Lights Out

•May 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Tuesday, April 29th marked our first dive in 7 months! Karl’s busy season and my travels had kept us out of the water, but now that Roatán is into shoulder season, we can begin to think seriously about exploring new areas. Currently, Karl only uses a compass and a mental map that’s been constructed over the past fifteen years of diving in the area. When I ask him our approximate location during dives, he usually responds with the name of a local bar or dive shop. Now that we have a fairly high-resolution map of the sea-floor bottom, we now have a more concrete sense of where we’re going, where we’ve been, and where we want to go. Our dive objective on Tuesday was to explore the numerous large boulders in the Lophelia Reef area, particularly the one singled out below on the map.

Our dive plan. HMB (Half Moon Bay). 3-D map image generated by Matt Rittinghouse.

Our dive plan. HMB (Half Moon Bay). 3-D map image generated by Matt Rittinghouse.

As I mentioned in the blog post from last week, this dive was an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the awesomeness of the zoom lens. Our expectations were confirmed. In the first hour of our dive, we motored up to Karl’s key landmark for the Lophelia area: a huge boulder – one of the little dots in the map above. A pastel jumble of crabs, clams, corals, and other boulder-dwelling denizens filled my passenger viewport. Within a few minutes, it was clear that our new lens was going to be a pivotal piece of our filmmaking hardware.

A close-up of a squat lobster on Lophelia coral that we never would have been able to capture with our prime lens.

A relatively close-up shot of a squat lobster on Lophelia coral. This is a shot that our prime lens could never have captured!

As we drifted past the boulder, our eyes were peeled for the silhouettes of sand-tiger sharks. This boulder, apparently, was their favorite hide-out, and Karl had seen two individuals on several of his dives in the past month. Alas, no toothy beasts emerged from the shadows.

Sand tiger shark that Karl encountered several years ago.

Our next stop was the area I’ve dubbed Lophelia Garden – a beautiful arrangement of corals, anemones, sea snakes, sponges, crinoids and other inverts. Here, we tested the capabilities of our wide shot (24 mm) and weren’t disappointed!

The Lophelia Garden

The Lophelia Garden

Not too long after this shot, the lights useful for far-sight navigation failed. An inverter issue. Neither Karl nor I felt comfortable continuing the dive without these lights, so we headed back, using several other pairs of lights to navigate our way home. At 1000 feet, Karl turned off all the exterior lighting. Incredibly, there’s just enough sunlight penetrating at this depth to clearly see silhouettes of large objects and traverse safely through fields of boulders. For the next hour, I craned my neck forward, smushing my forehead up against the passenger sphere, looking at these massive rocks towering overhead (I entertained, for far too long, the apocalyptic situation that would arise if a mega earthquake were to hit right at that moment). I wish I could have captured the enormity of the scene before us, but even the 5DM3’s low-light capabilities couldn’t begin to pick up on the minimal light available. My description will fail to convey the tableau that stretched before us, but just imagine the deepest blue offset only by the jet black boulders and the steep reef wall on your right. No glow, no glimmer, but once close enough, sufficient light to make out the texture of boulders and relief of the terrain. A sublime and otherwordly experience.

While we were disappointed that we didn’t reach the goliath boulder on the map, it was an excellent troubleshooting dive for Karl’s busy upcoming week with visiting scientists (more on that later).

What Lies Beneath: The First Multi-Beam Sonar Map of Roatán

•April 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Aaaand we’re back! Wow. It’s been over six months since our last dive – time has absolutely flown. While there was some talk of dives in January, ultimately the busy season turned out to be, well, busy. As Roatán eases into shoulder season, Karl and I are anticipating a heavy exploration and filming period in the next few weeks.

