October 7 to November 6, 2009
Join a renowned team of oceanographers and astrobiologists as they explore one of the deepest points in the Caribbean Sea, searching for life in extreme seafloor environments.
This October a renowned team of oceanographers and astrobiologists will explore one of the deepest points in the Caribbean Sea, searching for life in extreme seafloor environments. Using the new hybrid underwater robotic vehicle Nereus, these scientists will extend their investigations beyond the reach of other research submersibles to the bottom of the Mid-Cayman Rise, whose maximum depth is just over 6,800 meters (4.2 miles) deep.
The study area, also known as the Mid-Cayman Spreading Center, is one of Earth’s deepest and slowest-spreading mid-ocean ridges—regions where two of Earth’s tectonic plates are ripped apart and new material wells up from the Earth’s interior. There, scientists will search for hydrothermal vent systems—natural, seafloor plumbing systems where cold seawater circulates down into the hot, freshly-formed oceanic crust releasing heat and mineral-rich fluids at the seafloor that support complex ecosystems of exotic organisms.
By exploring this extreme and previously uninvestigated section of the Earth’s deep seafloor, this research seeks to extend our understanding of the limits (in terms of extreme environments) to which life can exist on Earth and to help prepare for future efforts to explore for life on other planets.
A detailed bathymetric base map of the Mid-Cayman Rise study area. The 32 round targets show locations at which scientists plan to stop and sample the water column using the CTD—every 5 miles along and across axis, to complete a thorough survey for hydrothermal activity.
Where is the Expedition?
The Mid-Cayman Rise lies in the middle of the Cayman Trough (or Cayman Trench) which is located in the western Caribbean Sea, south of Cuba and Jamaica and close to the Cayman Islands. In the middle of the East-West trending Cayman Trough lies the Mid-Cayman Spreading Center—approximately 110 kilometers (68 miles) long and spreading apart at an ultra-slow rate of less than 20 millimeters (0.9 inches) per year.
Why Study this Area
Ultra-slow spreading ridges such as the Mid Cayman Spreading Center make up about 25 percent of the 60,000-kilometer (40,000-mile) long system of mid-ocean ridges that encircle the globe. Until recently, these ultra-slow ridge systems remained almost completely overlooked, because of an early hypothesis that their slow spreading rates would make hydrothermal activity rare or absent. This hypothesis has since been disproved and surveys along ultra-slow ridges in the Southwest Indian Ocean and the Arctic have shown that, on average, at least one vent site occurs approximately every 100 kilometers (60 miles) along the axis of these ridges.
While no hydrothermal exploration of the Mid-Cayman Spreading Center has previously been carried out, dredging and submersible studies along the walls of the rift valley have identified locations where rocks have been extensively altered hydrothermally. The discovery of these rocks, as well as the hydrothermal activity found on similar spreading centers, makes researchers optimistic that they will discover active hydrothermal vents in the Cayman Trough.
If the science team does find hydrothermal systems at such great depths, their discovery will likely extend the known limits to life on our planet in terms of pressure, temperature, and vent fluid chemical compositions. And because hydrothermal circulation can arise on any planet that currently has, or has experienced, liquid water and a source of heat, this new research along the Mid-Cayman Rise can provide new insights into the possible origins and evolution of Earth’s biosphere, as well as the conditions that might have given rise to comparable life-forming chemicals and/or life on other worlds.
R/V Cape Hatteras
The 41-meter (135-foot ), steel-hulled research vessel Cape Hatteras is owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by the Duke/University of North Carolina Oceanographic Consortium. It has a cruising speed of 10 knots and can stay out at sea for up to 25 days.
» Learn more about the R/V Cape Hatteras
HROV Nereus, built and operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution engineers, is an unmanned vehicle that operates in two complementary modes. It can swim freely as an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to survey large areas of the depths, map the seafloor, and give scientists a broad overview. When Nereus has located something interesting (for example, on this cruise we hope to find completely new and unexplored vent-sites) it can be brought back on board the ship and transformed into a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) tethered to the ship via a microthin, fiber-optic cable. Through this tether, Nereus can transmit high-quality, real-time video images back to skilled pilots on the ship, who can send commands to the vehicle to collect samples or conduct experiments with a manipulator arm.
For this expedition, Nereus will first operate in AUV mode. After using the CTD to survey the area for hydrothermal plumes, researchers will deploy the AUV to locate, map, and photograph hydrothermal vents, at the seafloor. To do this, the Nereus operation team will first relocate each plume and home in to its source. The AUV will then descend close to the seafloor to obtain detailed bathymetry of the target site and intercept buoyant plumes from any high-temperature vents present. Lastly, the vehicle will be programmed to photo-mosaic individual vent sites and any ecosystems they host.
After operations in AUV mode, the vehicle will be converted into ROV mode for the last phase of the expedition. By this stage (Leg 2 of the cruise) we will also be ready to welcome a whole new set of specialist scientists on board. In ROV mode, Nereus will have up to eight hours of sampling per deployment at any vent site we have found – or other areas of interest. The vehicle will perform a combination of geochemical and biological sampling of vent fluids, minerals, hydrothermally altered rocks, large volume filtration (to sample chemicals or microbial life in the vent fluid) and extensive sampling of any megafauna.
