Exploring Corals of the Aleutian Seas
Researchers tune in to deepsea corals
Part 3: Discovery
By Sonya Senkowsky
Another goal of the cruise is pure discovery and exploration. In this rarely explored region, at previously unseen depths, anything is possible.
Even nonscientists were so riveted by the action on-screen that the ship’s captain had a standing rule: no video during in the mess hall during meal times - so we wouldn’t linger over our dinners. There are hours of monotony, but you never know what you might be lucky enough to see.
One appearance of an unusual-looking deep-sea octopus, with swimming fins that looked like big elephant ears, had the entire ship talking about it for days (we later saw two at least two more). An octopus that looked like a puddle of raspberry jelly with a big human-like eye was another standout sighting. Another time, I spy a brown-spotted halibut drifting by.
More common was the sight of forest of “sea pens” populating a muddy seafloor. Sea pens, so called because they often look like old-fashioned quill pens, are corals specialized for living on soft bottoms by anchoring themselves into the sediment with a bulbous, inflatable base.
But back in the control van, brittle star researcher Gordon Hendler notices something interesting; many of the pens had red brittle stars clinging to their tips. Might the stars might be feeding on the corals? He asks for some samples, and the Jason II pilot complies, working the claw-like manipulator arm by remote control.
The group is particularly fascinated by an unusually small sea pen, one just two or three inches long. They ask for the sample, not sure it will be possible to collect, but pilot Phil Forte is skilled at manipulating the claw - more than a mile away—and drops the tiny coral into Jason II’s collecting baskets with a deft flip of the robot arm’s metal wrist. When he’s done, the scientists burst into smiles and applause.
Chief scientist Bob Stone was impressed. “That’s just what I would have done if I could’ve used my hand,” he says, “honestly.”
When the dive ends, it’s nearly midnight. But the science team is just gearing up for another full shift of work. Every time the ROV is brought back to the ship, the scientists mobilize to retrieve, document and process the biological and geological samples collected.
Anchorage science writer Sonya Senkowsky is the editor of Alaska Science Outreach (www.alaskascienceoutreach.com). She spent two weeks aboard the R/V Roger Revelle (July 24-Aug. 8) with a team of coral researchers; her time aboard was supported by the North Pacific Research Board and the NOAA Undersea Research Program.