Gulf of Mexico 2017





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The calm before the storm: The cold front passes over the ship.

The calm before the storm: The cold front passes over the ship. Click image for credit and larger view.

 


NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
December 6-8, 2017

Weathered Out

Painfully, every morning for the last three days, we have woken up after mostly sleepless nights to the ship pitching and rolling from the seas and the sound of the wind howling outside our port holes. Early Wednesday, the cold front that brought snow to much of the southeast U.S. passed through the Gulf and brought us 40-knot winds and 14-foot seas for several days. The mission team tried to make the best of the weather days by attempting to collect mapping data when the sea would abate for a few hours as well as catching up on dive summaries and paperwork, but for the most, part we just hunkered down and appreciated the invention of sea sickness medication.


 


 

 

 

A Metallogorgia sp. octocoral with a commensal serpent star (Ophiocreas sp.). It is suspected that these two species require each others’ presence to survive!

A Metallogorgia sp. octocoral with a commensal serpent star (Ophiocreas sp.). It is suspected that these two species require each others’ presence to survive! Click image for credit and larger view.

A stalked hyocrinid sea lilywith Amathillopsis sp. amphipods living on the stalk. These amphipods are usually found in mating pairs and use the stalk’s height off the seafloor to catch particles passing in the water column for food.

A stalked hyocrinid sea lily with Amathillopsis sp. amphipods living on the stalk. These amphipods are usually found in mating pairs and use the stalk’s height off the seafloor to catch particles passing in the water column for food. Click image for credit and larger view.

One of the spectacular sessile communities spotted during the dive. These were mostly comprised of octocorals, black corals, and sponges.

One of the spectacular sessile communities spotted during the dive. These were mostly comprised of octocorals, black corals, and sponges. Click image for credit and larger view.

 


NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
December 5, 2017

Dive 06: “Smooth Escarpment Ridge”

Today’s dive was the second of an exploratory pair that compared the geology and associated communities between 1,800-2,300 meters (5,905 - 7,545 feet) depth at the northern end of the West Florida Escarpment. Unlike the first dive, which took place yesterday, this dive explored an area where the escarpment has very reduced promontories, which results in near-vertical slopes. The dive started at a depth of 2,091 meters (6,860 feet) on a sedimented slope with a number of gullies, concretions, and outcrops that provided habitat for numerous fish species, a variety of cnidarian species, and several sponge species. Continuing upslope, the terrain changed to a near-vertical ferromanganese-encrusted cliff wall, which coincided with an increase in abundance and diversity of organisms, including several coral species. In this area, we observed a ledge where the crust acted as a trap for debris, including large ferromanganese-encrusted coral skeletons that had fallen from upslope. As remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer ascended the cliff, we observed a number of exposed plateaus with spectacular sessile communities comprised of corals, sponges, and a surprising abundance of crinoids belonging to six or seven different families. Many of the stalked crinoids had commensals, which included featherstars and Amathillopsis sp. amphipods on the stalks. Other notable observations during the dive included an ‘adolescent’ octocoral (Metallogorgia sp.), a dandelion siphonophore, and a number of sea stars consuming octocorals.


 


 

 

 

Umbellula sea pens are sediment dwellers. This one has a mysid keeping it company. Mysids are commonly known as opossum shrimp, because they have brood pouches. You can catch a glimpse of the full red brood pouch as two red dots on either side of this mysid’s midsection!

Umbellula sea pens are sediment dwellers. This one has a mysid keeping it company. Mysids are commonly known as opossum shrimp, because they have brood pouches. You can catch a glimpse of the full red brood pouch as two red dots on either side of this mysid’s midsection. Click image for credit and larger view.

A polychaete scaleworm (Polynoidae sp.) seen just above the seafloor. The combination of its undulations and the shimmering waves of its oar-like paddles that drive it through the water was positively hypnotic.

A polychaete scaleworm (Polynoidae sp.) seen just above the seafloor. The combination of its undulations and the shimmering waves of its oar-like paddles that drive it through the water was positively hypnotic. Click image for credit and larger view.

This cerianthid, a tube-dwelling anemone, is likely an unknown species. This one has built its tube of adhesive threads and sediment  in a hole in the carbonate substrate.

This cerianthid, a tube-dwelling anemone, is likely an unknown species. This one has built its tube of adhesive threads and sediment in a hole in the carbonate substrate. Click image for credit and larger view.

A hydromedusa observed during midwater transects.

A hydromedusa observed during midwater transects. Click image for credit and larger view.

video Watch video of a glass sponge and its associates.

 


NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
December 4, 2017

Dive 05: “Incised Escarpment Ridge”

Today’s dive was the first of a pair of dives along the northern end of the West Florida Escarpment that compared the geology and associated communities at the two sites. The southern section of the escarpment explored today is marked by promontory features, which have steep slopes that are both sedimented and exposed, resulting in a high species diversity. The dive started at ~2,210 meters (7,250 feet), on a sedimented slope, where Umbellula sp. octocoral, our first for this expedition, was spotted immediately. On this slope, we also observed at least three species of sea cucumbers, shrimp, a xenophyophore, a few fish, and spoon worm feeding tracks. Areas of exposed carbonate rock upslope were colonized by several sponge species, including a number of dead glass sponges with extensive communities of soft coral, barnacles, brittle stars, and amphipods growing on the stalks. We also observed a high diversity of cnidarians on this slope, including at least 12 species of coral. The dive ended in a sedimented area with rock outcrops that hosted sponges, polychaete worms, crinoids, soft corals, octocorals, and bamboo corals.