» Learn more about Nereus
Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (CTD) Sensor
The first phase of the expedition will be to search for the plumes that rise up above hydrothermal vent sites using a Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (CTD) sensor. Buoyant, high-temperature plumes of fluid emanating from hydrothermal vents contain high concentrations of iron, manganese, and methane and rise hundreds of meters above the seafloor before being dispersed laterally by deep-ocean currents. It is the CTD’s job to detect temperature and other physical signals generated from the plumes and to collect water samples that will be analyzed on-board the ship as well as back in the lab after the cruise.
The CTD instrument package hangs from a conducting cable that is lowered vertically beneath the ship. Arranged around this instrument pack in a rosette are a series of 24 sampling bottles that are open top and bottom with snap-shut caps. As the instrument package is lowered to the seafloor, the various sensors send readings back, in real time, to a computer on the ship. Scientists monitor how the composition of the ocean changes at increasing depth from the surface to just above the seafloor and use the data sent back to the ship to map hydrothermal signals detected in the water column above the seafloor. Then, as they haul the instrument package back up through the water column, they can choose where to take samples by using the top-side computer to send an electrical pulse down the same conducting cable that brings the data to the surface. Each pulse triggers a sample bottle on the CTD frame, one bottle at a time, so that the end-caps snap shut and a water sample is collected at exactly the depth required. When the CTD and water sample bottles are hauled back on the ship, the scientists transfer the water samples to the ship’s laboratory where they perform analyses to identify hydrothermal chemicals.
» Learn more about CTD's
October 7 - October 26: First leg of expedition. CTD and Nereus AUV operations
October 27 - October 28: Port call, Georgetown, Cayman Islands. Nereus switches to ROV mode
October 29 – November 6: Second leg of expedition. Nereus ROV operations
This expedition is funded by NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program.
Dr. Christopher R German
Chief Scientist for Deep Submergence, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
My interests are three-fold. First, from a geological perspective, I am interested in where hydrothermal vents occur on the seafloor and why. Second, I am interested in the impact that hydrothermal systems have on ocean chemistry. Finally, I am interested in how the settings of hydrothermal vents and their global-scale distributions, along with those of other chemosynthetic habitats, have given rise to the patterns we observe today in the distributions of fauna that inhabit vents around the world.
On this expedition I am the Chief Scientist and lead PI for the NASA proposal that brought the team together. As well as having led a series of cruises in the past using "established" techniques to find vents—using both CTD-rosette systems and deep-tow geophysical instruments equipped with in situ hydrothermal sensors, I have pioneered the use of using AUVs to drill down even further from finding first plume signals to the point where we can actually locate and photograph hydrothermal fields in previously unexplored ocean basins. To-date we have found approx 16 different hydrothermal fields using this approach over 5 expeditions, including the first vents ever found in the southern Atlantic Ocean and the first vents to be identified on the ultra-slow spreading SW Indian Ridge.
During Leg 1 of the cruise my role will be to run one of the two watches conducting 24 hour operations with the CTD and to work with the Nereus AUV team if any evidence of a hydrothermal plume is detected. During Leg 2, I will be overseeing dive operations and work with the Leg 2 scientists to identify priorities for what sampling equipment gets carried to the seafloor by Nereus and what sampling gets done.
Dr. Julie Huber
Assistant Scientist, Marine Biological Laboratory
My lab studies the microbiology of deep-sea hydrothermal systems and focuses on the distribution, diversity, and physiological adaptations of microbial groups at hydrothermal systems. Microorganisms from this environment offer opportunities to study many exciting aspects of marine microbial ecology, including molecular evolution, astrobiology, microbial diversity, and biogeography.
I am leading the microbiological portion of the ASTEP program. The MCSC is an ideal natural laboratory in which to examine two key understudied aspects of vent microbiology: ultramafic-hosted microbial communities and those at great depth (>3500m). We will do microbiology on any and every sample that comes on deck: water from CTD casts, rocks, sediments, microbial mat, vent fluids, even animal surfaces. All samples will be analyzed using a suite of molecular, microscopic and enrichment-based techniques to examine the adaptation of microbes to their geologic and chemical habitat.
Mr. Andrew Bowen
Research Specialist, Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Andy has been involved in the development, design and operation of unmanned underwater robotics. He also manage the National Deep Submergence Facility, based at Woods Hole. This facility is made up of the human occupied submersible Alvin, the tethered vehicle Jason and the autonomous vehicle Sentry. I continue to be involved in the development of new submersible vehicles like Nereus.
Andy is on the expedition to help keep Nereus operating. In particular, He will work with the science team to help plan how we can best use Nereus to achieve the goals of the expedition. He will help on deck and work with the other members of the team to ensure Nereus is ready to go.
Dr. Max Coleman
Senior Research Scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech
Max looks for Life outside the Earth. His research focuses on identification of minerals that formed as result of, or in the presence of, biological activity and developing instruments that could detect them. He is on the expedition because he is a card carrying ASTROBIOLOGIST and the Mid-Cayman Trough location is the best terrestrial analogue for the deep hydrothermal vents believed to exist (under thick ice at the bottom of a salty ocean) on the moon of Jupiter, Europa. It will allow us to develop the protocols for autonomous search for hydrothermal vents on Europa and subsequent detection of Life associated with them.
