Deep-sea corals and sponges are some of the oldest animals on Earth, living for hundreds of years at depths beyond direct human observation. Coral, sponge, and fish communities thrive in the cold, deep waters off California’s coast, but are rarely – if ever – visited or observed.

In late July and early August, scientists using advanced technology aboard the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada will study unexplored seafloor habitats off North-Central California in NOAA’s Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries. Their focus includes coral, sponge, and groundfish communities. What they learn will help inform the management of these special ocean areas, and add to knowledge about deep-sea habitats and the biological communities that live there.

A crinoid and bubblegum coral grow in the deep sea in Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: OET/NOAA

Remotely operated vehicle

To survey the seafloor and record images of the habitats as deep as 2,000 feet (600 meters), scientists are using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), launched from the ship and sent into the depths of the ocean. In addition to sending real-time video and images via a cable connected to the ship, the unmanned ROV will collect geological and biological specimens for identification. Scientists will also conduct seafloor mapping, an important tool for management of marine areas.

A remotely operated vehicle collects a sponge sample. The yellow sponge is a new species that was found on the wreck of the USS Independence. Photo: OET/NOAA

Why go into the deep?

The deep sea is vastly unknown because it is largely inaccessible by humans. However, it affects us in many ways. A healthy ocean is essential to the health of our planet, and deep-sea communities are an important part of marine ecosystems. The deep sea nurtures fish stocks and hosts life-forms like bacteria and sponges that have contributed to medical discoveries.

Coral and sponge habitats are among the most biodiverse and productive ecosystems throughout the entire ocean. Increasing global human demand for resources has created a need for expanded science and conservation of these deep-ocean ecosystems and the benefits they may yield. Both living and dead corals and sponges are “biogenic habitats,” where the organisms themselves provide habitat for other marine life.

Previous NOAA expeditions off California’s coast have identified several new species of corals and sponges, including Swiftia farallonesica, a slender white coral, in the deep waters of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, off the Sonoma County coast. New sponge species were discovered living on the wreck of the USS Independence off the San Mateo County coast. They were also discovered in Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, both in Bodega Canyon and on the deep slope near Cordell Bank to the north. New species discoveries indicate that we still have much to learn about the deep sea.

The ocean supports hundreds of billions of dollars of the U.S. economy through food, jobs, transportation, recreation, and other services. NOAA’s mission is “to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.” Assessing the conditions of ocean ecosystems can lead to better management of those areas to support the ocean economy.

Swiftia farallonesica is a new species of coral that was discovered in the deep waters of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NOAA

The team

Scientists from NOAA’s Cordell Bank and Greater Farallones national marine sanctuaries and NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science are co-principal investigators. Marine Applied Research and Exploration (MARE) provided the ROV and personnel. Funding and contributions are from NOAA’s Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, NOAA National Ocean Service, and NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. Scientists from U.S. Geological Survey, California Academy of Sciences, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, and Greater Farallones Association are also participating in the mission.

Bamboo coral is one deep-sea dweller that researchers may encounter while exploring Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries. Photo: OET/NOAA

Bell M. Shimada

The NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada is operated, managed, and maintained by NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which includes commissioned officers of the NOAA Corps and civilian wage mariners. NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research operates, manages, and maintains the cutting-edge ocean exploration systems on the vessel and ashore.

Researchers will be based off the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada. Photo: NOAA

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