spawning, and culture the larvae with the goal of being able to rebuild reef systems.

Team photo: Sea World's Justin Zimmerman, Florida Aquarium's Shawn Garner,  Rick Klobuchar, & Pete Mohan.

Team photo: Sea World’s Justin Zimmerman, Florida Aquarium’s Shawn Garner, Rick Klobuchar, & Pete Mohan.

Read more about the Coral Restoration Foundation and their amazing work:

Swimming Acropora cervicornis larvae. So cool that coral babies swim before they settle down forever.

Posted by Richard Ross on Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The world's only underwater marine reseach lab. It contains 6 bunks and every amenity you could imagine: wifi, A/C, microwave oven, hot water, showers, fridge and freezer, etc. It allows divers to work up to 9 hours a day at a depth of 99 feet.

The world’s only underwater marine reseach lab. It contains 6 bunks and every amenity you could imagine: wifi, A/C, microwave oven, hot water, showers, fridge and freezer, etc. It allows divers to work up to 9 hours a day at a depth of 99 feet.

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AquaJelly Video

What better way to equip a high-tech aquarium than to fill it with high-tech robotic jellyfish? The AquaJellies perfectly complement MRC’s custom bonded cylinder aquarium. Enjoy!

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High Tech Jellies

The team at Orphek LED lighting had the chance to work with My Reef Creations to provide lighting for a robotic jellyfish exhibit for Festo Robotics.


Recently we had the opportunity to work with Raj and the team at My Reef Creations on a project involving a travelling display for the robotics company Festo. This project was designed to display their advanced technology and prowess in design of robotic methods. The MRC team obviously wanted an equally well designed lighting plan for the system that would mimic the natural environment and light the display beautifully without consuming too much energy or being overly complicated.

MRC Cylinder Aquarium

The cylinder system is 65 inches high with a diameter of 53 inches. Comprising of 600 gallons, it’s lit with 2 units of the Orphek Atlantik Pendant WiFi. MRC fabricated the sleek looking mounting system and modeled it after their take on a robotic jellyfish. The tank rests on a CNC stainless steel stand and can be transported and setup quickly, allowing the clients to easily move the system from event to event.

Co-Owners of MRC , Tim and Raj designed the mount to match the lights, allowing for air flow and full light penetration by using a CNC to mill the housing to match the Atlantik Pendants faceplate exactly. It’s the kind of detail that MRC is known for and what sets them apart from the rest

Festo booth

Utilizing the built in WiFi capabilities of the Atlantik, the lighting is able to be changed to give a different look to the display throughout the show by ramping channels up or down based upon the clients choice. From a brightly lit full sunlight reef look to a blue that just brings out the highlights on the Jellyfish, the Atlantik Pendants are able to put the finishing touch on what can only be described as one of the coolest things we’ve seen in a long time.

Orphek light 1

The system debuted recently at the AACC conference in Atlanta, Georgia and was the hit of the tradeshow floor with people literally mobbing the display to catch a glimpse and wonder at the high tech inner workings of the Jellies.

Orphek light 2

If you want a high tech, well thought out aquarium and filtration system you need to go to My Reef Creations. The team there will take you from initial planning to completed systems with professionalism.

Orphek light 3

If you want the best in high tech LED lighting for your aquariums robotic or otherwise, the Orphek Atlantik series of lights have you covered. Orphek continues to deliver.

MRC jelly light fixture

Originally posted at

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Bringing up fish from the deep

Due to the immense pressures at depth, exacting standards was imperative to a successful project. MRC’s precise fabrication and expertise fit the bill and the advanced decompression chamber was born. To get a better understanding on why the decompression chamber is so important, QUEST published a wonderful article explaining it all.

Bringing Fish Up from the Deep
Video Story by Adrienne Calo , Producer for QUEST on Mar 05, 2015
Article by Lauren Farrar

Deep below the ocean’s surface lies a mysterious region known as the “twilight zone.” Located 200 to 500 feet beneath the surface, this region receives scarce amounts of light, mimicking twilight—the time of day just after sunset. Some areas of the twilight zone are vast ocean space, but some are home to incredible coral reefs.