Max's roles on the expedition are to use mineral compositions to understand present and past fluid compositions as sources of energy for living organisms and to quantify the amount of life such energy could support. He will try to ensure that appropriate mineral samples are recovered, curate them and analyze them subsequently at JPL.
Dr. Douglas P Connelly
National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, UK
Doug is a geochemist from NOCS who spends a lot of time at sea looking for exciting new vent sites. When he is not at sea he helps to develop chemical noses to sniff out the signals of vents over very long distances. In the past few years he has been to the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans hunting for sites but this is his first time hunting in the Caribbean.
I will be running the CTD with Chris and hunting the vent sites using the LSS. We will collect samples for the onboard analysis of dissolved methane and return samples back to our lab in the UK for the analysis of manganese and iron, important tracer species for hydrothermal vent inputs.
Mr. Phil Forte
Mechanical Engineer, Deep Submergence Lab, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Phil's area of expertise is mechanical design for crewed and uncrewed submarines such as Alvin and Jason. Previously, he was an Alvin pilot and currently participates in at-sea operations with Jason. Phil is on the expedition to support all mechanical aspects of the vehicle, launch and recovery, and watch standing as a pilot.
Mr. Daniel Gomez-Ibanez
Engineer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Daniel studies underwater engineering, especially vehicle batteries and propulsion. During the cruise, he will endeavor to make everything work, and to streamline the flow of matter and information, transforming Nereus from a promising idea into an operational vehicle. Daniel will be part of the team operating Nereus, managing battery charging and energy use, and supporting a variety of sensors and samplers integrated with the vehicle He will be on both the AUV and ROV legs.
Mr. David Honig
Graduate Student, Marine Laboratory, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University
I study the role invertebrates play in the transfer of energy from geosphere to biosphere at deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Only microbes can build biomass via chemosynthesis, so invertebrates exploit the energy available at vents by either directly or indirectly consuming microbial primary production. I will work with Dr. Van Dover and Dr. Coleman to answer the following questions: How do feeding strategies of Cayman Rise invertebrates reflect evolutionary history and underlying geology? How do these invertebrates influence cycling and dispersal of chemosynthetically-fixed carbon? I will spend the second leg of this cruise either glued to the Nereus video stream or dissecting and preserving invertebrates brought back to the surface.
Dr. Mike Jakuba
Post-doctoral fellow, Australian Centre for Field Robotics, Sydney, Australia.
Dr. Jakuba's research interests revolve around deep sea robotics. Of particular relevance to the present cruise, he designed the AUV-configuration flight controllers for Nereus; and as a graduate student developed novel mapping algorithms for the autonomous localization of hydrothermal venting. He will be on board during the first leg to tune flight controllers and terrain-following algorithms used by Nereus to fly above the seafloor. He also hopes to improve the chances of rapidly finding seafloor vent sites by employing real-time data-driven search strategies to modify the vehicle's flight path when water-column chemical data suggests proximal venting.
Ms. Jill McDermott
MIT WHOI Joint Program Student, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
I study the chemistry of deep-sea hydrothermal vents and am a graduate student working with Dr. Seewald and Dr. German. I am interested in the inorganic, organic, and dissolved gases in these fluids, and in how they support thriving ecosystems. I will be working with fluid samples on leg two of this cruise, conducting time-sensitive measurements on-board the ship and preparing the samples for further analysis in the shore-based laboratory.
Dr. Ko-ichi Nakamura
Senior Research Scientist, IGG, Seafloor Geoscience Research Group, National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Japan
Ko-ichi studies marine geology and hydrothermal and gas hydrate studies in various settings. In other words, fluids emission from subseafoor, cause, process and results, which includes fluid behavior in the water column as well as on the seafloor. He is on the expedition because he has been interested in the Caribbean geology and the Cayman Trough tectonic process since 1978. He is expecting the discovery of new type of hydrothermal system in one of the most deepest and slowest-spreading ridge in the world. On the trip Ko-ichi will chase the hydrothermal plume by electrochemical sensor (Eh sensor) both on CTD and the Nereus. He will also maintain the electrode and interpret data for the chasing efforts.
Dr. Carla Sands
National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, UK
I study the chemistry of hydrothermal plumes. In particular I'm interested in the fate of iron and other metals that tend to be closely associated with iron in hydrothermal plumes. I'll be on the 1st leg of the cruise, helping to collect water samples from the CTD casts. On board ship, I'll be measuring the dissolved methane in these samples and later back in the lab, determining the dissolved iron and manganese concentrations.
Dr. Jeffrey Seewald
Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Jeff studies vent fluid chemistry. He is on the expedition to understand geochemical processes that regulate the organic and inorganic chemistry of axial hot-springs. Jeff will be collecting hydrothermal vent fluids and analyzing theme onboard ship for a variety of dissolved gases and pH. Other chemical species will be analyzed in shore based laboratories.