We’re eager to get back into the water for several reasons; for one, a new 24-70 mm zoom lens has been sitting, unused, in our equipment case since January. The flexibility it will afford us in our filming is immense compared to our static 50 mm prime lens that we’ve used all year. Reason number two? You may recall my post from last July which briefly recounted the expedition of The Schmidt Ocean Institute’s RV Falkor. While the main focus of the expedition was exploration and mapping of the Cayman Trench, a quick side trip  was organized to Roatán to map an area of 300 square kilometers, primarily in the depth range of 300-1,000 meters. Peter Etnoyer, a scientist with whom Karl has worked the past several years, wrote the proposal particularly in the interest of generating higher resolution maps to identify deep-sea coral reef habitats. His graduate student, Matt Rittinghouse, has spent the past year generating increasingly higher resolution maps in what I can only assume is a very painstaking process.

In the map below, you’re looking at a crude representation generated from the raw multi-beam sonar data. Ultimately, the end product will depict the topography of Roatán’s deep sea slopes with a resolution of approximately 5 meters. This will be the first map of its kind for Roatán – a huge step forward not only for understanding the location and structure of Roatán’s deep sea communities, but also potentially for deep sea reef conservation in the area.

Map generated from RV Falkor's raw multi-beam sonar data

Map generated from RV Falkor’s raw multi-beam sonar data

The deep sea habitats of Roatán are ripe for exploration and research. In fact, Robert Ballard, who is most famous for his discovery of the Titanic in 1985, and The Ocean Exploration Trust will visit Roatán in August to explore the depths using the ROV HerculesKarl, naturally, would like to get a head start on investigating some of the more intriguing features of his own backyard. Namely, a collapsed seamount (not visible on the map above) and areas of high relief towards the west end of the island.

For next week’s post I hope to have a higher res map showing some of the cool features and our anticipated dive plan. Until then, check out our latest batch of footage on Ocean Footage! It went live last month.

 

Deep Sea Classrooms

•December 3, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Although this didn’t make much of a splash in the media, Fabien Cousteau (Jacques Cousteau’s grandson) was scheduled to spend 31 days at the Aquarius Reef Base (approximately 63 feet below the surface) in Florida starting Tuesday, November 12th in order to:

1) surpass Jacques Cousteau’s Conshelf Two record (30 days at 33 feet) by one day

2) to study the effects of pressure on human physiology

3) test new technology

Aquarius Reef Base

Aquarius Reef Base
photo from http://www.floridadiveconnection.com/

It was postponed. Why? Fabien said the government shutdown really put a wrench in the works, so the Mission was rescheduled for Spring of 2014. As part of their outreach, Mission 31 had joined forces with Skype in the classroom to bring live updates from the Aquarius Reef Base to classrooms all around the world. This, of course, was postponed too.

Back in early October though, I was scouting around Skype in the classroom website hoping to join in on a few  lessons to get some ideas for a future outreach projects. After receiving feedback and requests from teachers all over the word, Skype had expanded their focus from Mission 31 to include an all-encompassing “Exploring Oceans” month. The grandchildren of Jacques Cousteau (Celine and Fabien) were offering lessons, but so were shark specialists, deep sea scientists, and professional underwater photographers. At first, it didn’t cross my mind to conduct a lesson of my own. When people ask me what I do, I hesitate – unsure of whether to identify myself as an underwater videographer. At such an early phase in my career (can I call it that?), I’m still riding the base of the learning curve and consider myself a dilettante more than anything else.

A few weeks later, I received an email from the Outreach Manager at Skype in the classroom, who proposed partnership with Stanley Submarines after stumbling across my profile. I was pretty floored. This was a great opportunity for both Karl and I to talk to young, impressionable students about the wonders of the deep. Most kids, and a large percentage of the public, believe the deep sea is devoid of life thanks to the entrenchment of Edward Forbes’ azoic theory (see my Flub of Forbes post).

R.I.D.E. and Skype in the classroom

R.I.D.E. and Skype in the classroom

During the past two weeks, I’ve talked with students from all over the US. It was an extremely rewarding experience, but I did become slightly discouraged about some of the apathetic students I noticed during the session.  In one class, there were students fidgeting, looking around the room at anything but the screen. Some were yawning. I was disheartened – a future generation that remained uninspired by these animals would likely not assimilate any sort of ocean conservation ethic. The feeling that crept over me was similar to what I experienced after watching this Toys “R” Us commercial a few weeks ago:

While some of the students’ reactions were apathetic, the majority of the kids were absolutely fantastic. There were 9 year-olds asking about how the submarine was designed to withstand crushing pressures, how to determine the gender of sea lilies, and what defense mechanisms exist in deep sea fish. Creatures that garnered the most oooo’s and ahh’s were the dumbo octopus (a clear favorite) and the siphonophore.

Lafayette Regional School 4th Grade

Lafayette Regional School 4th Grade

Karl had a lesson of his own: DIY Deep Sea Submersible. After getting more than 25 requests for a lesson, he ended up doing a session with a class from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The teacher, prior to the lesson, had expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to show the kids a positive side of the country (San Pedro Sula is considered the murder capital of the world).

Both of our experiences with Skype made it clear that educational outreach is an excellent avenue to showcase footage that will hopefully leave an indelible impression on young minds. In the next few years, I hope to design more long-term educational projects. We’ll need to make a lot of headway with footage and research before that happens, so until then, we’ll just keep diving.

—-

Roatán was fortunate to have an extremely mild rainy season. I write this after 5 days of non-stop rain and wind have battered Half Moon Bay. Notwithstanding the past week, there has been little to no rain and calm winds these fall months. As you can imagine, these would have been ideal conditions to do a whole bunch of dives; unfortunately, the sub has required several rounds of maintenance. Starting on October 3rd, Karl took apart the foam exterior in order to more precisely fit the areas where the foam pieces come together. This prevents the air in the ballasts tanks from escaping, which allows us to dive for long periods of time without adjusting our buoyancy (pretty important for fluent filming).

In mid-November, Karl lowered Idabel into the water for a dive to 2000 feet. At about 200 feet, water began to trickle into the hull; one of the small pilot sphere windows had sprung a leak due to a little dirt on the O-ring. After returning to the dock, Karl carefully removed grime from the O-ring and attached it for attempt #2, which he pulled off with no underwater snafus. Unfortunately, while emerging from a 2000 foot dive the following week, Idabel‘s right ballast blank blew out, causing the sub to list awkwardly and lose a good deal of buoyancy at the surface. As you can imagine, this didn’t bode well for future video dives. Karl, however, was not willing to let a cracked ballast tank ruin business, so with a little help from 5200 glue and thirty screws, he patched together the foam exterior. Even if the front ballast compartments blew out, there was still the rear compartment, vertical thrusters, and a 450 pound lead weight to bring him to the surface.

Idabel emerging from a dive last week

Idabel emerging from a dive at dusk last week

Despite the unexpected setbacks, we’re still making progress. For one, we just recently snapped on a spankin’ new lens to our 5DM3 camera body: a 24-70mm f/4 Canon. Zoom-filled days loom near in the future! Secondly, the follow focus rig is now ready to go with a new grip ring (I haven’t used this piece of equipment our last few dives). And finally, when I return to the states in December, I’ll send off our latest batch of clips to Ocean Footage, constituting our second submission for the year.

Fingers crossed that we’ll be back in the water filming the first week of January!

Sounds of Submergence

•October 13, 2013 • 2 Comments

Sensory deprivation tends to be intolerable for most people. On dives, Karl will sometimes turn off the lights to quickly “flash” schools of fish, who will in turn reply with a bioluminescent wave “hello”. Other times, we just sit there in total darkness. Within ten seconds, it’s already uncomfortable.

Without any visual or auditory stimulation, our minds tend to turn inward, which can be unpleasant or downright terrifying for some people. Karl has told me stories about passengers weeping during dives or declaring their lives are forever changed by the experience. Sensory deprivation, I believe, is partially responsible for these reactions. Aside from the utterly mind-bending experience of diving into an other-wordly landscape with strange creatures, many people encounter absolute silence and darkness – sometimes for the first time in their life.

