NOAA and the search for deep-sea corals

September 11, 2019  - By

This article includes National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) undersea camera livestreams and an interview with an undersea expedition coordinator.

In a case of fortuitous happenstance, I found myself in an operations support center for an undersea expedition with two, large, flat screens mounted on a wall peering into the deep through the remote viewer slowly gliding through a dark blue barren abyss.

The NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer. (Photo: NOAA)

The NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer. (Photo: NOAA)

Deep dive into ocean exploration

That encounter led me on a deep dive of my own into undersea expeditions and becoming this month’s article.

I have been interested the deep sea since my youth growing up in the age of Sealab and watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Later in life, I served in the U.S. Navy and took part in one of the first successful real-world tests of a geospatially enabled, full-spectrum battlespace using tactical oceanography, which ultimately steered me into the field of Geographic Information Systems and Imagery Analysis.

That accomplishment helped in my being selected to establish one of the first operational GIS units for supporting Special Operations Forces.

After retiring from the military, I briefly worked as a nautical charts cartographer. So, from a practical perspective, for five years I worked supporting maritime, near-shore and riverine environments. However, going back another 10 years, I was formally trained in oceanography as part of my overall career in the Navy as an aerographer, which also included the disciplines of meteorology, astronomy and astrophysics.

Many years I spent observing and contemplating the ocean of air above, the waters below, and the heavens beyond. One cannot meditate upon the firmaments and assuage the wonder within. Whether for war or love, to ponder the sea and sky emotes an imprint on the heart.

Ocean, the larger part of Earth, alive and thriving, captivates our imagination. What must we, the conscious beast, have wondered when the first of us standing at land’s end looked out upon the mysterious deep of the Great Waters stretching from where he stood to the base of the celestial dome? Did he think it marked the end of the habitable world where mortals dwell and that the great expanse of waters separated us from the heavens where the sun rises and sets and where the moon and stars reside?

I shall reveal a secret; it is a mystery [of the gods] I tell you. There is a plant that grows at the bottom of the ocean, it has a prickle like a thorn, like a rose; it will wound your hands, but if you succeed in taking it, you will hold that which restores lost youth to a man.

— Utnapishtim, Epic of Gilgamesh (Sumeria 2100 BC)

Coral treasures

The Greeks, the race of ancient seafarers knew well the secrets of the sea. Aristotle, the wise philosopher of the ages, still teaches us through his pupil Theophrastus, who spoke of a deep sea plant, red and hard like a stone. He named it korallion. We call it coral.

Photo: NOAA

Photo: NOAA

Aristotle also observed that sponges were better from deeper depths and invented the diving bell to collect them. Another of his students, Alexander of Macedonia, the warrior king, had a diving bell made of glass, a Colimpha, so he could walk the seafloor. Perhaps, on his conquest of Babylon, Alexander heard about the secret of Gilgamesh and sought the plant for himself. How valuable would such a plant be to a warrior king?

Corals have always fascinated man, like treasures from another world — not from this dry land called Earth ruled by air-breathing, upright beings, but from a world of water with bizarre and terrifying creatures and plants made of stone.

Photo: NOAA

Photo: NOAA

Corals, as it turns out, are not a plant at all. They are the smallest of animals, called a cnidarian, and millions of them together form the broad-limbed, rock-like structures. They take many thousands of years to develop into the large, picturesque arrangements beneath the waves.

Colonies of corals form reefs. The largest of these is the Great Barrier Reef in Australia’s northeastern waters. The second largest is the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef in the Caribbean Sea. wherein lies the Great Blue Hole off the coast of Belize. The Great Blue Hole was deeply explored this summer.

Corals are the cornerstone of the ocean. By some estimates, the world’s corals are worth nearly $10 trillion, but that diminishes their real value because if they perish the ocean itself could die. Corals are the proverbial canary in the coalmine, and throughout the world they are ailing.

The ocean’s health is in decline. There have been six severe coral bleaching events in the past 30 years and they are occurring more frequently and for longer periods each time. Over 20% of the world’s corals are already gone. Saving them is a concern for us all.

The United States is leading the effort to protect the ocean’s corals and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is at the forefront. The President’s Budget for 2020 funds NOAA for Ocean, Coastal and Great Lakes Research at $218.5M, which is an increase of $12.7M from FY 2018.

A team of scientists and researchers at NOAA are mapping deep sea corals in Alaska and Hawaii and along the coastlines of North America. Operations are underway aboard the Okeanos Explorer, one of NOAA’s ocean exploration vessels. It is on the second leg of Expedition 19-05 taking place from Tuesday, Aug. 27, through Sunday, Sept. 15.

The expedition begins in Canada’s largest underwater canyon, a marine protected area called The Gully 125 nautical miles (NM) off Nova Scotia, and then continuing south along the continental shelf. A deep-sea remotely operated vehicle (ROV), a modern-day Colimpha, is exploring the depths to over 10,000 feet (3,050 meters).