Dr. Julie Smith
Postdoctoral Scientist, Marine Biological Laboratory
I am a marine microbial ecologist interested in how microorganisms respond to and interact with their environment and how environmental stressors shape microbial genomes and transcriptomes. On this expedition, I will be assisting Dr. Huber in the investigation of microbial communities found in any samples retrieved from the Mid Cayman Spreading Center. We will be looking at the community DNA to find out "who" is there and looking at the community RNA to find out "what" they are doing in terms of the genes that they are using. In addition, we will perform enrichments of samples from the sea floor to try to grow some of these microorganisms in the lab.
Mr. Sean Sylva
Research Associate III, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Sean's research mainly focuses on novel approaches to measure the stable isotopes of light hydrocarbons found in hydrothermal vent fluids. He is part of the CTD team on this expedition and is in charge of the Gas Chromatograph instrument that will be used to measure the concentrations of methane in all water column samples brought aboard ship to help locate any hydrothermal vent fields that may occur along the Mid-Cayman Rise.
Mr. Chris Taylor
Research Engineer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Chris's interests are underwater vehicle systems engineering and technology. He is part of the Nereus design team, responsible for overall electrical system design and integration. During this expedition, his focus is to operate, analyze, test and troubleshoot Nereus electrical and fiber optic systems and sensors. As well as any troubleshooting needed at sea, Chris will also be part of the watch team that monitors, navigates, and pilots Nereus during dive missions in both AUV and ROV mode.
Ms. Tina Thomas
R/V Cape Hatteras Marine Technician
Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover
Director, Marine Laboratory, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University
This is my dream expedition.
I have had my eye on Cayman Rise for more than a decade, ever since a colleague, Joe Cann from the University of Leeds in the UK, showed me this isolated spreading center on a map.
I had already spent a good portion of my career by then exploring and describing hydrothermal vent communities from ridge systems throughout the world's oceans, so I saw immediately the importance of this tiny bit of ridge system in helping solve a piece of the puzzle that is the global pattern of distribution of species that occur only at deep-sea hot springs: We know there are no shared species between vents systems in the Atlantic (on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge) and Pacific (on the East Pacific Rise), yet some of the dominant animal types are similar, as if there was once one species that since became isolated and evolved into separate species. Five million years ago, there was a seaway between the Pacific and Atlantic in the region of the Isthmus of Panama. Will the animals living at the putative vent sites of the Cayman Rise carry an imprint of a past link between the Pacific and Atlantic vent faunas?
If (when!) we do find vents, we are certain to find animal types never - ever - seen before, ones that likely exploit unimagined adaptations to survive under the extreme conditions we expect to find more than 5000 m below the surface of the sea. Imagine the challenge of preparing for a scientific expedition where one has no idea what kind of animal will be discovered. We have packed the R/V Cape Hatteras with every type of fixative and preservative we can think of, with containers of every size to accommodate type specimens.
On top of all this, we use a new vehicle, Nereus, that - get this - flies over the seabed in the sampling mode on an 8-lb-test fiber-optic tether. It is like a first date - I think I like this vehicle a lot, so there is a tremendous sense of anticipation as I wait on shore for my chance to dress up and go out. October 29th - the first day of the second leg of this expedition - we are back on station and I am on board; this day on the Hatteras with Nereus can't come soon enough. I have on-going relationships with the human-occupied vehicle Alvin and the remotely operated vehicle, Jason, but technological polygamy is a fine thing.
And there is more: our home base is the R/V Cape Hatteras, which is home-ported at my institution in Beaufort, North Carolina. The full-ocean-depth-capable vehicle Nereus can be operated from a small ship like the Hatteras (she's only 135 feet long and narrow - 32 feet - in beam). Field costs for deep-sea research escalate exponentially with the length of the attending ship. We expect the Hatteras-Nereus partnership to change the way we think about the costs and logistics of undertaking deep-ocean exploration along continental margins.
The science and technology can't be beat. To all this, add the fact that I have known most of the science and technology team since my graduate school days in Woods Hole. The sum: a formidable project, led by a superb Chief Scientist, with the newest deep-sea assets, in an exciting location.
Dr. Louis Whitcomb
Professor, Departments of Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science Director, Laboratory for Computational Sensing and Robotics Johns Hopkins University
Adjunct Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Robotics. Louis is an engineering professor. His research is the development of novel robotic underwater vehicle systems and technology to enable new methods of ocean science that are presently considered impractical or infeasible.
Louis is Co-Principal Investigator (with Andy Bowen and Dana Yorger) on the development of the Nereus hybrid underwater vehicle. The goal of the Nereus project is to provide the U.S. oceanographic community with the first capable and cost effective vehicle for routine scientific survey, sea floor and water-column experimentation, and sampling to the full depth of the ocean of 11,000 m—significantly deeper than the depth capability of all other present-day operational vehicles. I am also a co-PI on the Oases expedition, where we plan to utilize Nereus to perform large-area survey and fine-scaled sampling at depths to about 7,000 m the Mid-Cayman Trough.
