Telepresence Expedition Explores Unknown Deep-Sea Areas off of Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands
In April 2015, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists participated in a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ocean Exploration research cruise investigating unknown and poorly understood deep-sea areas off Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. An interdisciplinary team of scientists working at sea and on shore examined the geology and biodiversity along various seafloor features at depths ranging from 300 to 4,500 meters. Twelve dives were completed with a dual-bodied remotely operated vehicle (ROV) system consisting of the ROV Deep Discoverer (D2) and the Seirios camera platform, both of which were launched and controlled from the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer.
Okeanos Explorer missions are different from most other oceanographic research expeditions, as video captured from the seafloor by D2 and Seirios is streamed back to shore in real time (see “http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/okeanos/media/exstream/exstream.html”). This live-streaming makes it possible for the public to watch the cruise unfold and for researchers all over the world to collaborate with scientists aboard the ship. During the mission, as many as 40 scientists participated per day, either by calling in on a teleconference line or by logging their observations in an Internet chat room. This is participation by “telepresence” (see “The Evolution of Telepresence Technology”). It allowed scientists with expertise in various fields—such as taxonomy, ecology, geology, and oceanography—to work closely together to advance our knowledge about the deep sea.
Serving as the biological science lead on the Okeanos Explorer was Andrea Quattrini, a postdoctoral researcher with the USGS Benthic Ecology Group at the Southeast Ecological Science Center (SESC) in Gainesville, Florida. Helping to guide at-sea operations from shore via telepresence were USGS scientists Amanda Demopoulos of the SESC and Jason Chaytor and Uri ten Brink of the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
The research cruise, conducted April 9–30, 2015, was Leg 3 of the NOAA expedition “Océano Profundo 2015: Exploring Puerto Rico’s Seamounts, Trenches, and Troughs.” Leg 1 (“Transit & Mapping”) and Leg 2 (“Mapping”) focused on mapping the seafloor at high resolution. Leg 3 (“Mission Plan”) used the ROV system to make some of the deepest dives ever accomplished in the region. Because of mechanical issues with the ship, only 12 of 20 planned dives were completed. However, those 12 dives collected valuable deep-sea data that will improve ecosystem understanding and inform federal and local resource managers. For example, the mission included two dives in the Mona Passage (300–700 meters) to survey areas near fishing grounds for deepwater snappers (see “The Deepwater Snapper-Grouper Complex: A Valuable, But Poorly Studied Fishery in the Caribbean”). The Caribbean Fishery Management Council worked with local fisherman in Puerto Rico to recommend locations for these dives.
Surveyed areas included the Puerto Rico Trench, Mona Canyon, Mona Passage, and local seamounts and submarine canyons (see map, above). These rugged seafloor features are the result of the long-term and complex interactions between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. Active oblique subduction (where the North American plate slides below and along the Caribbean plate) and extension (opening) perpendicular to the plate boundary and throughout the Greater Antilles island arc have generated numerous damaging earthquakes and tsunamis. (Learn more about the Caribbean’s tectonic setting and its earthquake and tsunami hazards.) The region’s complex underwater terrain influences ocean currents and provides a wide variety of seafloor habitats that harbor diverse deep-sea communities.
The exceptional high-definition video on the ROV D2 captured stunning images of at least 100 species of fishes, 50 species of deep-sea corals, and 100s of other invertebrates during the April expedition. It was the first time that many of these species had been imaged in their natural habitat, providing valuable information on their behavior and their live-coloration (specimens commonly change color when brought up from the deep sea). The researchers discovered at least two new species—a fish and a ctenophore (ctenophores resemble jellyfish, although they are from a different phylum)—and they observed many species not previously recorded from waters off Puerto Rico. One exciting discovery was a starfish, Laetmaster spectabilis, previously known only from the original specimen used for the species description, collected more than 130 years ago. This starfish was seen at 3,915 meters in Mona Canyon; view it on this video.
During the dive when this starfish was observed, Christopher Mah, a starfish expert at the Smithsonian Institution Natural History Museum, called the ship to explain its significance. This discovery is a great example of how little we have explored topographically complex and deep habitats, and how telepresence technology allows shipboard scientists to benefit from working with shore-based scientists in real time. The Benthic Ecology Group and their collaborators at the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center will use the data gathered on the seamount dives to better understand the distribution of benthic organisms and habitat associations within the region.
Learn more about the expedition on the NOAA Okeanos Explorer website.
in this issue:
Expedition Explores Deep-Sea Areas near Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands