Deep sea expedition off Marin coast reveals sea's hidden world

September 2, 2011 - via Marin Independent Journal

Researchers spent this week scouring a previously unexplored deep-sea canyon about 30 miles northwest of Point Reyes looking for corals and associated marine life. The Bodega Canyon, north of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the Marin coast, is 6,000 feet deep at the edge of the continental shelf. The federally designated Cordell Bank sanctuary sits beyond the Gulf of the Farallones, 52 miles northwest of Marin's  coast. It encompasses 526 square miles.

Dan Howard, superintendent of Cordell Bank, was on board the 67-foot boat Fulmar to gain a better understanding of the biology and ecology of deep-sea coral that grow in water 600 to 2,500 feet deep. "The expedition was phenomenal," said Howard, a Fairfax resident, noting the research crew saw an abundance of whales, porpoises and sea birds on the surface. "We got to work with new technology to get into places we could never go before. We are getting information that was never available before. It will help us do a better job of managing the sanctuary."

Using an unmanned underwater vehicle, scientists on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-sponsored venture photographed parts of the canyon, which has never before been explored. Photos of the canyon's bedrock and boulders show corals, sponges and invertebrates that live hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface. Of particular interest was the deep sea coral.

The coral are marine organisms that along with sponges and other ocean species form a colorful sea floor habitat that provides areas for fish to forage, lay eggs and find shelter from predators. Potential threats to the health of coral include human-induced and natural physical disturbance, invasive species, climate change and ocean acidification.

"Deep-sea coral provides habitat for fish and other marine life," said M. Elizabeth Clarke, NOAA fisheries research fisheries biologist. "Research helps determine the extent and ecological importance of deep-sea coral communities and the threats they face. Sound management of these ecosystems requires scientifically based information on their condition."

The expedition is part of a three-year field research effort to begin to better understand the location, distribution, status and health of the coral and sponge ecosystems in order to inform conservation and management actions. "The thing you walk away thinking from this is that there is just so much we don't know about the ocean," Howard said. "It's just so vast."

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Author:Mark Prado

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