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Fieldwork

Telepresence Expedition Explores Unknown Deep-Sea Areas off of Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands



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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.

Red dots show locations of dives conducted by remotely operated vehicle (ROV) D2 in deep waters
Above: Locations (red dots) of dives conducted by remotely operated vehicle (ROV) D2 in deep waters (300–6,000 meters) around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. [larger version]

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.

View of the ROV D2 surveying evidence of slope failure on the wall of Guayanilla Canyon
Above: View from the camera platform Seirios shows the ROV D2 surveying a rock outcrop to which numerous deepwater corals are attached (800 meters). Courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program. [larger version]

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.

View from the camera platform Seirios shows the ROV D2 surveying a rock outcrop
Above: View of the ROV D2 surveying evidence of slope failure on the wall of Guayanilla Canyon south of Puerto Rico at 1,800 meters depth. Note the semicircular scars where slabs of rock have broken away from the canyon wall. USGS scientists describe highlights of this canyon in a video, “Dive 7: Guayanilla Canyon, East Wall.” Courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program. [larger version]

Geological Setting

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.

Biological Highlights

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.

Calcium carbonate structures known as sclerites can be seen embedded in the tissue of an octocoral Starfish Laetmaster spectabilis, not seen since the original specimen was collected more than 130 years ago
Above Left: The high-definition video footage allowed for amazing close-ups. In this image, calcium carbonate structures known as sclerites (small, opaque white lines approximately 1 mm long) can be seen embedded in the tissue of this octocoral. Courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program. [larger version]

Above Right: Starfish Laetmaster spectabilis, not seen since the original specimen was collected more than 130 years ago. This starfish was observed at 3,915 meters in Mona Canyon; view it here on a video. Courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program. [larger version]

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.

Rarely observed deep-sea fish, a jellynose
Above: Rarely observed deep-sea fish, a jellynose. Courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program. [larger version]

Above: This shrimp was observed at 850 meters depth, grooming itself with its specialized grooming appendage. Courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.
Video: MP4 format | Ogg format | WebM format

Learn more about the expedition on the NOAA Okeanos Explorer website.


Related Sound Waves Stories
Exploring Undersea Terrain Off the Northern U.S. Atlantic Coast Via Telepresence-Enabled Research Cruise
Nov. / Dec. 2013
Earthquake, Landslide, and Tsunami Hazards in the Northeastern Caribbean—Insights from a 2013 E/V Nautilus Expedition
May / June 2014
New Bathymetric Map of Mona Passage, Northeastern Caribbean, Aids in Earthquake- and Tsunami-Hazard Mitigation
May 2007
Mapping of the Puerto Rico Trench, the Deepest Part of the Atlantic, is Nearing Completion
October 2003

Related Websites
http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/okeanos/media/
exstream/exstream.html

NOAA
The Evolution of Telepresence Technology
NOAA
Benthic Ecology Group at the Southeast Ecological Science Center
USGS
Océano Profundo 2015
NOAA
Océano Profundo 2015—Leg 1: Transit & Mapping
NOAA
Océano Profundo 2015—Leg 2: Mapping
NOAA
Océano Profundo 2015—Leg 3: Mission Plan
NOAA
The Deepwater Snapper-Grouper Complex: A Valuable, But Poorly Studied Fishery in the Caribbean
NOAA
Caribbean Fishery Management Council
Caribbean Fishery Management Council
Caribbean Tsunami and Earthquake Hazards Studies
USGS

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in this issue:

Fieldwork
Scientists Investigate the Virtually Unexplored Mariana Trench

Expedition Explores Deep-Sea Areas near Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands

Imaging Methane Seeps and Plumes on the U.S. Atlantic Margin

Research
Some Communities May Not Have Time for Tsunami Evacuation

Spotlight on Sandy
Mendenhall Postdoc Joins Estuarine Physical Response Project

Meetings
Spring 2015 Monterey Bay Marine GIS User Group Meeting

Awards
Amanda Demopoulos Receives USGS Leadership Award

Fran Lightsom Receives Leadership and Innovation Award for Data Integration

Jim Hein Receives DOI Distinguished Service Award

Jim Jacobi Receives DOI Distinguished Service Award

Staff
Cheryl Hapke Is New Director of St. Petersburg, Florida, Science Center

Publications New Maps Reveal Seafloor off San Francisco

March–June Publications

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices

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