NEW YORK (September 28, 2012) – The first scientific expedition to explore the ecology of two Atlantic seamounts located approximately 200 miles southeast of Cape Cod, as well as to undertake a detailed investigation of several nearby Georges Bank undersea canyons, is expected to launch over the weekend from Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Using the Waitt Institute’s AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles), which are devices that can reach a depth of nearly 20,000 feet, the two-week expedition will explore and catalogue marine life in these untouched ecosystems far below the ocean’s surface. The project is a partnership between the Waitt Institute and Natural Resources Defense Council, involving scientists from the University of Connecticut, and an AUV operations team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, collectively seeking to learn more about the diverse marine habitats off the U.S. Northeast coast.
“This cutting-edge technology will allow us to take what is, in many cases, the first-ever close look at deep sea worlds that have remained undisturbed for thousands of years,” said Brad Sewell, with NRDC’s oceans program, who will be blogging his observations from onboard the ship that is monitoring the Waitt Institute’s AUVs at sea. “Seamounts and canyons are typically magnets for a vast array of marine life – from colorful and long-lived coldwater corals to endangered whales. We are excited to see what we will find in these mysterious underwater worlds just off our shores.”
This expedition will first focus on the ecology of Physalia and Mytilus seamounts, two of only four seamounts found in U.S. Atlantic waters. This will be the first ecologic investigation of the two seamounts, which are essentially extinct drowned volcanoes. The group then plans to explore in and around a number of undersea canyons that cut into the southern edge of Georges Bank, a world famous and productive New England fishing ground. These remote ocean oases are part of a longer chain of “submarine” canyons that are carved into the continental shelf, stretching from northern tip of North Carolina to eastern Canada.
Submarine canyons and seamounts are considered hotspots of ocean life, fueled by strong, localized currents and upwellings that help transport food in and carry waste away. Hundreds of species are known to use these areas as foraging, breeding, and nursery habitats, from the tiniest invertebrates to the endangered sperm whale. Many seamounts and canyons also contain vibrant and rare coldwater corals, anemones and sponges, which are able to make their homes on the rocky undersea walls of these ocean features.
“By supporting and conducting AUV surveys, the Waitt Institute hopes to reveal long-hidden deep-sea environments to the scientific and conservation communities,” said Dominique Rissolo, Executive Director of the Waitt Institute. “Science should lead the way in environmental protection efforts.”
“While the ocean appears quite vast, the habitats that support communities of deep sea corals and associated species are relatively rare,” said Peter Auster, a Research Professor at the University of Connecticut and Senior Research Scientist at Mystic Aquarium. “Understanding how these species are distributed is fundamental to developing strategies for conservation and management. However, in the past it has been difficult to get down into these deep, steep and rocky areas for a look.”
The expedition will be utilizing the Waitt Institute’s REMUS 6000 AUVs—unique ocean exploratory vehicles, with only seven in the world, and four belonging to the U.S. Navy. The AUVs will venture deep into the ocean for surveys planned to about 9,900 feet (about 3,000 meters). While human-occupied submersibles and remotely operated vehicles guided via a cable from the surface have been used in these areas in the past, they are limited in speed and the area they can cover. The Waitt Institute AUVs are designed to move or “fly” at high speeds of 3-4 nautical miles per hour while using sonar and color cameras to explore much larger areas.
The depth and ruggedness of the Atlantic’s canyons and seamounts have thus far largely shielded them from harmful human intrusions. The team hopes that that the expedition, which is funded by the Waitt Institute, will lead to new knowledge about marine life in these areas and will help managers make decisions about how to best protect it in the future. “
“Right now, fishery managers are considering steps to conserve deep sea corals off the Northeast coast, while allowing fishing in appropriate areas. We hope the results of this work will aid in that process,” said Sewell.
More information about the expedition can be found at: www.nrdc.org/oceans/canyons/ocean-oases/.