Scientists have many unanswered questions about this region, in part because it is so hard to reach. Diving to these depths requires specialized training and gear, and takes hours to safely ascend. Bart Shepherd and Luiz Rocha at the California Academy of Sciences are among a group of scientists that get to explore these depths.

“More people have been to the surface of the moon than have been to these reefs,” says Bart Shepherd, director of the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences.

“Everywhere we go, about half of the fish are not known. They don’t have a scientific name. The other half, we didn’t know that they went that deep. So, these are all new records, either new records of depth extensions or range extensions, or new species,” says Luiz Rocha, curator of ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences.

The scientists are studying the twilight zone to learn about the biodiversity of this region and the greater role it plays in the health of the ocean. “You know, one of the great questions that we still have is ‘What are the connections between the shallow reefs and these twilight zone reefs?’ And, that’s really why we are studying it. That’s really why we continue to go and look there,” explains Shepherd.

As part of their research, Shepherd and Rocha wanted to collect live fish of newly discovered species in order to study their behavior and to display in the Academy’s aquarium for the public to see. “I think in order for people to really understand and want to conserve and protect life in these depths, they really have to have a direct connection with it, and they need to be able to see things that came from there,” adds Shepherd.

However, the researchers ran into a problem. They knew if they tried to bring fish up from that depth, the swim bladder—an organ that helps fish maintain their buoyancy—would expand, crushing other vital organs inside the fish, often causing the fish to die.

Figuring out a solution to this problem was a team effort. Matt Wandell, a biologist at the Steinhart Aquarium, was a key player in designing the device that would allow fish to be brought up safely. “I had started to hear about the idea of the California Academy of Sciences going down and exploring deep under the ocean with divers, and possibly collecting fish down there. And since my job is to make sure that those fish come back healthy, I thought about different ways that we could make sure that they could handle that pressure change,” explains Wandell.

The team engineered a portable device in which they could collect fish during their dives. The device, known as a portable decompression chamber, was designed to maintain the pressure of the twilight zone while the fish are transported to the surface. Once at sea level, the pressure inside the chamber is slowly reduced, often over two to three days. This gives the fish enough time to safely adjust to living at lower pressure.

With this portable decompression chamber, researchers at the California Academy of Sciences have been successful in collecting fish from the twilight zone. Species from their recent expedition to the Philippines are now on display at the Steinhart Aquarium.

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MRC goes deep with Steinhart’s Scientific Diving Team


MRC is well know for its aquarium and aquatic life support works, but our projects extend way beyond these. MRC has been working with Steinhart Aquarium’s Matt Wandell on decompression chambers that allows the Scientific Dive Team to safely bring deepwater specimens to the surface. The following Scientific American article documents a recent expedition by the Scientific Dive Team where the latest version of the decompression chamber was used very successfully.

The Richest Reef: Deep Diving into the Twilight Zone
By Steven Bedard | May 26, 2015 |

Bart Shepherd shows off a few of the day’s catch before preparing them for their long journey.
Photo: Elliott Jessup

Editor’s Note: “The Richest Reef” follows members of a scientific dive team as they attempt to pinpoint the center of the most biologically diverse marine ecosystem in the world. Long considered our planet’s most species-rich piece of ocean real estate, the Western Pacific’s “Coral Triangle” is a continent-sized patchwork of habitats, populations, and communities. Expedition scientists are trying to identify exactly which section of this rich mosaic is most diverse, but their effort carries with it far more meaning than a simple dot on a map would suggest. Along the way, they’ll discover dozens of new species, visit dive sites and depths no one has seen before, and gain a better understanding of the factors that promote biodiversity and the role these species-rich areas play in sustaining healthy ecosystems.

All I can see is the thin white line disappearing into the blue-black below. That, and a diffuse stream of bubbles escaping back toward the surface—which is exactly the direction instinct tells me I should be heading. For a moment, the thought of aborting the dive flashes through my mind. But there’s someplace I’m supposed to be. I do my best to override fear by focusing on plan and procedure and push on—or rather fall, effortlessly, heavier than saltwater, and picking up speed.