On our most recent dive on October 3rd, I brought along my audio recorder to capture the clicking, grinding, and bubbling sounds of the sub as we motored out, descended, and ascended. It was the first time I had been in the sub with all of the lights, fans, and motors turned off during submergence. At 6:12 pm, Karl closed the hatch and released air from the ballasts to kickstart our descent. I braced myself against the hull’s interior as Idabel lurched forward and hung awkwardly suspended, resisting the waves as they threatened to overcome her. For me (and my antsy passenger brethren), this is usually the most white-knuckle phase of the dive: the point of no return. I have no doubt that the auditory effects are to blame for this…

As waves thumped the sub, I felt the crescendo of a deep hum intensifying in my chest as the energy of the waves traveled through the sub’s metal hull. After thirty seconds of limbo, Idabel gave way and the reverberating hum dissolved instantly, leaving nothing but the trickling sound of bubbles escaping from the foam exterior. A swell of silence enveloped us as we descended into the dark (0:00 to 0:25 in video – I recommend good earphones).

Within 35 minutes, Karl and I had arrived at 2000 feet. From the passenger viewport (a convex window) the sloping landscape we motored over looked like a globe of sand. A waning moon that night meant extremely low luminance, which usually makes for a good dive – lots of creepy crawlies come alive in the dark. As expected, the first three hours of our dive didn’t disappoint, but the limitations of our camera equipment were immensely frustrating.

We’ve been fortunate in all of our dives thus far to come across a good number of medium to large animals. Due to the fixed focal length of our one and only camera lens (a 50 mm prime), we can’t zoom (I’ve whined about this in several posts). While this lens is great for animals like a large dumbo octopus, jellynose fish, or Spanish dancer, it becomes impossible to curate aesthetically pleasing shots for smaller animals.

For instance, we crossed paths with a small dumbo octopus that was about half the size of the two dumbos filmed on previous dives. Composition-wise, most of our shots should have the subject, or some focal point of the animal, filling the majority of the screen. However, with this small dumbo, only a quarter of the screen could be filled before we got too close and the image blurred. It would have been great to catch this little guy in action, as he was throwing a cephalopod temper tantrum, tossing up his tentacles as he zigzagged across my screen. We hope to have a Canon zoom lens (fixed aperture) within the next month or so to give us greater flexibility during shots.

At the present moment, Karl has the sub apart to modify the foam pieces so they fit more snugly together. On this last dive, he had to blow air into the ballast tanks every few minutes in order to maintain neutral/slightly positive buoyancy. Small shifts in the foam pieces (caused by the expanding and contracting of the foam due to pressure) had caused tiny cracks through which air could escape, so the sub was constantly losing buoyancy on the dive. This wasn’t dangerous, just annoying. Because  of this, Karl’s “fine motor skills” for submarine maneuvering were pretty compromised, making it difficult to keep our mega-sized camera housing steady for shots.

We’ll be back in the water in November with more controlled buoyancy, a zoom lens, and a new gear ring for the follow focus rig. I’m looking forward to getting some fresh lens perspective on subjects we’ve already seen, and more shooting flexibility for animals that we have yet to encounter!

Unicorns of the Sea

•October 8, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Pyrosomes. Scientists have dubbed these odd creatures “unicorns of the sea” because they’re just that mystical, magical, and fantastical. This particular pyrosome that we encountered was about 7-8 feet in length and composed of hundreds, even thousands, of individuals (or zooids) – similar to a siphonophore (see The Longest Animal in the World post). Unlike a siphonophore, however, these pyrosome zooids are essentially the same and don’t have specialized functions. Each one eats, uses water propulsion to move, and reproduces. Pyrosomes are also bioluminescent, and each individual in the colony is able to emit light. So, you get this kind of bioluminescent “wave” effect, where one zooid lights up and causes the surrounding zooids to light up, too. And as I mentioned in the previous post, these individuals are joined together by a gelatinous tunic to form this fuzzy, pant leg, wind-sock looking thing…yeah, see for yourself in the video below.