The dives are streamed daily from the ROV from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. ET. View the livestream here.

The ship’s location can be tracked online. Clicking on the ship icon will reveal details of the ship’s speed, heading, weather conditions and bathymetry

The Okeanos Explorer tracker allows users to follow the course of an Okeanos cruise. (Screenshot: NOAA)

The Okeanos Explorer tracker allows users to follow the course of an Okeanos cruise. (Screenshot: NOAA)

NOAA’s Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program maintains the National Database for Deep-Sea Corals and Sponges, which is an interactive map portal with more than 650,000 records. It can  be accessed here.

A Calling for the Ocean

I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Kasey Cantwell, an expedition coordinator for NOAA, after she returned from Halifax helping setup the command center for Expedition Deep Connections 2019 (EX1905).

In June and July of this year, Kasey led the Windows to the Deep Expedition (EX1903) from onboard the Okeanos Explorer, diving into a vast field of deep-sea corals known as the Blake Plateau about 100 miles off the coast of the southeastern U.S. It is one of the largest, most dense and diverse coral fields discovered at those depths.

Control room of the Okeanos. (Photo: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research)

Control room of the Okeanos. (Photo: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research)

Kasey’s seven years working at NOAA has been her dream come true. How every mission unfolds is what holds her fascination for the job. As the ROV Deep Discoverer descends, no one knows what they will find, but everyone knows they will be exploring an area never seen before.

They might find a shipwreck, or a plane crash, or a new species, or some strange geological formations. She very much enjoys listening to experts from around the world who are tuned in to the live feed from the ROV, discussing what they are seeing and — even with all that expertise — how often they are all surprised or stumped coming across something unexpected or never before seen.

Better ROVs on the Horizon

Deep-sea exploration is relatively new. Technology continuously improves. The ROV’s ability to remain in place with its high-resolution zoom camera makes exploring and observing the deep-sea environment possible like never before. New discoveries happen with almost every dive.

Limitations exist with the present class of submersibles because they are loud, bulky and bright, scaring off much of the marine life. But the next evolution of deep-sea submersibles are being developed.

The next generation will be stealthy, artificially intelligent, autonomous systems with improved battery life and a suite of sensors able to accomplish much more than we can today. Several of these submersibles will be able to operate in a network, providing us new and fascinating discoveries and observing marine life more naturally.

The best way to stay informed about NOAA’s expeditions is subscribe to NOAA’s Faceook page.

Protecting Our Oceans

America can be proud of its ocean services. NOAA is standing as the vanguard protecting our seas, balancing environmental concerns and commercial demands helping ensure our oceans remain thriving and healthy into the future.

NOAA is identifying areas to be designated as marine protected areas (MPAs) that need safeguarding. There are 15,059 MPAs in the world, and more than 10% are in U.S. waters. MPAs prevent over-fishing and minimize the effects of pollution and further damage to coral reefs and marine environments.

In closing, the biome of the sea has been under explored and undervalued, resulting in less funding, care and attention; but recent discoveries in biotechnology have scientists believing corals hold potential for medicines and life-saving drugs.

Already, more than 40,000 compounds from aquatic resources have been identified for possible medical benefits. This interest is stimulating investment into undersea exploration and development.

In the future, doctors will prescribe pharmaceuticals originating from coral farms on the ocean floor — a secret revealed over 6,000 years ago inscribed on clay tablets in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest writings in human history.

The sea summons us to its edge providing a moonlit path by night, and by day a diadem of sparkles herald the sun.

The majestic ocean, rhythmic and soothing yet chaotic and raging, is a tempest that both calms and terrifies the soul. And we, the conscious, land-dwelling beast seeks understanding and harmony with our sister the Sea. That calling is the mission of NOAA’s Ocean Exploration Research.

Strange fluid extrusions found on the escarpment of Verrill Canyon at a depth of 7,972 feet (2430 meters) on Aug. 30, 2019. (Screenshot: NOAA Okeanos Explorer ROV livestream)

Strange fluid extrusions found on the escarpment of Verrill Canyon at a depth of 7,972 feet (2,430 meters) on Aug. 30, 2019. (Screenshot: NOAA Okeanos Explorer ROV livestream)

NOTE TO THE READER: In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim preserved mankind from destruction, and as a reward was given eternal life. He was ferried across the “Great Waters” known as Ea, separating the land from the heavens, and sent to live in the city of Dilmun where the Sun rises. Urshanabi, the boatman, was the only one who could pass over the waters between the two worlds. Gilgamesh tricked Urshanabi into taking him in his boat to the edge of Ea to the gates of Dilmun where Utnapishtim came and told Gilgamesh the secret.