The meeting I’m scheduled to attend was planned a couple of hours earlier. The proposed rendezvous point, 110 feet below the surface, made my palms sweat just to hear it. Among this crowd, 110 feet is pedestrian. Well within “recreational” dive limits, it’s a depth that makes deep divers feel comfortable, like they’re out of the woods. It doesn’t sound very recreational to me. Then again, I’ve never been anywhere near the 500-foot envelope these guys push every time they enter the water to venture into some of the least-explored terrain on the planet.

We’re here at the southern tip of the Philippines’ largest island, Luzon, at a spot chosen for its combination of steep drops and shallow reefs that climb all the way to the surface. The nucleus of the group is a five-member, multidisciplinary team of deep-reef divers, including Bart Shepherd, the aquarium director at the California Academy of Sciences, Luiz Rocha, the Academy’s curator of ichthyology, Hudson Pinheiro, Rocha’s tireless PhD student, Elliott Jessup, head of the Academy’s scientific diving program, and Brian Greene, a highly experienced deep diver and fish collector from Hawaii’s Bishop Museum.

Colorful communities
An example of the colorful communities that deep divers find in the half-light of the twilight zone. (Photo by Bart Shepherd)

For the past two weeks, while other members of the expedition have been exploring the Verde Island Passage’s “shallow” reefs—anywhere from zero to 130 feet—the deep team has been plunging into the “twilight zone,” a region of depth between 200 and 500 feet below the surface. This narrow band—well beyond recreational dive limits and far above the deep trenches scientists explore when they have submarines and ROVs at their disposal—has been visited by fewer people than have walked on the moon. That fact and the twilight zone’s unique conditions and habitats make this a treasure trove of novel biodiversity. The rate of new-species discovery on a twilight zone dive can top 10 per hour, which, in my mind, almost makes up for the inherent risks and the hours divers have to spend decompressing on their way back up after a 30-minute tour of this cold, bizarre, light-starved world.

A plan is hatched
As if it’s not enough to spend your days exploring a place no human has ever seen before, the twilight zone team is devoting its final week in the Philippines to a truly audacious plan. They will collect live animals at depth and then attempt to keep them alive and healthy on the impossibly long journey from a deep reef in the Philippines to the public aquarium at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences. As you might imagine, the scheme is chock-full of risks, for both humans and non-humans alike. Some aspects of the plan—like the design and construction of a fish-sized, portable decompression chamber—have been in the works for months, while others are standard operating procedure for any deep dive. No detail is spared and nothing is intentionally left to chance. Yet, out of the dizzying list of safety protocols and if-then scenarios discussed during the morning pre-dive meeting, just two simple-sounding objectives emerge: “Stay alive” and “catch fish.”

Eye on the prize
Brian Greene keeping one eye on the big prize in the midst of catching fish. (Photo by Elliott Jessup)

While the second objective gives the briefest nod to what the team came on this expedition to do, the first is akin to an athlete reminding himself to keep his eye on the ball—except this ball can kill you if you lose sight of it. “There are maybe a dozen people on the planet doing what we’re doing,” Greene says, “because it’s f#@%ing hard and people die.”

That might sound like hyperbole or bluster, but it’s no joke. Although humans cleared the whole breathing-under-water hurdle many decades ago, the deeper you go, the more complicated things get and the less certain you can be of a safe return. As popular as scuba diving might be, most divers wouldn’t dream of going to 400 or 500 feet. The inherent risks are simply too great, as is the investment of time and money required to bring those risks into reasonable proportion relative to the gains. And there’s a lot more to the risks than the distance a deep dive places between the diver and that unlimited supply of air at the surface.

Where oxygen becomes toxic
The pressure that goes hand in hand with depth does bizarre things to one’s physiology, particularly in relation to the air we breathe. Every 33 feet of depth stacks one whole atmosphere’s worth of pressure on top of a diver. That pressure compresses everything, gases in particular—so much so that a lungful of air at 500 feet contains 12 times as many molecules as the same breath at the surface. That’s 12 times the number of molecules pushing into a diver’s tissues and being absorbed by the blood, which is almost exactly 12 times too many.

