Though oceans cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface, there is still little known about life in the vast reaches of the deep sea. Or in some cases, about the life in the vast reaches just off our coast.
“People think there isn’t much exploring left to do,” says Andrew DeVogelaere, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research coordinator for Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. “But here we are 20 miles from Point Sur, the first human eyes to ever see the area.”
DeVogelaere is speaking of Sur Ridge, a rocky outcropping south of Monterey Canyon that starts about 4,000 feet below sea level and rises 1,300 feet toward the surface. At about eight miles long and two wide, it’s two-thirds the size of Manhattan.
DeVogelaere finally got the chance to go there in December, when he and his NOAA crew joined Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) Senior Scientist Jim Barry and his team for a research expedition using Doc Ricketts, one of MBARI’s state-of-the-art remotely operated vehicles (ROV).
Even this time, the trip to the ridge was unplanned: Of the six days the researchers were to spend off the coast, five had been allotted to Barry and one to DeVogelaere, and all to projects unrelated to the ridge. But because those ventures went so smoothly, aided by calm weather and reliable equipment, Barry found himself with an extra day on his docket.
“Andrew and I talked for years about going to take a look,” Barry says, as he explains that steep features below the sea are less likely to be covered in mud and more likely to host certain types of life, including corals. “I was hoping it was going to be interesting.”
Not that the five previous days weren’t: Both Barry’s and DeVogelaere’s research projects center around life – or objects – thousands of feet below. Barry’s focus is the rate of growth and change in deep sea species, as well their response to increased acidification, a phenomenon driven by climate change Barry calls “one of the biggest environmental changes that has happened for millions of years.”
DeVogelaere’s mission was to revisit a shipping container that MBARI scientists discovered in the sanctuary in 2004. It is estimated that about 10,000 shipping containers fall into the deep sea every year, he says, but until MBARI’s discovery, none had been seen. Little is known about how they affect deep sea communities, which is what DeVogelaere is trying to get a handle on. “It sort of changes the local ecology,” he says, “but I don’t know if it’s a bad thing on a global scale.”
Both missions were made possible by Ricketts, a car-sized ROV outfitted with, among other things, lights and cameras, one of which takes continuous HD-video.
On day six, they dropped Ricketts – which stays connected to the research boats by a cable – at the base of the northwestern point of Sur Ridge, the section Barry says appears steepest on the map.
“It’s like being dropped someplace you’ve never been before on a night with no moon, and you only have a flashlight,” Barry says. “You’re only seeing what’s right in front of you.”
As the ROV engineers began to propel Ricketts toward the ridge, Barry’s instincts paid off: “We started in the mud at the bottom, went a couple hundred meters to the base, and boom, there’s this rocky outcrop, and there’s all these corals,” Barry says. “It was fantastic. It was really pretty.”
Ricketts was able to make two passes up the ridge, but Barry says there is much left to explore, and equates the trip to a just a few hikes in a giant park.
“I’d love to go back, get some idea of how old these animals are, how fast they develop,” he says. “If they’re changing super slowly – and we’re pretty confident some of the corals are – that means they’re much more vulnerable to our activities. If we’re gonna wipe them out, are they gonna be back in 5 years, 50 years, 500 years, or longer? For the sanctuary those are pretty important questions.”
While Barry and the others on the expedition enjoyed the opportunity to explore an unseen region, he maintains perspective of the bigger picture. “It’s great to discover new things, but we’re also living in this period where human beings are changing the ocean in ways that haven’t happened for many millions of years,” he says. “So what’s that going to do? I can’t even tell you if we’re going to have more fish.”