Yamase is first Pacific Islander to reach Challenger Deep

THE PLUNGE: Nicole Yamase, left, and Victor Vescovo, a world record holder known for diving to the deepest reaches of the world's oceans, take a photograph on their journey to Challenger Deep, the deepest point of the Marianas Trench. Yamase is the first Pacific Islander, and youngest woman, to make the descent. Photo courtesy Waitt Foundation

Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that Isabella Abbott is the first native Hawaiian woman to receive a doctorate in science.

Nicole Yamase made history earlier this month, becoming the first Pacific Islander to reach the deepest depths of the ocean - the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench. 

She's also the third and youngest woman to reach that area, which is 35,856 feet below sea level, according to Blue Prosperity Micronesia. 

The 29-year-old Pohnpei native, who also spent her years growing up in Chuuk, Palau and Saipan, is currently a resident of Hawaii and a doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, where her research focuses on how climate change affects the marine plant community. 

"Really, it all started from my upbringing just being surrounded by the ocean," Yamase said about how she became interested in marine biology. "Growing up, I snorkeled a lot with my dad. He was my first inspiration into going into this field." 

Yamase was also influenced by prior research experiences as an undergraduate but spending her formative years in the "beautiful waters" of the Pacific cemented her attachment to marine studies, according to the young scholar. 

Victor Vescovo, a world record holder known for diving to the deepest reaches of the world's oceans, accompanied Yamase on her journey to the Challenger Deep.

Yamase is a recipient of the Bill Raynor Micronesia Challenge Scholarship awarded through the Micronesia Conservation Trust and was asked by the Trust to represent the Federated States of Micronesia on the voyage.

"(Vescovo) is an amazing person along with his team and they are really the reason why I was able to join this expedition," Yamase said. 

The trip took place over five weeks, so there wasn't much time to prepare, she said. The main concern for her, other than ensuring she stayed free of COVID-19, was figuring out how to represent Micronesia and the Pacific.

With help from friends, Yamase decided to bring along a model canoe belonging to father, her first inspiration, which she also brought in honor of Pius "Papa Mau" Piailug, a master navigator from Yap.

She also brought a photo of Isabella Abbott, the first native Hawaiian woman to receive a doctorate in science, and a photo of a marine botanist who has contributed to the understanding of sea grasses and algae in Micronesia.

"I think that was how I was able to bring everyone with me on this expedition," Yamase said.

Yamase and Vescovo took the Limiting Factor, a deep sea submersible, on a four-hour-long dive more 35,700 feet to the ocean bottom. They spent two hours exploring the sea floor. 

"I've never been to the moon before, but I really felt like I was in space. Like I was in 'Star Wars,'" Yamase said. "Aside from it looking like I was on another planet, it also looked like a desert down there. Very fine silt, scattered rocks. But I'd like to say even though we didn't see any life forms, previous studies where they have collected rocks and sediment, they have found microbial mats living down there, so there is life." 

While Yamase didn't see any visible life forms, she and Vescovo did spot something else: tethers, possibly left behind by other submersible activities or ships. 

"What that means to me, and really the whole world, it was so alarming to see trash down there and to see how irresponsible we are," Yamase said. "What we do is already reaching these depths, which says a lot. We all have to work together collectively to keep our oceans clean."

Her studies are focused on shallow reefs but Yamase hopes to analyze the "precious" water and sediment samples she's collected and possibly contribute to the limited scientific literature around the deepest known point in the ocean. 

But now that the journey is behind her, Yamase said she wants to serve as inspiration to other Pacific Islanders. 

"One of my main goals was to really try to inspire more Pacific Islanders to pursue (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, there's really not many of us in these areas," Yamase said. "So really targeting the youth and education, to continue pursuing higher education as well. I know being a student, we do struggle and fear failing our science and math classes, but really with the proper support, resources and opportunities, they'll be able to overcome these challenges."  

At 1 p.m. on March 30, Yamase will have a virtual discussion with Federated States of Micronesia President David W. Panuelo and Yolanda Joab Mori, Program Coordinator for Blue Prosperity Micronesia. This virtual Talk Story will share Yamase's unique story, her hopes for the future of the FSM, and why it is so critical to protect and properly manage ocean environments.

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