Spotlight: Exploring the oceans – “there’s still 97 percent”

“Only the ocean remains as the last great unexplored portion of our globe; so it is to the sea that man must turn to meet the last great challenge of exploration this side of outer space.”
–Deep Challenge (1966) by H. B. Stewart

Marine biologist David Gallo brings the mind-bending world of ocean exploration alive in his latest talk about the fascinating and largely unexplored undersea world. As he notes, “Today we’ve only explored about 3 percent of what’s out there in the ocean. Already we’ve found the world’s highest mountains, the world’s deepest valleys, underwater lakes, underwater waterfalls … . There’s still 97 percent, and either that 97 percent is empty or just full of surprises.”

Watch this – it’s entrancing:

Gallo and his team, NOAA’s Ocean Explorer teams, Dr. Edith Widder, and so many more, are among those who’ve been exploring the oceans’ depths for years. This year is a pivotal time in deep sea exploration – with James Cameron’s DeepSea Challenge, Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic and Dr. Sylvia Earle’s DOER marine all aiming to explore at the ocean’s deepest point – the fabled Mariana Trench. Before James Cameron reached the bottom of the Trench last month, there had been a 52 year drought — only Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh had done it before — in 1960.

With this ocean-oriented race to the bottom, we’re surely on the brink of  vast and astonishing discoveries of life in the least-hospitable, oxygen-starved depths of our planet.

Follow ocean explorers’ Twitter feeds on our ocean explorations list.

Creature of the deep: The see-through barreleye

Another fascinating creature of the deep ocean. This one, the barreleye (Macropinna microstoma), also called the “spookfish” for obvious reasons, provides plenty of mystery for scientists to unravel.

When researchers at MBARI sent ROVs to deep waters off the coast of California a couple years ago, they believe they solved the half-century question of what this fish’s tubular eyes can do (the eyes are the greenish half-orbs pointed up, not the two dark spots on the front of the fish’s ‘face’ – it’s wild – watch the video). They also discovered a new feature of its remarkable head:

“…its eyes are surrounded by a transparent, fluid-filled shield that covers the top of the fish’s head. Most existing descriptions and illustrations of this fish do not show its fluid-filled shield, probably because this fragile structure was destroyed when the fish were brought up from the deep in nets.”

What will future research reveal about about this intriguing fish?

Pic o’ the week – elephant seal enlisted in research

He or she didn’t have a choice, but helped the cause of ocean research anyway.

As Debra Black reports in The Star, this is one of many sea creatures enlisted in the cause of researching our oceans. To find out what really is going on down there — or, in the case of this elephant seal, what the topography of the ocean is really like — some researchers have found ways to get research straight from the animal.

This seal was one of 57 that marine biologist Daniel Costa fitted with the sensors. As Black reports:

“The data of where the seals were going and how far they were diving were recorded every few seconds and sent back by satellite. While doing this, his seals also came up with a plethora of data on the depth of the waters surrounding the Antarctic. That data was able to help {scientists} put together a “much better map” detailing the depth of the ocean floor, thanks to the seals.”

And if it looks like something you wouldn’t want stuck to your head for long, you can rest easy knowing that this device fall off when the seal moults.

Photo by Daniel Costa

life in the Gulf’s Mississippi Canyon

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon’s well is spewing 5,000 gallons of oil a day into the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico’s Mississippi Canyon. Engineers try to build a dome over the gusher, while others work on digging a “relief” well nearby in a bid to stop the flow.

Today we revisit some of the sealife that NOAA and the US Minerals Management Service have documented so far in the their four-year series of deep sea explorations in the Gulf.

Above, an example of the Mississippi Canyon 751 site (near Deepwater Horizon well) where coral and cold seep habitats intersect. On the left is the gorgonian coral Callogorgia americana. On the right is the seep tubeworm. From Lophelia II expedition, 2009.

Lophelia pertusa coral from the Mississippi Canyon 751 site at approximately 450 m depth. From Lophelia II expedition, 2009.

Tubeworms living on the same piece of carbonate rock as large colonies of the gorgonian Callogorgia Americana americana. Note the brittle stars and a galatheid crab crawling on the gorgonians. Photo by Derk Bergquist.

Iceworms (Hesiocaeca methanicola) infest a solid piece of orange methane ice at 540 m depth in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Ian MacDonald. Both above photos from Expedition to the Deep Slope, 2006.


Photos courtesy NOAA Office of Ocean Research and Exploration

Pic o’ the week – tiny sea life

A one-centimeter large larval-tube Medusae anemone. It’s already begun fishing for food with its tiny tentacles and its dark stomach indicates it’s finding food.

This image was taken as part of the Census of Marine Life, a 10-year collaboration among more than 2,000 scientists from 80+ nations. The census, which will be released later this year, is the first-ever effort to create a catalog of marine life in our oceans — and thus provide us a baseline of its diversity, distribution, and abundance.

Four of the Census’s 14 studies are focusing on ‘hardest-to-see’ sea creatures — tiny microbes, zooplankton, larvae and burrowers in the sea bed, which together underpin almost all other life on the planet. They’ve discovered an astounding number of new species.

As Dr. John Baross put it, “This is a huge frontier for the next decade.”

Another big benefit for the oceans? “The Census has helped develop a world view,” says Dr. Ann Bucklin, head of the marine zooplankton portion of the census, “and all of us who work in the field have treasured that.”

Photo by Cheryl Clarke-Hopcroft/UAF/CMarZ