science party

The science party during a safety briefing onboard the R/V Seward Johnson.

Ask an Explorer

Questions were sent to the Islands in the Stream science party during this expedition. Selected questions and answers are offered below.

What types of creatures have you seen and have you done experiments on them? What have you found out about bioluminescence in the deep? -- Olympia High School, Orlando, FL

We have collected many species of corals, sponges, echinoderms, and even some fish. One species of interest is the bamboo coral which gives off a slimy bioluminescent ooze when touched. This ooze has been tested on board and has been found to have some antibacterial properties. Overall, there has been less bioluminescence found in the deep water (below 1,600 feet) than expected, so we cannot yet verify why animals in this region have such well-developed eyes. -- Response from Arte Roman, teacher on board, Olympia High School


What differences occur when you explore underwater at night versus during the day? -- 10th grader, Olympia High School, Orlando, FL

There is not much difference at the bottom since it is always dark and the temperature is a stable 7 to 8 degrees Celsius. But many animals found in the mid-water region during the day will migrate to the surface to feed at night. -- Response from Arte Roman, teacher on board, Olympia High School

What are the working hours of the scientists on board and how much equipment do they bring? -- Olympia High School, Orlando, FL


On this Expedition, you can usually find some scientists working at 6:00 in the morning and some going to bed at around 2:00 in the morning. But since the ship is in operation 24 hours a day, a scientist could work at any time. On this ship you can find computers, microscopes of various kinds, analytical instrumentation, light detectors, and all sorts of digital recorders. In all, there is enough scientific equipment to fill two large SUVs and a 14-foot moving truck; that does not include the ship and submersible crew’s equipment. -- Response from Arte Roman, teacher on board, Olympia High School

Did you encounter any grunt spp. on these deep reef sites? If so, was there a dominant species, such as H.aurolineatum, for example? The tomtates are a dominant species on those sites within the range of scuba off of North Carolina.

We have seen grunts in three out of five dives so far during leg 2. During the second dive, we noted one possible white grunt. On dives three and four (in the proposed MPA), we saw several large schools of tomtate.


Question from St. Simon Island, GA: Last week we snorkeled Islamorada's Alligator Reef and noticed numerous cool to cold spots near the surface of the reef. These were at depths of maybe 15-25 feet. The contrast to the surrounding warmer water was striking. The coldest temperatures seemed to be in the reef's bare white spots were 3-15 ft diameter white gravel filled depressions in the coral. Water above the cold spots had a "mirage-like" optical distortion like you might see above black top on a summer day, or above the flames of a charcoal fire. Could this be due to cooler groundwater beneath the reef converging with salt water above? Alligator is 2.5 miles offshore of Islamorada. The day after (08/08/02), we overheard a discussion about a recent phenomenon of groundwater pouring from bore holes on the island from construction folks and policemen dining in a BBQ restaurant on Islamorada. What do you think?

Uneven heating and cooling of the water could have caused the distortion you were seeing. The coral heads generally absorb more of the sun's rays and would warm the water around them. The white sandy bottom would reflect rather than absorb the heat and would remain cooler. As the warm rose and the cool water sank you might be able to see a distortion in the water. It is not likely that the bore holes on the island from construction caused the phenomena you described

There is an explanation on the Web site for using the Young Grab. Is it named for the inventor? Obviously, it cannot pick up very large specimens. Is there a larger device for this? Are specimens returned to the habitat or are they collected for further study? Are they maintained alive or preserved when collected? Does change in pressure in bringing specimens to the surface destroy them?

The Young Grab is a sediment sampler. You are correct in pointing out that it cannot pick up very large specimens. It is designed to "grab" a scoop full of mud from the ocean bottom with as little disturbance as possible. There is a well-known scientist who studies squid named Richard Young. Some of the first data about squid were collected by looking at squid beaks found in the sediment. I do not know if the Young Grab was named for him, but I suspect it might be. Perhaps those of you who can access the Web or visit a library (difficult tasks at sea!) can do a bit more research.

There are lots of devices for collecting specimens. We use a vacuum cleaner-like tube, a claw, traps, and nets. The specimens we collect are preserved for future study. We do a simple identification while at sea, but we do not spend a great deal of time trying to key them out to species. We think it is better to spend our time on the ship doing things that we can only accomplish while at sea, such as putting out nets and trawls or using the sub. We take everything back into the lab to truly study it. Some of the specimens we collect through these methods are affected by the change in pressure but they are not "destroyed." Every sample is studied by several different scientists and many of them become part of a permanent collection back on shore.

Since Liz Baird is working off the SC coast in affiliation with the NC Museum, and the museum uses only indigenous species, are collections from this area still considered indigenous to North Carolina due to the close proximity?

North and South Carolina share a region of the sea known as the South Atlantic Bight. This diverse area is home to many types of vertebrates and invertebrates. Even though we are off of the South Carolina coast, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is interested in what the research team finds out here. The museum focuses on the non-game fauna of the region. Only by studying the region as a whole can we fully understand the interactions that take place in nature. Plants and animals do not recognize state boundaries!

Although collection and docmentation efforts at the museum focus on NC and the Southeast, museum researchers work globally as well and they have many non-native species in their collections. Non-natives also make their way into museum collections via other researchers, donations, etc. Visit the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Web site for more information.

In the safety exercise involving the Gumby suit, does the person who is demonstrating it actually get to go overboard? Do you ever get to swim off of the ship just for recreation?

The person demonstrating the Gumby suit generally does not really go overboard. I have heard that some captains will have people try them out when they are at dock or anchored. As for recreational swimming, the captain has the power to give a "swim call," but there is rarely time for that during a science mission. We have crews working 24 hours a day, so it would be unfair to the crew still working for the rest of us to jump in the water. It is rather tempting, however!


We often read that coral reefs are dying. Are the reefs that you find healthy and growing or are they being destroyed? How are the coral reefs off the Carolina coasts different from coral reefs in the tropics? Are they the same species of coral or very different in colder water?

The deep-water reefs off the coasts of the Carolinas are generally healthy. The water quality is good out at sea. While there is evidence of fishing activity (trash and lost gear), as well as places where trawls have destroyed the structures, the deep-water reefs are generally inaccessible.

North Carolina has some shallow-water reefs, as well as deep-water reefs. As you might expect, there are similarities and differences between the two types of reefs. What we think of as "the reef" is really deposited by the living coral polyps. Corals are very slow-growing organisms. The corals that live in shallow water have symbiotic zooxanthella living in the polyps. The deep-water corals are in complete darkness and lack those organisms. The deep-water corals off the Carolinas are ancient—at least hundreds of years old—and possibly tens of thousands of years in age. We plan to find a deep-water coral called "Lophelia."

Cindy Lee Van Dover, a researcher and sub pilot on our boat, described the differences between deep-water and shallow-water corals in her book "The Octopus's Garden." On page 152 of this book, the author says, "The showy, luxuriant corals of the great tropical reefs are certainly precious, but to me they seem overdone, the floozies of the marine invertebrate world, rouged and primped beyond my interest. I prefer the more austere skeletons of the corals that live frugal, ancient lives in the deep sea."

For More Information

Please contact Paula Keener-Chavis, National Education Coordinator for the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration if you have questions.

Contact Paula Keener-Chavis,
Director, Education Programs
NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration

Lesson plans developed for this Web site are available in the Education Section.




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