Rebreather test run
Hudson Pinheiro giving his rebreather a test run before plunging in for a four-hour dive. (Photo by Steven Bedard)

At depth, the 21-percent concentration of life-giving oxygen we breathe on land quickly becomes toxic and seizure-inducing. The other chief component of air, nitrogen, starts to have a narcotic effect somewhere beyond about 90 feet. Seizures and narcosis are two conditions you most definitely do not want to experience hundreds of feet underwater. To prevent both, the deep divers use an advanced breathing system that dilutes the standard percentages of oxygen and nitrogen with helium, an inert gas that has none of the toxicity and narcotic effects of the other two gases. This closed-circuit system, known as a “rebreather,” also scrubs carbon dioxide from air the diver exhales and recycles oxygen, which allows for longer dive times. A sophisticated onboard computer monitors the mix of gases in real-time and meters out just enough oxygen to keep a diver conscious, clear-headed, and seizure-free.

Of course all of the extra gas absorbed into the tissues while at depth has to go somewhere as a diver heads toward the surface. The deeper you dive, the longer you stay, and the harder you work while down there, the more gas the tissues absorb and the more will be looking to escape on your way back up. Ascend too quickly, and dissolved nitrogen boils out of solution and forms bubbles in the tissues and blood, causing the painful and sometimes-life-threatening condition known as decompression sickness or “the bends.” The only reliable prevention for the bends is a slow ascent. That means hours spent decompressing at increasingly shallow depths in exchange for 30 or 40 minutes mucking around in the twilight zone.

Deco stop
Elliott Jessup on a decompression stop following a tour of the twilight. (Photo by Bart Shepherd)

Another world altogether
While it’s arguable that anything you might see in the half-light hundreds of feet below the surface is worth all this risk and preventative effort, you can guess where the deep divers might land on this debate. “It’s an extraordinary place, with a completely different community of organisms,” Shepherd says with infectious enthusiasm. “Half of what we see down there is new to science.”

Interestingly, there’s usually a pretty clear line distinguishing the extraordinary “down there” from all the rest, and in the Philippines that line falls consistently between about 270 and 300 feet. En route to this magical depth, the team sees more or less what they would expect: a steady transition from one community of organisms to another. That’s followed by a strange moonscape of sand and rubble that slopes far too gently for divers who can’t afford to waste time on descent. But then something amazing happens. They reach a sharp ledge that opens steeply toward the center of the Earth. As they spill over the edge, they feel the temperature drop as precipitously as the slope and watch as their dive lights cut through the near darkness to reveal a world unlike anywhere else on the planet.

A new world
The twilight zone team finds a strange new world below 300 feet, where half the organisms they see are new to science. (Photo by Bart Shepherd)

Gorgeous soft corals and sea fans wave in the current, perfectly adapted to life without the benefit of photosynthesis; multicolored comb jellies, which swim freely in other parts of the ocean, cling to wire corals and strands of discarded monofilament like socks hanging on a line; and bizarre crabs, urchins, and nudibranchs cruise the bottom in search of their next meal. But it’s really the fish we’re here for and it’s easy to see why.

If anything can convince me that all this effort is worthwhile, it’s the fish. Like the daydream creations of a child left with nothing but the brightest crayons in the box, these are some of the most beautiful fish you’ve ever seen. In full light, they practically glow in hues of red, pink, orange, and yellow. Most are known only to the world’s most knowledgeable ichthyologists and a handful of hardcore aquarium enthusiasts. Many have yet to be described and don’t even have proper names yet. If Rocha has anything to do with it, it won’t be long before they do. But first, the dive team has to get today’s catch up to the surface.

Sacura speciosa
A specimen photo of Sacura speciosa, one of the many beautiful fish the team hopes to bring back alive. (Photo by Luiz Rocha)

Keeping the pressure on
We find the team just where they said they’d be, at the other end of the line, 110 feet below an inflatable buoy shot to the surface a few minutes earlier. At this point, they’re just a little over an hour into a four-hour dive, and have paused briefly at one of their many decompression stops to hand off their precious cargo before it gets too warm.

