NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
August 5 – 16, 2014
Mission: Deep-Sea Coral Research
Geographic area of the cruise: 40 miles SE of Cape May, New Jersey
Date: August 5, 2014
Weather information from the Bridge:
Air Temperature: 25.5° Celsius
Wind Speed: 10 knots
Wind Direction: 330°
Weather Conditions: clear
Latitude: 37° 37.7′ N
Longitude: 74° 06.8′ W
Science and Technology Log
After almost a full day at sea, we are only hours away from the first watch and the first glimpse of data. Preparations commence, and anticipation is high.
For the next two weeks, we’ll study the deep-sea corals that occur in submarine canyons off the east coast. They have been found in every region of the United States, but for this mission we’ll target canyons in the Northeast region, investigating canyons east of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.
Deep-Sea Corals are similar to the familiar shallow-water corals, but cannot harness sunlight for energy through photosynthesis. Instead, they rely on nutrients from the water including detritus (non-living organic matter) and plankton. It is believed that Deep-Sea Corals find both shelter and bountiful grub on the steep-sided canyon walls where the faster-moving currents bring in the day’s meal. Surprisingly, many are just as beautiful and colorful as their shallow-water counterparts, like this bamboo coral photographed at Mytilus Seamount during the NOAA OER US Northern Canyons mission last year.
Though not the hot snorkeling destination, the Deep-Sea Corals in this region are important habitat providers as well as sensitive indicators of ecosystem health. They are long-living but slow-growing and do not recover quickly. Both bottom trawling and possible energy harnessing (off-shore wind farms and oil and gas acquisition) are possible threats to their survival.
Because bottom trawling is so detrimental to the coral communities, we’ll use TowCam to survey the area. Deploying the TowCam is a delicate process, with sensitive and pricey equipment on the line. After a few test deployments yesterday, the team began picking our dive locations. There is plenty to consider when finding a dive spot, including the topography of the sea floor and slope of the canyon walls. We also use the results generated by a habitat suitability model that predicts where deep-sea corals are likely to occur. Scientists must strike a balance between the steeper, high-probability cliffs and the gentler slopes.
Life aboard a ship is surely not easy. The constant rocking and clanging of cold metal will take a while to get used to, and I will sadly miss many daytime hours with our 12 hours on-12 hours off watch schedule. And while waking at 3 AM to greet a deathly dark ocean view may not seem like summertime fun to most, this first morning underway has convinced me that a couple weeks at sea is a treat I won’t soon forget.