This past July, a group of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and many other organizations boarded the ship Okeanos and set out on an exciting 36 day research cruise to explore the deep ocean floors off the U.S. northeast coast. Specifically, they wanted to explore the numerous deep submarine canyons in this area and the Mytilus seamount, which is part of the New England seamount chain. A submarine canyon is basically a steep valley cut into the ocean floor. A seamount, as the name suggests, is an underwater mountain. These habitats can contain vast amounts of sea life, especially compared to other areas of the deep sea.
Like many of the deep ocean habitats around the globe, the U.S. northeast canyons and seamounts have largely gone unexplored and scientists know very little about them. The scientists wanted to explore these deep ocean habitats so they can determine how to protect them. These habitats provide a home to many fish and invertebrate species – some of which are commercially important and some of which are incredibly unique. Fishing with destructive bottom dragging gears, like bottom trawls, is one of the biggest threats to these habitats. Oil and gas exploration can threaten these habitats too.
The ROV Deep Discover explores a submarine canyon. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition.
To explore these deep sea canyon and seamount habitats, the scientists deployed a remotely operated vehicle or ROV [fittingly named the Deep Discover] from the Okeanos ship to capture video of the deep floor habitat and life. The video was transmitted back to scientists on land. And they even made live video available to the public so everyone could follow the Okeanos’s journey.
As the Okeanos and Deep Discover traveled from site to site, the scientists found that these habitats were filled with ocean life and that each site was different. Each canyon they visited and the seamount contained a different set of species and had different physical features.
They found numerous different types of deep water corals. Deep water (or cold water) corals are slow-growing and very fragile. They are also very important because they provide habitat for many deep water species. The scientists observed octopus, squid, eel, crabs, sea stars, many different fish [some very strange looking ones, see image below] and much more.
Deep-water corals. The larger, pink ones are bubble corals. The small ones are cup corals. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition.
On the left is an octopus and on the right is a bathysaurus, a fish that uses its lower jaw to scoop in the sand. Images courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition
In addition, they found chemosynthetic communities – where organisms use chemicals coming out of the seafloor to produce energy [as opposed to deriving energy from sunlight and photosynthesis]. At these sites they found mussels, worms, snails, and shrimps.
The scientists suspect that they saw several new, undocumented species. And they observed known species that they did not realize had distributions extending to the deep northeast waters. They were also reminded just how much we still have to learn about deep ocean habitats.
Now that the exploration is over, scientists and ocean managers will work on figuring on how to protect and conserve these deep ocean habitats from fishing and other human disturbances. Fishery managers all along the U.S. east coast recently agreed to coordinate efforts to protect deep sea corals from Florida to Maine. So hopefully we will see progress on this soon! You can also help protect these deep ocean habitats by choosing to eat seafood caught with environmentally friendly fishing methods rather than with fishing gear that destroys bottom habitats.
Check out the incredible videos and images from the Okeanos deep sea expedition and read more about the scientists’ discoveries here.
Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.