Through focused research themes—ocean biodiversity, coral reefs and endangered ocean megafauna— the Ocean Life Institute seeks to illuminate the critical issues facing marine organisms so that conservationists, policymakers and the general public can make informed decisions about the use of this vast natural resource.
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During the ten-year Census of Marine Life, other agencies and partnerships also carried out explorations of Earth's oceans and helped document the seas' biodiversity. Seen at 704 meters (2,310 feet) depth on a newly-mapped seamount in the Pacific's Coral Triangle, this crab with 8-inch arms is a species only observed living on soft coral. (Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX-SATAL 2010)

Ocean Biodiversity

The ocean is the largest habitat for living things in our solar system. It almost certainly was the ancient cauldron where life developed from complex chemistry, and today it is home to the greatest diversity of major plant, animal and microbial groups on Earth. But at the beginning of the 21st century, we realize that the ocean is at once overexploited and underexplored. Even as most of the world’s fisheries face declining catches and many marine habitats are degraded by pollution and development, the vast majority of the ocean is aqua incognita, concealing yet-to-be discovered environments and life forms.

From the coasts to the abyss, WHOI scientists are working to improve our access to the sea to better understand the interconnectedness of marine life in all its diversity. Using the latest technological advances in remotely operated vehicles, autonomous underwater vehicles, sonar and deep-sea imaging systems, scientists now are able to explore previously inaccessible places, including the deepest, darkest and hottest areas of the global ocean. What they are finding in these places is changing what we know about the origins of life on Earth.

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WHOI researchers working along a coral reef off Bermuda. (Photo courtesy of Anne Cohen, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Coral Reefs

Some of the world’s corals are considered the longest-living species on our planet, and certainly humans have benefitted from their longevity. Around the world, coral reefs—both shallow and deep water—play a valuable role in the survival of marine and human life. They are diverse, valuable ecosystems for the ocean food chain, providing nurseries for breeding fish and habitats for many more. For humans, they offer some protection to coastlines from tsunamis and hurricanes and host fish stocks that provide the only protein for many societies.

Despite their central role in supporting life, coral ecosystems are increasingly vulnerable to physical disturbances, particularly those caused by climate change, ocean acidification, some deep-sea fishing methods and energy exploration/production. WHOI scientists, with funding from OLI that has leveraged even greater federal support, are at work to examine the threats to coral communities; these studies are critical for conservation and management of marine protected areas, such as the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. Threats such as bleaching, caused when higher ocean temperatures endanger the fragile, symbiotic relationship between corals and the algae they host, must be understood before effective action can be taken.

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WHOI Senior scientist and Director of the Ocean Life Institute Simon Thorrold tags whale sharks in the Red Sea with the support of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). 
(Photo by Simon Thorrold, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Endangered Ocean Megafauna

Ironically, some of the largest creatures roaming the ocean are among the most endangered. The right whale, for example, is the most endangered great whale, with fewer than 300 in the North Atlantic. Despite federal protection, these whales are vulnerable to human activity—ship collisions and entanglement in commercial fishing gear account for approximately 40 percent of North Atlantic right whale deaths—and to degrading food supplies, which might play a role in the right whale's poor reproduction rates.

WHOI scientists, in collaboration with scientific colleagues around the world, are working to improve the survival rates of the right whale, the whale shark, and many other endangered ocean megafauna. The Ocean Life Institute and its Marine Mammal Center have an exceptional cohort of specialists in marine mammal research, covering the fields of communication, behavior, hearing, anatomy, pathology, stranding response and underwater physiology. Their work is on the leading edge of research linking marine mammal behavior, response to threats and physiology to that of humans.