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USGS Scientists Team Up with National Geographic's Sustainable Seas Expedition to Explore Deep Reefs at Pulley Ridge

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Katie Ciembronowicz in the DeepWorker submersible on the aft deck of the NOAA vessel Gordon Gunter
Katie Ciembronowicz in the one-person submersible on board the NOAA vessel Gordon Gunter.
On June 27th, USGS coral reef research geologist Bob Halley and intern Katie Ciembronowicz of the SPFC departed Tampa Bay aboard the NOAA ship Gordon Gunter. The 4-day cruise was the next leg in National Geographic's Sustainable Seas Expedition (SSE) exploring the West Florida shelf, specifically the Pulley Ridge area. Headed by the remarkable Sylvia Earle, chief scientist and explorer-in-residence, this leg of the expedition brought together scientists from different organizations. In addition to the USGS researchers, the scientific party consisted of Steve Baumgartner and Ben Richards of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, David Guggenheim of the Ocean Conservancy (formally the Center for Marine Conservation), Gale Mead and Liz Garamendi of the National Geographic Society, and photographer Kip Evens. Special appreciation is extended to Ensign Andy Hall, the operations officer for the Gordon Gunter.

map of the Pulley Ridge study area, west of the Florida Keys
Study area: Index map shows location of Pulley Ridge study area on southwest Florida shelf.
The Pulley Ridge area refers to an intriguing series of linear, north-south-trending elevated ridges that exhibit extensive modern coral growth at considerable water depths (60 to 80 m). The seafloor surface consists of an extensive coralline algal nodule layer overlying a sand substrate. Pulley Ridge was first documented in a Southwest Florida Shelf Ecosystem Study prepared by the Minerals Management Service, Gulf of Mexico OCS region in January 1983. Bret Jarrett, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of South Florida, and his major advisor Al Hine, also with USF, are conducting current research on the area.

members of the expedition track the sub from the ship's communication center
Tracking the sub: Steve Baumgartner, Bob Halley, Sasha Lebaron, and Sylvia Earle, in the communication center, are tracking the sub's movements during a dive and listening to the pilot's comments and observations.
The Pulley Ridge leg of SSE 2001 set out to explore this remarkable ecosystem using a one-person submersible called DeepWorker mounted with a digital video camera. Nuytco Research Inc. in North Vancouver, British Columbia, built the submarine. The sub's crew consisted of Tim Bulman, pilot/technician, Sasha Lebaron, tracking technician, and John Allan, electronics technician. The sub completed five successful dives and aborted one. Each diver captured 3-5 hours of video. In addition to extensive coral cover observed on some dives, other deep-water features included grouper holes, tilefish mounds, coralline algal nodules, several other fish species, and fields of green algae.

collecting grab samples on the deck of the Gordon Gunter
Grab samples: Katie Ciembronowicz and NOAA crew member collect sediment grab samples.
In the evenings after the videotapes were dubbed, the scientific party gathered to plan dive sites for the following day. Bob Halley had brought extended charts and bathymetric maps of the area and usually suggested the sites. After the science meetings, Katie Ciembronowicz collected on-site sediment samples with a bottom grab sampler and help from the NOAA crew. At 0210 hrs on June 30th, grab sample #10 was recovered from a water depth of 83 m (270 ft) and contained a jellylike alga identified by Sylvia Earle as Verdigellas peltata. This alga was not previously known to inhabit the Gulf of Mexico although it has been found in the Bahamas.

On July 1st, Bob and Katie departed the Gordon Gunter and caught a ride into Key West on a second NOAA vessel, the Ferrel, which was just completing a fish tissue sampling expedition in the Dry Tortugas. The two vacancies aboard the Gunter were quickly filled by newly arriving National Public Radio journalists covering the SSE. The departure date coincided with the ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the new no-take fish sanctuary in the Dry Tortugas. The timeliness of this positive event helped focus thoughts among the researchers on the possibility of making Pulley Ridge a marine sanctuary in an effort to preserve its remarkable ecosystem.

Related Web Sites
Sustainable Seas Expedition—Pulley Ridge
National Geographic/NOAA

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