At Ocean Conservancy, my day usually begins with a big cup of coffee and a scan of the news for the latest developments in politics that might impact our work on ocean policy in Washington, D.C. This week is going to be a little different—each morning I’ll be waking up in a small bunk aboard the E/V Nautilus in the Pacific Ocean and preparing for my first watch of the day.
For the next two weeks, I am serving as a Science Communication Fellow as Nautilus explores the deepest parts of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary off the central coast of California. Our goal on this expedition is to determine what habitats and species exist in a previously unexplored area about 80 miles off the coast and more than 3,000 meters (10,000 feet!) deep.
How is it that we don’t know what animals and corals live in an area that would be just a short drive from Ocean Conservancy’s office in Santa Cruz (in this car, at least)? Remarkably, we have only explored 5% of the world’s ocean. We know more details about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean right here on our own planet. And the Nautilus team is doing everything they can to change that.
The Nautilus ROVs Hercules and Argus will be in the water as much as possible, usually for more than 24 hours at a time, collecting high quality video and images, and more importantly, using robotic arms and instruments to bring back samples of the corals, sponges, and other species that we find for analysis in the Nautilus wetlab—maybe even some species that are new to science!
All we know about the area we will be exploring is that it is rocky—and that’s a good thing for deep sea corals and the quirky communities of deep ocean creatures that congregate around them. The area is just south of Davidson seamount, an inactive volcanic undersea mountain—one of the biggest seamounts in U.S. waters. The seamount has been called “An Oasis in the Deep” in an otherwise flat seafloor, hosting large coral forests, vast sponge fields, crabs, deep-sea fishes, shrimp, and more. Davidson seamount is so special that it was featured on an episode of “Planet Earth” and in 2009 it was protected under U.S. law when Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was expanded by 775 square miles to include the seamount.
Understanding the full extent of habitats and species in the very deep areas at the base of Davidson Seamount will add an important piece to the puzzle as we strive to understand how a healthy ocean ecosystem works, and how better-known species in coastal areas of the Monterey Bay area—like kelp, sea otters, whales and sharks—depend on the seamount for survival.
We will also be looking at how humans are impacting the deep ocean. After all, we may be exploring 10,000 feet deep, but we will only be 80 miles from a coastline that is home to millions of people. In particular, the science team will be testing samples for pollutants, such as the chemicals like DDT and PCBs. Scientists are increasingly concerned that the deep ocean is acting as a “sink” for toxic chemicals. And of course, I’ll be on the lookout for more visible signs of human impacts, like plastic pollution and debris. It will be no surprise if we discover that this area never before seen by humans is actually suffering from human-caused pollution.
Oh, and one last thing: How did a Washington, DC wonk like myself get lucky enough to go on an adventure like this? It is all thanks to our partners at the Ocean Exploration Trust.
Their mission to connect ocean science and exploration with educa