Magical mantas and pink pyrozomes

•September 28, 2013 • 1 Comment

I grew up in the bubble of The Woodlands, Texas – a master-planned community, which grew rapidly over several decades from the influx of big oil money. I feel fortunate that at a very young age I was able to

The commode...

The commode…

experience a world outside of fake tans, Ferraris, and Furbies. My parents, both archaeologists specializing in ancient cities of West Africa, would haul my brother and me on digs – sometimes taking us out of school for a month or more. As a slightly sensitive child, I wasn’t totally zen about the idea of eating fish head stew and doing target practice with the commode. Instead of playing dress-up and talking to my Care Bears, I was digging in the dirt with a trowel (voluntarily, of course) and watching chickens get slaughtered for dinner in the courtyard.

My grubby little self with my grubby little chicklet in Senegal.

My grubby little self with my grubby little chicklet in Senegal.

Unfortunately, the most memorable moments of all these trips to Africa seem to converge on the airport. In particular, I vividly remember the moment my father and I were sitting next to each other on the plane en route to Mali. Flying had always been something I looked forward to, but this quickly changed in the course of several minutes.

After pulling out of the airport gate, the pilot had begun his routine functions checklist. A high-pitched whine and a cacophony of other sounds began to fill my ears. Slowly, I began to realize that I had never heard these noises before. These were, without a doubt, the certain-death noises of a malfunctioning aircraft. Within five minutes, I was no longer the naive seven year-old who lived for Virgin Atlantic courtesy kits. Spiking my cortisol to a level I had not yet achieved in the short seven-year span of my small life, I emerged as an armchair death-grip passenger who would ring the flight attendant call button during the slightest turbulence to ask if everything was going to be okay, who would promise a God I didn’t believe in that I would start reading the Bible every day if He delivered me safely to my next destination, who would unceremoniously spill my guts to the adjacent passenger and ask if I could hold their hand.

This was every flight for the next fourteen years. At age 13, I stayed at home while my entire family went to my Grandmother’s funeral. Xanax became my traveling companion. My mother signed me up with a hypnotherapist, which delightfully enough, worked for a year or two…until it didn’t. Not until my junior year of college, when I traveled solo for eight months, did I completely tame this frantic fear.

So, if God did hear my desperate pleas and empty promises for newfound piety, he definitely got the last laugh. Marrying a submersible pilot? Really? I get to relive this all over again…

And I haven’t even mentioned elevators or boats or sharks in swimming pools or the bat from Basil the Great Mouse Detective…but I think you get the idea.

Karl and I completed two dives this week, and I think I looked at my watch more than I looked out the viewport. An almost three-month hiatus left my mind vulnerable to the usual neuroses (ropes and overhangs and crush zones, oh my!)….

——-

Tuesday, 4:45 AM. A  splitting headache greeted me as I stumbled out of bed to make a quick breakfast and head out the door. Karl and I had previously talked about doing a shallow dive – a whale shark was in the area, and we thought it might be a good chance to do some filming close to the reef wall at about 600 feet.  At 5:30, the hatch closed and we dropped to 400 feet to take a look up the wall.

shrimp

At this point, I was fairly uncomfortable with my life decision to shoot video from a homemade submarine. I had forgotten how jarring the vertical thrusters sounded, and the noise grated painfully against my throbbing head. For a split second, I retreated into a catastrophic state of mind: I’ve never heard these sounds before – oh s***.  There is something terribly wrong. But instead of looking towards the heavens, I moved “Ashram in India” to the top of my To-Do list. My tolerance, my patience, my fortitude were at all-time lows. After about a half-hour of no luck, we drifted down to 1000 feet, hoping to catch a cat shark or some other sought-after creature. sealily_2 sealily

At 1000 feet, we didn’t encounter too many critters. I felt my anxious impatience growing every second I wasn’t filming something….anything…..please! An orange, glistening shrimp undulated on the branches of a soft coral. For a few minutes, I was released from the grip of my disquietude. As we motored on, a few creatures crept into view – a sea lily here, a rock fish there. At one point, a stunning wall of white sponges loomed in front of the viewport. Aside from these common deep sea denizens, the abyss was still.