Louis's focus on this expedition is to work withour engineering/science team to develop and test Nereus’s capabilities of performing autonomous scientific survey missions. Nereus operates in two different modes. For broad-area survey, the vehicle can operate untethered as an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) capable of exploring and mapping the sea floor with sonars and cameras. Nereus can be converted at sea to become a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to enable close-up imaging and sampling. The ROV configuration incorporates a lightweight fiber-optic tether for high-bandwidth, real-time video and data telemetry to the surface enabling high quality teleoperation. The first leg of the Oases expedition will employ Nereus to perform surveys in AUV mode. The second leg will employ Nereus to perform sampling and close-up observation on the sea floor in ROV mode.
Dr. Dana Yoerger
Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Dana has been working on remotely and autonomous vehicle since coming to WHOI in 1984. Working with Chris German, Ko-ichi Nakamura, Doug Connelly and others, theye made the first discoveries of hydrothermal vents using an autonomous vehicle (the Autonomous Benthic Explorer, ABE) in 2004 in the Eastern Lau Spreading Center near Fiji and Tonga. They also made the first vent discoveries on the Southern Mid-Atlantic Ridge (2005) and the Southwest Indian Ridge (2007) using ABE. Dana will be working on the mission programming, control system, navigation, and map-making for Nereus. Finding vents in the mid-Cayman Rise represents their biggest challenge yet.
Researchers from this expedition will participate in a unique education and outreach effort that links cutting edge science with community college students, a group traditionally far removed from research science.
Dr. Julie Huber, a member of the cruise's scientific team, will "visit" students in Dr. Allison Beauregard's Introduction to Oceanography course at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, FL via a live Skype chat session from the R/V Cape Hatteras. Throughout the research cruise, students will also be kept up-to-date on cruise activities via the cruise internet blog. As part of the project, NWFSC students will be able to post questions directly to Dr. Huber and other members of the research team and discuss their interactions with the researchers in class.
To illustrate the immense pressure that the robotic research vessel Nereus will encounter during such deep-sea research, students will decorate Styrofoam cups and send them to the R/V Cape Hatteras to meet Dr. Huber before she embarks. The scientific team will attach the cups to the Nereus during one of its deployments. Because of the extremely high pressure experienced deep in the ocean, the cups will shrink down to about a third of their original size and the team will send the research souvenirs back to the NWFSC students.
Following the research cruise, Dr. Huber will visit NWFSC students in person. This connection of community college students with world-class scientists in the field promotes better understanding of research and potentially may encourage more students to major in the sciences.
This outreach project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded to Dr. Julie Huber of MBL and Dr. Allison Beauregard of NWFSC.
Q1: How important is it for the team of Nereus engineers to have good communication? (Morgan Smith)
A1: Very! Communication is especially critical during launch and recovery of the vehicle. The whole team needs to be coordinated in who is handling what lines, who is operating the crane, etc. It is amazing to watch this careful coordination. In addition, communication is very important during a dive. When the vehicle is in ROV mode, there are 3 Nereus watch persons. The first person is the pilot, who is in charge of driving the vehicle. The second person is the navigator, who is in charge of telling the ship where to go and the pilot where to go, based on where the scientists want to go. The third person is the engineer, who is in charge of keeping an eye on all systems on the vehicle, monitoring the cameras and sonar, and helping the pilot navigate the seafloor. We have a great team out here.
Q2: It was mentioned several times in the blogs that Nereus is able to receive new programs that can extend a mission. Has Louis found out how to over-write the "home time" program that ensures Nereus returns to shore? (Courtney Ruiz)
A2: Yes. Louis has determined how to modify the home time program to modify when Nereus returns to the surface as well as how Nereus returns to the surface. They can tell it to stay on the seafloor longer or to return to the surface sooner.
Q3: What do you think the average weight is of all the equipment loaded on the ship? (Hannah Finley)
A3: The entire Nereus system weighs almost 34,000 lbs, including the vehicle, depressor, cable, and all the equipment and tools necessary to keep it running. And that doesn't include any other science gear, like the CTD and all of the scientists individual pieces. My guess is we are approaching 40,000 lbs of equipment. Good thing we have a big crane on board!
Q4: With weather not always holding up or instruments going awry, what kind of traditions have the crewmembers come up with and are there any fun pastimes that have been inducted? (Teresa Meza)
A4: Folks play cards, decorate cups (the classes all went down and returned on Nereus, by the way), watch movies, read books, etc. This is a relatively small ship so there is no workout room, library, or movie lounge, but we make do. Food, of course, is vitally important when things aren't going well. The cook is the most important person on board!
Q5: I am sure you will have lots of data to analyze whenever you return from this voyage, but will you still have samples that need to be analyzed? If so, how much and how long will this take? I noticed that there is data being sent back to at least one other lab while you are on the ship. Can you tell me more about what scientist are doing to help you analyze the data from shore? (Leigh Glenn)
A5: We have been communicating with our Leg 1 scientists to help us interpret some of the CTD (Eh, methane) data we are getting back. However, all of the microbiology will be done now that we are back on land. Right now, the ship is transiting back to North Carolina, where my postdoc Julie Smith will meet it to gather our plume samples. Once back home, we will do cell counts, look at microbial community diversity, and work with our colleagues to merge the chemical and microbiological data.
Q6: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job and is this what you wanted to do ever since you were growing up? (Toni Watters)
A6: The deep sea is relatively unexplored and there is just a "wow that is SO cool" aspect to it that I find most rewarding. Seeing things on the seafloor that you never really imagined really makes me appreciate my world. Of course I also enjoy discovering new things and sharing them with other. I have always wanted to study the ocean, since I was very young. I didn't know I would end up working in an extreme environment like hydrothermal vents, but it is a natural fit for my interests.
Follow an international team of scientists, divers, photographers and officials working in the Phoenix Islands, a remote archipelago of coral islands in the equatorial Pacific, on a 3-week research mission to survey what may be the most pristine, intact coral reef ecosystems on Earth, in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA).
This September an international team of scientists, divers, photographers and officials are heading to the Phoenix Islands, a remote archipelago of coral islands in the equatorial Pacific, on a 3-week research mission to survey what may be the most pristine, intact coral reef ecosystems on Earth, in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA).
The PIPA reefs are a nearly-untouched underwater wilderness of lush and diverse corals; abundant fish of many kinds including sharks; sea turtles; manta rays; and uncounted invertebrate species.
The focus of this expedition is to survey the reefs, count and identify coral and fish species and continue a long-term monitoring program begun on previous trips. The researchers will also take coral samples, assess coral health and predation on corals.
WHOI biologist Larry Madin is participating in the expedition, to conduct the first survey of planktonic invertebrate animals in the open water around the islands. Madin will also bring back samples of corals and coral skeleton for Anne Cohen and Konrad Hughen, WHOI scientists studying coral growth and responses to environmental and climate change.
Where is the expedition?
In the equatorial Pacific Ocean, the Phoenix Islands lie halfway between the islands of Hawai’i and Fiji. They are eight small islands fringed by coral reefs, all but one uninhabited, and 800-1,000 miles by boat (more than four days’ travel) from the nearest accessible airports – the world’s the most remote coral island archipelago.
The Phoenix Islands are owned and administered by the Pacific island nation of Kiribati (pronounced Kir-ree-bas), which established the PIPA in 2006, and in 2008 expanded it to its current size – 410,000 square kilometers – making it the largest marine reserve in the world.
Why study these reefs?
Coral reefs worldwide are in declining health due to human influences such as overfishing, pollution and silt runoff from coastal construction, and rising ocean temperatures. Because of its remoteness, the Phoenix Islands have experienced very little human influence for millennia. Its coral reefs may be the world’s least affected by human activities, and closest to their natural state. Studying these reefs will give scientists a baseline of an undisturbed reef system to use for comparison by scientists studying coral reefs in other parts of the world.
Very little of PIPA has been studied or documented. Previous science explorations of the Phoenix Islands took place in 2000, 2002 and 2005, but the current expedition is the first scientific visit since PIPA was established. Expedition scientists want to learn whether the reefs have recovered from a 2002 bleaching event, see what other changes have taken place in coral and fish populations since the establishment of the reserve, and expand basic information about the reefs and deep water.
Who is along?
The science team, working from the live-aboard dive boat Nai’a out of Fiji, includes scientists from Kiribati, Kenya, New England Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Boston University, and photographers for National Geographic Magazine.
The expedition is sponsored by the Oak Foundation, the New England Aquarium, the Conservation International Marine Management Area Science Program, private donors, and the government of Kiribati.
To conduct reef surveys to identify and count coral and fish species in predetermined sites in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area – continuing a long-term monitoring program begun on previous expeditions.
To collect hard coral samples and other invertebrates on the reefs
Additional studies of corals, including testing methods for surveying coral reproduction and assessing the effects of predation on living corals
To survey, collect and identify planktonic animals that live in the open water away from the reef
September 8, 2009, depart Fiji aboard Nai’a, headed for the Phoenix Islands
September 12, arrive at the Phoenix Islands
September 13-23, diving and surveying reefs and open water in PIPA
September 24, depart PIPA for Fiji
September 28, arrive in Fiji at the end of the expedition
NAI’A captain, video, and diver
Rob Barrel has owned and operated the live-aboard dive boat NAI’A since 1993. He and his partner Cat Holloway first dived in the Phoenix Islands during an expedition to search for flight pioneer Amelia Earhart in 1996, and their discovery of a pristine marine ecosystem has led to four subsequent expeditions there aboard NAI’A. Rob’s official title on the ships’ manifest is “supernumerary”, but he’ll answer to “Admiral”.
Undersea Medical Associates, diver, physician on board for the cruise, and diving medicine specialist
Aquarium Board of Overseers, and diver
Alan Dynner is Chairman of the Board of Overseers and a Trustee of the New England Aquarium in Boston. Formerly Vice President and Chief Legal Officer of Eaton Vance Corp., investment managers, he now concentrates on philanthropic and environmental pursuits. A SCUBA diver since he was 15, he has dived throughout the world and participated in a number of scientific diving expeditions with Aquarium explorers. He has been to the Phoenix Islands twice before.
Conservation International and Boston University, fish and coral biologist
Les Kaufman studies the ecology and evolution of aquatic species, and develops science to harmonize society with the marine ecosystems on which half of humanity directly depends. Les is Professor of Biology in the Boston University Marine Program, Principal Investigator for Marine Area Management Science at Conservation International, and Research Scholar at the New England Aquarium. His mission at Phoenix Islands is to work with his expedition mates to examine how otherwise healthy coral reefs regenerate, for comparison with places less remote and more susceptible to immediate human impacts. Les’ duty stations on this expedition are fish census – counting and identifying fish of the reef ecosystems, and coral stress responses – taking samples for genetic analysis of corals as indicators of responses to stress and injury.
Senior scientist Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NEAq overseer, Pelagic invertebrates and gelatinous zooplankton
Larry Madin is the Executive Vice President and Director of Research, and a Senior Scientist, at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Woods Hole, MA. Previously he was Chair of the WHOI Biology Department, and Director of the WHOI Ocean Life Institute. Larry received his AB degree from the University of California, Berkeley and his PhD from UC Davis, and has been at WHOI since 1974. His principal research interests are in the biology of oceanic and deep-sea zooplankton and fishes, with special emphasis on medusae, siphonophores, ctenophores and pelagic tunicates. Madin was among the first biologists to use SCUBA and submersibles for the in-situ study of the oceanic plankton. He has participated in over 70 research cruises, serving as Chief Scientist on nearly half of them. On the PIPA expedition, he will be sampling zooplankton by blue-water diving and net tows to begin a characterization of the plankton community in the waters surrounding the Phoenix Islands.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution writer, blogger, and helping with pelagic invertebrate studies
Kate Madin is a science writer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She received her B.S. in Zoology, her M.A. in Zoology, and her Ph.D. in Invertebrate Zoology from the University of California, Davis, and has co-authored children’s books as well as written articles for WHOI’s Oceanus online magazine. She is on the PIPA expedition as a blogger and writer, and will help with the work on the zooplankton community around the Phoenix Islands.
Chief Scientist on cruise, Coordinator for CORDIO (Coastal Oceans Research and Development Indian Ocean) East Africa and New England Aquarium, coral biologist
David Obura is the coordinator for CORDIO East Africa, supporting activities in mainland Africa and Indian Ocean island states, including research, monitoring and capacity building of coral reefs and coastal ecosystems. A primary focus is the implications of global and local threats to coral reef health and their long-term prospects and provision of socio-economic benefits. With the future of coral reefs in serious question, their role as an indicator of impending changes to other natural and human-dominated ecosystems is increasingly critical, to prepare for and mitigate future disasters. He received a PhD from the University of Miami in 1995 on coral bleaching and life history strategies, which has developed into a primary research interest in climate change, coral bleaching and resilience of coral reefs. Other areas of work include the development of participatory monitoring and research tools with artisanal fishers in East Africa, and remote-reef surveys such as in the Phoenix Islands, central Pacific, and in the central and western Indian Ocean. David chairs IUCN’s Coral Specialist Group and the Climate Change and Coral Reefs working group.
New England Aquarium, coral biologist and coral reef ecologist
Randi Rotjan, Ph.D. at Edgerton Research Laboratory at the New England Aquarium, is a biologist specializing in corals. Her research addresses the interface between ecology, symbiosis, and behavior to ultimately determine how organisms interact with their environments. Although she works on a wide variety of model organisms, Randi most often works on “ecosystem engineers”, which are organisms that have a disproportionate influence on their habitat (such as reef-building corals). Randi uses an integrative approach, combining exploratory observations with manipulative experiments to discover the patterns and uncover the mechanisms guiding ecosystem engineer performance. In the Phoenix Islands, she will be investigating predation on and “corallivory” — or consumption of live corals — in the absence of intense fishing pressure by humans.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography, coral reef fish
Stuart Sandin is a marine ecologist with the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. Sandin is trained in both field research and mathematics and has applied both of these skills to consider the role of human activities in altering the structure and functioning of coral reef ecosystems. His research goals are to apply marine ecological insights to improve the management of the world’s imperiled coral reefs. With an expertise in reef fish ecology, especially in the remote tropical Pacific, Sandin joins this expedition to assess the status of the fish assemblages across the Phoenix Islands.
National Geographic and New England Aquarium Explorer in Residence, underwater photographer
Brian Skerry is an award-winning National Geographic magazine photographer and the Explorer In Residence at the New England Aquarium. For NGM, Brian has covered a wide range of stories, from the harp seal’s struggle to survive in frozen waters to the alarming decrease in the world’s fisheries, both cover stories. Other NGM features have focused on subjects such as the plight of the right whale, sharks of the Bahamas, marine reserves, sea turtles and squid. He has published twelve stories in NGM and has several new stories upcoming. On this Phoenix Islands Expedition, Brian will be photographing a new feature story for NGM that will take readers into these primal reefs ecosystems, shedding light on the animals that live here and the science being conducted.
