Exploring Corals of the Deep
It's hard to fathom that off our central California coast, just 80 miles southwest of Monterey, is a massive underwater mountain which blooms with deep sea coral life, including some corals which were new to science before they were discovered by researchers at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
This underwater mountain is the Davidson Seamount, an impressive geological structure which like the roughly 30,000 seamounts throughout the world, was generated by underwater volcanic activity. In 1933, it became the first geographic feature called a "seamount" and it is named after George Davidson, an astronomer and geographer.
So what makes the Davidson Seamount so special?
As Andrew DeVogelaere, Research Coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary told me during our filming for this QUEST story, "It’s special because of its shape. Most sea mounts are circular…This one is oblong, because as it developed over millions of years, it was on a spreading center.Think of Hawaii underneath the water…that juts up from the sea floor mud thousands of feet."
The other reason why this seamount is so special is its reputation as an oasis of deep sea coral life. Approximately 30 species of deep sea corals have been found at the Davidson Seamount. While it may seem odd that any animal could survive let alone thrive in this dark, frigid environment, the deep sea corals opportunistically position themselves on the steep sides of the Davidson Seamount to catch nutrients and plankton rushing up from deep sea currents.
But venturing to this seamount is no easy feat; in fact, the top of the Davidson Seamount is still 4,000 feet below the surface of the water! Undeterred and with the high-tech submersible tools at their disposal, DeVogelaere and fellow marine biologist Jim Barry of MBARI launched a research trip in 2006 to the 26 mile-long Davidson Seamount to explore the rich biodiversity teeming in its dark, watery depths.
The trip was a follow-up to a 2002 research expedition funded by NOAA, also under the direction of Andrew DeVogelaere at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The impetus of that trip was to catalogue, through the use of a Remotely Operated Vehicle mounted with sophisticated cameras, the abundance and diversity of deep sea corals and other striking animals such as anemones and fish observed along the sides and valleys of this volcanic, rocky formation.
In 2006, the team returned to the seamount and once more recorded hours upon hours of breathtaking HD footage. The scientists were also trying to develop a model that would help them predict where other corals might be in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which the Davidson Seamount was incorporated into in 2009. Some deep sea corals were also transplanted from a less acidic region at the top of the seamount to a more acidic region farther below to assess how these transplanted corals would fare in the face of increasing ocean acidification. Not only did the scientists find evidence of ocean acidification at 12,000 feet, they also found evidence of the toxic pesticide DDT and trash, including a Coca-Cola bottle.
On a personal level, this was an aspect of the story which indelibly affected me – how is it that creatures like corals, which can live thousands of years, survive in an inhospitable environment thousands of feet beneath the surface of the ocean?
Sadly, these seemingly fragile but resilient, ancient organisms are experiencing stresses, such as ocean acidification, to their ancient marine habitats which may far outstrip their ability to adapt.
Jim Barry is studying the effects of ocean acidification on deep sea organisms like urchins and, as he told me, he plans to bring into his lab precious corals (so named for their value as jewelry) to see how they contend with increasing levels of acidity. "The California coast could be considered the front line for ocean acidification damage, within 50 years, and certainly by the end of the century…As ocean acidification due to our C02 emissions intensifies along this coast, those corals are gonna have a hard time," Barry said.
Stephen Palumbi, Director of the Hopkins Marine Station, is another amazing, eloquent marine biologist whom I interviewed for this story. He specializes in tropical corals which are also vulnerable to the effects of ocean acidification. His research in American Samoa focuses on "super corals" – species of corals which thrive in waters that would be too warm for most other corals.
Palumbi similarly struck a somber note in regards to ocean acidification, trawling and other pressures facing corals, be they in the cold, deep ocean or in the warm, shallow waters of the tropics.
"The biggest worry is that we humans are such game-changers. We change the rules wherever we go," he said. "That record of coral success, which has been a quarter of a billion years that corals have been successful on our planet, …is about to come to an end because of the way we are so incredibly changing the oceans."
Indeed, it's a race against time. DeVogelaere told me that we know less about the deep ocean than the surface of the moon. With tens of thousands of seamounts around the world, perhaps now is the time to descend high-tech ROVs thousands of feet into the cold, watery abyss and illuminate the stunning, ancient corals of the deep, documenting their diversity and habitat range around the world before they disappear.
In the course of my production on this story, I was lucky enough to acquire some very compelling footage of bottom trawling activity. In particular, Greenpeace International allowed me to use the powerful clip of a large bubblegum coral being thrown overboard, part of the senseless bycatch scooped up in the shipping vessel's trawl net. The size of the coral, which took two men two throw overboard, indicates that it must have been growing for at least hundreds of years in the deep sea. Greenpeace also had video shot in the deep Bering Sea, where parts of the seafloor bore scars from trawling activity. Oceana, another NGO diligently trying to protect the world's oceans, shared black and white video footage originally shot by NOAA of a trawl net scraping the seafloor and scooping up any and all marine organisms in its indiscriminate, destructive path.