Peace and tranquility were short-lived, however. Rocking back and forth in the front seat, I took a desperate look at my watch, and realized that I wasn’t going to be able to hold it until we resurfaced. Grudgingly grabbing a Rest Stop 1 from the storage compartment, I hunched over like a gremlin in the passenger sphere, awkwardly trying to position myself for a clean catch. After practicing with a hole-in-the-ground commode for years in Africa, I thought I was pretty good at this. But seconds later, a procession of profanity marched off my tongue, as I slowly began to realize that my seat was wet. “ARE YOU SERIOUS,” I erupted. I rambled on for about a minute, letting Rest Stop 1 become privy to my most innermost thoughts about the life of a woman in the washroom. I then sketched hearts and stars around “Ashram in India” on my mental To-Do list. It is what it is, I recited to myself. And we motored on…

whitesponge

A solid current had dragged us quite a ways east down the coast. Around 8:00 we began to ascend and head back towards Half Moon Bay, sticking around 600 feet in the hopes of spotting a whale shark. Conditions seemed ideal: clouds of small krill and fish would periodically envelop the sub as we passed through these patches of delectables. I kept a sharp eye out for any dark shadows moving along the wall; my eyes, however, were fixated on the gnarled ropes that seemed to lunge out towards the sub. “Do you see that rope?!” I would call out to Karl every few minutes. “Yep!” he would reply in a chipper voice, being sweetly tolerant of my passenger seat piloting. But when it wasn’t a rope, it was something else….

“Karl…why are we under an overhang? Please get out of the overhang. I don’t understand the point of going under an overhang.” Pause and repeat x 5.

….silence. The whir of motors. “Annick, we’re in a crack, not an overhang. It just looks that way from your viewport.”

“Well, I don’t care! Move away from the overhang! Why the hell would you do this? What purpose are you trying to achieve? Wait…what is that? Do you see that?”

“Yeah, I see the rope, Annick….”

“What?? There’s a rope?! No, no the thing over there to the RIGHT!”

“OHHHH! That’s a MANTA!”

manta_3

So, imminent ruination was temporarily put on hold as I escaped into the safety of my camera’s lens. At 400 feet, the light penetrating the surface created a smooth silhouette as we filmed the 8-9 foot giant from below (mantas can grow to be up to 23 feet in width). Three remoras gracefully glided with the ray, moving up and down with the manta’s motion in a flawless choreographed performance. Karl pushed the sub forward, trying to catch up so we could get a frontal shot, but the manta was flying – we didn’t stand a chance.

manta_1

For the next fifteen minutes, this beauty pirouetted and pliéd in front of the viewport. To signal the end of its routine, the manta rose up towards the surface and bowed down to the depths, slowly disappearing as it melted into the blue below. Not to sound cheesy, but it was pretty magical.

stiger_1We continued on, looking above for another gentle giant to film. A few minutes later, Karl spotted a sand tiger shark moseying along the reef wall. In the past 15 years of diving, Karl has happened upon this beast only a handful of times. In the past month, he’s had six different encounters all at around 350 feet. Cruising along the drop-off, the sand tiger shark began a slow digression down the wall towards the sub. Karl ramped up the motors to try and get in front of it so we could film it head-on; we came in just a few seconds too late and soared right over it, tail almost whipping the viewport, as it continued its slow descent. We caught about 20 seconds of film before it was spooked off, diving down towards the abyss.