Diver and photographer
Expedition Leader, Senior Vice President and Chief Scientist for Oceans with Conservation International and Senior Vice President for Exploration and Conservation for the New England Aquarium
Dr. Gregory Stone is Senior Vice President and Chief Scientist for Oceans with Conservation International and Senior Vice President for Exploration and Conservation for the New England Aquarium. Greg was featured in the September 2008 Smithsonian magazine cover story "Victory at Sea," and he was named one of the five "Bostonians of the Year" by the Boston Globe for 2008 for his work in ocean exploration and conservation. Greg is an ocean scientist who has written prolifically for science and popular publications, including Nature and National Geographic Magazine. He was senior editor of the Marine Technology Society Journal for six years. He has lectured throughout the world and produced an award-winning series of marine conservation films. His book Ice Island, about Antarctica, won the 2003 National Outdoor Book Award for Nature and the Environment. A specialist in undersea technology and exploration, he uses deep-sea submersibles, undersea habitats and SCUBA diving in all oceans of the world. While living in Japan, he established a cooperative deep-sea research program between Japan and the United States. He is a SCUBA instructor and research diver with over 5,000 dives, and he has lived for a month in undersea habitats. He is a National Fellow of the Explorers Club, a recipient of the Pew Fellowship for Marine Conservation and was awarded the National Science Foundation/U.S. Navy Antarctic Service medal for research in Antarctica. Dr. Stone is an honorary associate professor at the Leigh Marine Laboratory at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and Vice-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Ocean Governance. He was born in Boston and first swam in the ocean off the coast of Massachusetts when he was seven years old.
Kiribati Fisheries Ministry
Director of PIPA, Kiribati Ministry of Environment, Lands, and Agricultural Development
Tukabu Teroroko is the previous head of the Kiribati Ministry of Fishing and the current Director of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), the largest marine protected area in the world. He has been involved with the PIPA marine protected area initiative since its establishment by the Phoenix Islands government in January 2008. He has been to the island of Kanton in the Phoenix Islands on several occasions, when doing fisheries surveys on that island, and this will be his first visit to some of the islands in this remote, uninhabited region.
National Geographic Magazine and New England Aquarium, videographer
Jeff Wildermuth is a cameraman from Monterey, California who specializes in underwater and marine related imaging. An American Academy of Underwater Sciences graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz, Jeff is documenting the Phoenix Islands Expedition for the National Geographic Society and New England Aquarium. and acting as assistant camera for National Geographic Magazine Photographer Brian Skerry.
July 27 to September 9, 2009
During MED 09 (short for Mediterranean 2009), researchers on board the research vessel will be updating a blog about their ongoing activities and research as they work to understand the effects of sound on beaked whales and other marine mammals. Researchers want to understand how whales change their behavior when they hear different sounds, both natural and man-made.
A research cruise called MED 09 (short for Mediterranean 2009) is part of an ongoing, international, and interdisciplinary effort to better understand whale behavior, particularly the effects of sound in the sea on beaked whales and other marine mammals. Researchers want to understand how whales change their behavior when they hear different sounds, both natural and man-made.
Scientists will work from the NATO research vessel Alliance in deep, canyon-like areas around the Balearic and Alboran Islands, near Italy and Spain. This experiment will advance previous research efforts, including nine research cruises since 1999, as well as related tagging and tracking efforts since 2001 in the Mediterranean, Canary Islands, Bahamas, California, and Hawaii.
MED 09 will be conducted by marine mammal researchers from Italy, Spain, and the United States. They understand marine mammal distribution, diving, and behavior, and specialize in the use of underwater sound to find marine mammals and safely measure their responses to controlled sound experiments.
Why study sound in the ocean?
Marine mammals use sound for many purposes: to find mates, avoid predators, track food, raise their young, and generally find their way around a large, dark ocean. Consequently, sound in their environment that interferes with their ability to hear signals or disrupts their behavior can result in injury or death.
Researchers are particularly interested in learning about the impacts of intense, isolated sounds under certain conditions. There have been several examples of beaked whales stranding in groups during naval sonar exercises. These events, while rare, share similarities in geography and environmental conditions, and the species involved (beaked whales appear to be the most sensitive).
Data collected from this expedition, and compared to other research expeditions, will help researchers understand how common this events may be and what might be done to reduce the likelihood of other future events.
Where will scientists conduct the research?
The cruise will leave from La Spezia, Italy, within the Pelagos Sanctuary, a vast protected marine area between southeastern France, Monaco, northwestern Italy and northern Sardinia, and encompassing Corsica and the Tuscan Archipelago. The first phase of the cruise will take place primarily in international waters near Spain (particularly the Balearic and Alboran Seas). The second phase of the cruise will end in the Tyrrhenian Sea outside of the Pelagos Sanctuary before the ship sails back to La Spezia.
The goals of MED 09 are to:
- Identify and improve the management of habitats that host sensitive species, such as beaked whales
- Map the range of noises to which the whales are normally exposed to in the Mediterranean Sea
- Test and improve acoustic monitoring tools and techniques for detecting beaked whales
- Develop and refine procedures to safely test the response of whales to sound
- Establish sound exposures to safely test responses of whales to sound
- Provide a scientific basis for estimating risk and minimizing impact of sound-producing activities to military agencies and government regulators
The cruise is sponsored by the U.S. Navy, Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the U.S. Department of Defense Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP). Additional support was provided by the Naval Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
Undergraduate students spend a summer getting hands-on oceanographic research experience and working with world-class scientists and engineers in WHOI's Summer Student Fellowship program. Follow a blog by fellow Ellie Bors as she writes about her experiences working with biologist Tim Shank.