A new age for deep sea exploration

Imagine looking down on an immense, mostly unknown world from 20,000 feet above in pitch-black darkness using a tiny flashlight. That’s what it’s like for scientists aboard one ship exploring the deep sea — the planet’s largest and most unknown habitat.

This otherworldly place, where there is no light and the pressure at some of its deepest parts is equivalent to the weight of an elephant balanced on a postage stamp, is the focus of Okeanos Explorer, the only federally funded U.S. ship assigned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to systematically explore the ocean’s biodiversity and geography.

But here's the twist — there's more scientists on the ship's expeditions than those on deck. Thousands of scientists connect to the Okeanos via telepresence technology, which uses satellites and the Internet to transmit footage in real-time from remotely operated deep-sea vehicles to a shore-based hub at the University of Rhode Island. The footage is then broadcasted to onshore scientists and the public.

In his office at the University of Florida, Randy Singer streams undersea footage live on his computer. A doctoral student studying informatics at iDigBio, a national center that digitizes museum collections for public use, Singer joined Okeanos as a shore-based scientist in 2013 when the expedition went to the mid-Atlantic. Since then he has participated in four expeditions to places like Puerto Rico and Hawaii, all without leaving his desk.

“We’re going to these places that nobody’s gone before, but we’re also taking anybody with us who wants to go,” he said. “That’s the crazy part. With Okeanos Explorer, thousands of people are coming together to see unexplored parts of the ocean for the first time.”

Singer said technology is serving as our means of travel to the deep sea, since humans cannot physically travel there. The deep-sea environment is ominous and harsh, and not just because of zero light and immense pressure — it's super cold, too. The temperature at these icy depths drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The environment is so extreme, fish had to evolve unique and sometimes strange adaptations to live in these conditions, giving them an unearthly appearance.

The cusk eel, Leucicorus lusciosus (Garman, 1899). This fish is rarely encountered – the whole genus is known from a collection of fewer than 20 individuals. This species was previously known only from the eastern tropical Pacific. Although the eye is large, scientists don't think they can actually see images, as the eye does not have a fully formed lens. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2015 Hohonu Moana.

He is part of a large team of onshore biologists of varying disciplines and geologists stream the real-time feed online, contribute to discussions and study new discoveries. Simultaneously, the public may watch and listen as scientists explore the ocean.

Singer recently co-authored a study with other onshore scientists that looked at ways seafloor features, specifically mountains rising from the bottom, influence deepwater fish communities. But it's a curious fish spotted during Okeanos Explorer’s 2014 expedition to waters off Puerto Rico that's currently keeping Singer busy. During the mission Singer noticed a strange neon pinkish-red fish that he couldn’t initially identify. After some investigation, he realized it belonged to a group of smooth dory fishes and may be a new species. His paper describing the new species is currently in the works.

The smooth dory fish spotted by Randy Singer during Okeanos Explorer's Puerto Rico 2014 mission. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

The Puerto Rico expedition was aimed at tracking the locality of the Queen Snapper, a sought-after species by commercial fisheries in the Caribbean. Classrooms and research labs in Puerto Rico and around the globe tuned in as scientists searched for the Queen Snapper among many other deep-sea animals and geologic features.

“Thousands of people watched us find one of the largest sponges ever photographed. It was huge. When I say huge, I mean it was the size of a strip mall,” Singer Said.

“With every fish that we see, all of the fish people collaborate to identify it, study new range extensions and interesting behaviors, or even determine if the fish has ever been seen,” Singer said.

Typically a biologist and a geologist on the boat lead each expedition and coordinate the group of up to 30 shore-based scientists. The group collectively decides what to focus on and where to sample in pre-expedition meetings as well as in real-time via a group satellite conference call.

Listen to Randy Singer identify a Stomias Boa during a 2014 Okeanos Explorer expedition.

For each expedition, there's a lead scientists decide what species to capture and the skilled pilots maneuver a mechanical arm attached to an underwater remote operating vehicle to collect specimens.

“It’s just like the claw game where you go after the stuffed animal, except there is a two-second delay and the whole time the pilot steering the ship is trying to make sure the ROV doesn’t move from that spot. But they still nail it every time,” Singer said.

“It’s just like the claw game where you go after the stuffed animal, except there is a two-second delay and the whole time the pilot steering the ship is trying to make sure the ROV doesn’t move from that spot," singer said. "But they still nail it every time."

So what is it about the deep sea that draws scientists and attracts thousands of Okeanos viewers to their computer screens? Singer said much of the drive is pure curiosity.

But there are more practical reasons for the project. Although it seems disconnected, the deep sea is not safe from environmental threats like ocean acidification and pollution.

When animals at the surface fall victim to environmental threats, it exponentially reduces the amount of energy that reaches the deep sea, Singer said. Fishes at the surface provide what scientists call ‘marine snow,’ or discarded flesh, scales and other parts left when an animal is eaten or dies of natural causes that drift down to the deeper levels, Singer said. For example, when whales die, their carcasses sink to the bottom and can feed an entire community of deep-sea fishes for months or even years.

“The reality is when you damage things at the surface, you’re definitely indirectly affecting the fish at deeper levels,” Singer said.

But to protect the deep sea, first we have to find out what’s out there. If we somehow drained the planet of all its water, Singer said the continents would look like tiny mesas, with huge canyons and enormous mountains down below us.

“Mt. Everest is a molehill compared to what’s in the ocean,” Singer said. “But we only know about 5 percent of the species that live there and even less about its geography.”

A seamount mapped on a return voyage to Honolulu. This "Mountain in the Deep" rose approximately 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) from the seafloor. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Mountains in the Deep: Exploring the Central Pacific Basin.

Since we currently have no way to monitor the deep sea, Singer said overfishing of species like Orange Roughy, a deep sea fish that is over harvested commercially in the Pacific, is dangerous because we don’t know how many exist.

“We don’t know very much about the deep sea because it’s just so remote. Sampling it with nets is like flying over New York City in a helicopter with a bucket hanging off of it and trying to catch cockroaches.”

Hindrances in investigating unexplored areas of the ocean during netting expeditions led NOAA to commission the Okeanos Explorer in 2008. Netting expeditions require grueling months at sea and spots on the boat are limited, which also restricts the variety of scientific expertise available on-site during missions.

This video shows highlights from various expeditions Randy Singer has participated in.

Before signing up with Okeanos, Singer experienced an expedition at sea firsthand. He spent two months in 2009 with the NOAA Mid-Atlantic Ridge Ecosystem Project collecting deep-sea specimens as far as 18,000 feet below the surface.

“Life on an ocean expedition is comparable to living on a slow-motion roller coaster for weeks, Singer said. “Going to sea isn’t for everyone, since expeditions often go very long periods of time without returning to shore. When you start out, you have fresh food and by the end you’re literally eating Helper–not Hamburger Helper, just Helper. By the last week, there’s no fresh fruit and you start to get cabin fever.”

For scientists who aim to explore the deep-sea—a place humans cannot visit due to the crushing pressure—technology has become the key to unlocking its secrets.

“The age-old selling point for deep sea research is that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the deep ocean. I mean, talk about needing to know more about our planet’s biodiversity. That’s the first place we can look,” Singer said.

Created By
Stephenie Livingston


Images courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

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