After a manta ray and sand tiger shark, there was still more. A few minutes further towards Half Moon Bay, a large pyrozome loomed above us. If you’ve never heard of a pyrozome before, just imagine a pink sock kite and you’re there.  pyro_1

 Pyrozomes (pyro – fire; soma – body) are colonial organisms that are joined together by a gelatinous sort of tunic. They are usually found at pretty shallow depths – certainly within recreational scuba limits – as they thrive in warmer waters. This particular one was unusually large, which made it entertaining to watch as it creased and folded itself – almost like an animate pair of trousers.

pyro_4 pyro_3 pyro_2

This served as the finale to our “welcome back” dive. Eager to jump back in the water, we arranged for a tow the next morning at 5:30 am. More on this dive in the next post!

Bird-eating fish and bone-eating worms

•September 7, 2013 • Leave a Comment

“Pufferfish can sculpt, what’s your excuse?” This was the caption for a video I watched a few weeks ago. Maybe I wasn’t in a hurry to have my artistic abilities put to shame by a fish, but I was skeptical – silently, I heckled him: “Yeah? Really? You build symmetrical sand patterns huh? Show me. Don’t just hover there looking cute, get to work.” Forty seconds into this video, however, I was leaning forward in my chair, eyes fixated on the computer, mouth agape. I mean, just WATCH this little guy:

This is just one example of the many things we are only now discovering about the creatures who live in the ocean. And the deep sea is the ultimate unknown. Most of the huge discoveries  (e.g. hot vents, chemosynthetic communities)  have occurred within the last 50 years. So here’s my short list of awesome things I’ve stumbled across in the past year….

DEEPLY AWESOME DEEP THINGS

IMG_4636 69

Photo by Lia Barrett

1) Orange Roughy can live over one hundred years. Well, 149 years to be exact. Considering that your average gold fish lives up to 10 years, the orange roughy is freakin’ ancient! Just like rings in a tree’s trunk, fish have growth rings in their bones. Certain bones (e.g. ear bones called otoliths) are particularly useful and can even tell scientists information about a fish’s growth rate during certain years. Unfortunately, all of this information was discovered after the Orange Roughy became a prime fish market meat. In countries such as New Zealand, supply was actually exceeding demand, so the fishing industry dumped several tons of Orange Roughy into New Zealand landfills (for a short clip on overfishing roughy go to 27:00 in this video). Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) estimations had been based on much shallower species with much shorter life spans. After 1990, the Orange Roughy populations abruptly dropped off and it wasn’t long before Australia declared the fish as endangered.

Growth rings in a fish ear bone

Growth rings in a fish ear bone

Whale fall  Photo Credit: MBARI

Whale fall
Photo Credit: MBARI

2) Whale falls provide food for up to a century in deep sea communities. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium Research Institute has done a few studies on this, including studying how wood and kelp falls also provide food. Basically, any organic matter that reaches the deep sea floor is considered food – most of it falls to the sea floor in the form of marine snow (organic matter from dead animals + poop). The patch of sediment where a whale falls receives an influx of organic carbon equivalent to 2000 years of marine snow drifting down. It’s like getting all of your Christmas presents for the next fifty years when you’re eight years old.

Photo from Wikipedia

Photo from Wikipedia

The first to arrive on the scene is scavengers – animals such as hagfish (snot eels), sharks, and rat-tail fish. Once there’s enough bone exposed, the worms start to move in, and strangely – some of them eat bones by secreting an acid in order to find their way to the tasty lipids (i.e. fat) within the bone matrix. If you think that’s awesome, then read some other whacked out facts about bone-eating worms from this Deep Sea News post.

Hagfish Photo from mesa.edu.au

Hagfish
Photo from mesa.edu.au

Finally, different groups of bacteria, including those who thrive on the sulphide build-up from the bone breakdown, make the whale skeleton their permanent home. In total, there can be more than 400 species of creatures devouring a whale skeleton – that’s the most species rich habitat in the ocean! Additionally, it’s believed that some deep sea species are only found on whale falls. Which begs the question…how much did the whaling industry fundamentally (and permanently) alter the deep sea landscape?

