ALPHONSE ATOLL, Seychelles -- A young scientist from the Seychelles on Friday became the first known Seychellois to explore deep below scuba depth in the largely uncharted waters of her island nation.
The 23-year-old Stephanie Marie looked stunned when she was offered a seat in a submersible for a technical test dive near the tiny atoll of Alphonse.
"This is really an amazing opportunity that for the first time a Seychellois, and a woman also, gets to do this," she told The Associated Press. The offer came on International Women's Day.
The marine researcher with the Seychelles Fishing Authority is taking part in the British-led Nekton Mission to explore the Indian Ocean, one of the last major unexplored frontiers. There is almost no data on the biodiversity of the Seychelles beneath scuba depth, or 30 meters (about 100 feet).
The mission, which began this week in earnest, expects to discover new species and document evidence of climate change in the vast body of water that is already feeling the effects of global warming.
Principal scientist Lucy Woodall said the diversity of the Nekton team was important to her.
"It is absolutely wonderful that someone from the Seychelles is the first one to go into the water in the submersibles," she said. "That is incredibly important to me."
The series of dives took Marie down to 70 meters (230 feet) as the submersible tested its systems in an unexpectedly strong current. When she returned to the mother ship she was brimming with excitement. She hugged Nekton mission director Oliver Steeds, who had offered her the role of first co-pilot.
"I was so scared, I was so happy, it was mixed emotions," Marie said. "But then when I was sitting in the sub, way down, everything was calm. You forget about your fear, you forget about everything."
The data from the mission will be used to help the Seychelles with its plan to protect almost a third of its national waters by 2020. That's an area larger than Germany. The initiative is a key part of the country's "blue economy," which attempts to balance development needs with those of the environment.
The AP is the only news agency working with British scientists from the Nekton research team. AP video coverage will include exploring the depths of up to 300 meters (985 feet) off the coast of the Seychelles in two-person submarines, the search for submerged mountain ranges and previously undiscovered marine life, a behind-the-scenes look at life on board, interviews with researchers and aerial footage.
The seven-week expedition is expected to run until April 19.