Rocha, Shepherd, and Greene begin unclipping and handing over decompression chambers containing an unknown number of brightly colored fish as soon as the first two surface-support divers arrive. The divers, Matt Wandell and Nick Yim, are biologists at the Academy’s Steinhart Aquarium and spend their days caring for rare and unusual marine organisms. They take the handoff and attach the chambers to themselves without a hint of nerves, which is surprising, given that they’ve just assumed responsibility for the wellbeing of some of the rarest creatures of them all. They’re also just beginning what they surely know is a vigil that will play out across more than 7,000 miles and over the next several dozen critical hours in these fish’s lives.

Deco chamber
Brian Greene hands a decompression chamber to Matt Wandell, while Nick Yim looks on. (Photo by Elliott Jessup)

The reason for the decompression chamber in the first place is that fish, like humans, carry a tremendous amount of gas inside their bodies, particularly inside organs called swim bladders. These internal sacs enable the fish to maintain neutral buoyancy underwater. The deeper a fish resides, the more gas that fish’s swim bladder will contain. Although fish don’t get the bends, if you bring a deep-water fish up too quickly without taking any precautionary measures, its swim bladder can expand so much that it can push the fish’s stomach completely out of its mouth. That’s the sort of fish trauma that gives aquarium biologists nightmares.

Until recently, scientists and fish collectors would poke hypodermic needles into the swim bladder to vent the gas, but Shepherd was never too keen on this technique. “I don’t like poking holes in fish,” he says. So he challenged Wandell, a full-time biologist and part-time inventor, to develop a portable decompression chamber that could be taken down to the twilight zone, sealed at depth, and would then allow the biologists to bring deep-reef fish “up” (meaning down to surface-level pressures) over the course of two or three days, rather than just a few hours.

Deco chambers
Matt Wandell puts his decompression chambers to the test as he makes his way back to the boat. (Photo by Steven Bedard)

With three of Wandell’s latest, third-iteration chambers in tow, he and Yim make their way to the boat as quickly as their obligatory safety stops will allow. Once there, they hand the chambers up and climb onboard. Time is critical. Every minute the chambers are sitting on the deck, the water inside is getting warmer and more contaminated with the fish’s own waste.

Dripping wet and still clad in neoprene, they scramble to get the three chambers hooked up to a system of tubes, pumps, valves, and gauges—also devised by Wandell and powered by a car battery—that will flush the chambers with clean, chilled seawater, while still maintaining the pressure inside. After a brief, dicey moment inherent to situations involving electricity and saltwater, the system hums to life as soon as the second jumper cable makes contact. Wandell and Yim breathe a sigh of relief that lasts all of 30 seconds before they’re back on their feet to make sure conditions inside the chambers are holding steady at levels that match those where the fish came from.

And that’s precisely the point of this whole endeavor—to recreate a small piece of the twilight zone. What might appear on the surface to be a stunt or a challenge to simply do something that’s never been done before has grown from a deep scientific root. Sure, there will be bragging rights when the team successfully transports 15 rare and beautiful twilight zone fish to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. But the knowledge they will gain about the biology, behavior, and life histories of these animals through the process of caring for them and recreating their habitats will be far more valuable. As will the ability to share what little they know about this, the least explored place on Earth.

Steven Bedard is senior science editor at the California Academy of Sciences. A former field biologist who spent the early 90s chasing spotted owls and northern goshawks through the woods, he now writes and produces media about science instead of actually doing the research–it’s way easier. Having written about archaeology, astrophysics, sleep science, genetic disorders and renewable energy, he’s found a happier place covering stories about evolution, ecology and sustainability from his home base in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. And with his newly minted scientific diver credential, he’s now able to follow scientists underwater to see and document what they’re up to down there. Look for his wide-eyed observations from the Philippines’ Verde Island Passage throughout April and part of May. Follow on Twitter @sevenbedard

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