Lophelia coral Photo from oceanexplorer.noaa.gov

Lophelia coral
Photo from oceanexplorer.noaa.gov

3) Some deep sea coral reefs are 40,000 years old. First off, did you know the deep sea even had REEFS?! Well, it does. And they’re everywhere. In fact, they could possibly cover more area than shallow reefs! But unlike shallow reefs, deep coral doesn’t rely on sunlight or zooxanthellae (tiny symbiotic algae that live in shallow coral). Instead, they just pick up tiny organisms from the water and positions themselves in opportune areas (e.g. seamounts). Unfortunately, these havens for deep sea life are devastated by human activity – namely trawling. So, if you felt bad about eating a 100 year old fish…just think about 40,000 year old coral being swept away by metal contraptions of death. Thanks humans!

What a trawled seafloor looks like: completely unnatural. Usually sloping sea floor looks like a bed of fresh snow - untracked, untrodden, undisturbed.

What a trawled seafloor looks like: completely unnatural. Usually sloping sea floor looks like a bed of fresh snow – untracked, untrodden, undisturbed.

4) Evidence of a 2.2 million year-old Supernova can be found in ancient bacteria from the seafloor. Yes, you read that correctly. These were the findings from a study published just a few months ago. A little astronomy primer here (for those as ignorant of astronomy as me!): a supernova is an exploding star. And when a star explodes, lots and lots of nuclear fusion occurs, forming awkward and unstable radioactive isotopes (as in volatile versions of the same element). One element formed through this fusion bonanza is iron-60 (for reference, iron-56 is the most common naturally occurring stable isotope). So when a star explodes, it releases a CRAP TON of materials that float through space, some of which find their way to Earth – like iron-60 – and many of which are essential elements for life.

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Soooooo…where does the bacteria come in? Well, certain types of bacteria are suckers for good iron, including some ancient bacteria that existed well over 2 million years ago. When the iron-60 from the supernova entered the Earth’s atmosphere, it eventually made its way down to the ocean, and like most materials, drifted all the way down to the seafloor. At this point, these iron-loving bacteria snatched it up, and like any element, iron-60 left a chemical signature in the bacteria.

So when some brilliant scientist had the idea to examine sediment cores drilled from the Pacific Ocean, they found fossilized bacteria! And iron-60! Since iron-60 has a half-life of 2.6 million years, they were able to calculate the approximate date of the supernova – 2.2 million years ago. Now tell me that’s not awesome!!

Goosefish Photo by Lia Barrett

Goosefish
Photo by Lia Barrett

5) Bird-eating Goosefish. Goosefish do not eat geese. No – they eat other cute delectable little birdies like dovekies, loons, gulls, cormorants and more. We saw a small goosefish on our last dive in July – ugly little thing – but gotta give him props for figuring out the secret to good eatin’ when you live in the deep. Goosefish come up thousands of feet, all the way to the surface to snatch unsuspecting birds. Scientists believe they use their lure (goosefish are a type of angler fish) to attract birds that dive below the surface to eat crustaceans and other delectables. If successful, goosefish will swallow the birds whole in one fell swoop (pun definitely intended):

There are, of course, MANY other fantastically amazing things about the deep sea that I couldn’t possibly fit into one blog post. If you want more – check out Deep Sea News.

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Sources:

Fenton GE, Short SA, Ritz DA (1991) Age determination of orange roughy, Hoplostethus atlanticus (Pisces: Trachichthyidae) using 210Pb:226Ra disequilibria. Marine Biology 109: 197-202

Smith CR, Baco AR (2003) Ecology of Whale Falls at the Deep-Sea Floor. Oceanography and Marine Biology: an Annual Review 411: 311-354

http://www.lophelia.org

http://news.discovery.com/space/astronomy/ocean-bacteria-hint-at-an-ancient-supernova-130514.htm

http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/press_release/2013/SciSpot/SS1303/

http://deepseanews.com/2013/04/big-ugly-fish-eats-cute-little-seabird/