After leaving the seafloor, we conducted midwater exploratory transects at four depths (900, 700, 500, and 300 meters; 2,953, 2,297, 1,640, and 984 feet). During the midwater survey, we observed a diverse assemblage of organisms, including larvaceans, shrimp, siphonophores, salps, fishes, and several different species of hydromedusae and ctenophores. The greatest diversity and biomass of organisms were observed at 500 meters.


 


 

 

 

A serpent star, Asteroporpa cf. annulata, clings to the skeleton of bamboo coral. Serpent stars, basket stars, and brittle stars all fall within the class Ophiuroidea.

A serpent star, Asteroporpa cf. annulata, clings to the skeleton of bamboo coral. Serpent stars, basket stars, and brittle stars all fall within the class Ophiuroidea. Click image for credit and larger view.

This congrid eel was observed eating a smaller fish. Throughout the dive, we saw nearly 15 different species of fish.

This congrid eel was observed eating a smaller fish. During the dive, we saw nearly 15 different species of fish. Click image for credit and larger view.

Beautiful Gracilechinus gracilis are typically found on hard substrates in the Gulf of Mexico and northwestern Atlantic Ocean. Here you can see the tube feet are extended!

Beautiful Gracilechinus gracilis urchins are typically found on hard substrates in the Gulf of Mexico and northwestern Atlantic Ocean. Here you can see the tube feet are extended! Click image for credit and larger view.

video Watch video of a searobin seen during the dive.

 


NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
December 3, 2017

Dive 04: “Long Mounds”

Dive 04 took place on the West Florida Escarpment, within a proposed Habitat Area of Particular Concern, beginning at 410 meters (1,345 feet) and ending at 383 meters (1, 256 feet). Given the relatively shallow nature of the dive, we observed life not usually encountered on deeper dives, including a high diversity of fish species. As remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer climbed the escarpment and crossed the exposed top edge, fauna transitioned from mostly small encrusting sponges to a diverse suspension-feeding community composed of many bamboo and black corals, and finally to a field of bamboo corals on the shelf top. Notable benthic observations included a congrid eel that captured and ate a smaller fish (Serranidae sp.), a glimpse of a swordfish, a shallow xenophyophore, a young basket star (Gorgonocephalidae sp.), and many live pterobranchs (tiny, colonial, filter-feeding relatives of acorn worms) amongst corals on the upper crest of the escarpment. Most of the science team, both onboard and on shore, had never seen a live pterobranch, so this was particularly exciting! Due to issues with the ship’s dynamic positioning system, a large part of the dive was spent in the water column, where we observed species of coronate jellies, pyrosomes, larvaceans, siphonophores, and ctenophores.


 


 

 

 

Remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer investigates some of the striking geology seen during the dive.

Remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer investigates some of the striking geology seen during the dive. Click image for credit and larger view.

A Darwin’s slimehead  hangs out a few meters off the bottom.

A Darwin’s slimehead hangs out a few meters off the bottom. Click image for credit and larger view.

As with our first two dives, Illex sp. shortfin squid were observed during the dive, sometimes in large schools.

As with our first two dives, Illex sp. shortfin squid were observed during the dive, sometimes in large schools. Click image for credit and larger view.

video Watch video of the swimming sea spider.

 


NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
December 2, 2017

Dive 03: “Okeanos Ridge”

Today we explored an area that we have called “Okeanos Ridge,” as it was first mapped by NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer in 2012. The dive took place within a proposed Habitat Area of Particular Concern, so we were interested in collecting baseline information on the local distribution and abundance of life on the seafloor. We arrived on a sediment-covered canyon floor at a depth of 740 meters (2,428 feet). During the dive, the remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer (D2) climbed two areas of an escarpment and crossed the exposed platform between the areas, leading to a variety of benthic habitats. Communities appeared to increase in abundance and diversity as D2 progressed up the escarpment, with the largest coral colonies and greatest abundances of organisms close to the exposed crest; small areas of sediment on the escarpment supported less fauna. As D2 crested the escarpment and followed the exposed edge eastward, we observed a variety of striking carbonate structures, including caves, pillars, and even an “amphitheater,” created when numerous slabs calved off a low wall. Corals observed during the dive included at least five species of black corals; the octocorals Chrysogorgia sp., Acanthogorgia sp., Pseudoanthomastus sp., Plumarella sp., and Isididae sp.; and the stony corals Madrepora oculata, Lophelia pertusa, and Enallopsammia sp. Other organisms included zoanthids, hydroids, featherstars, hexactinellid sponges and purple demosponges. We also observed two mating pairs of golden crabs (Chaceon fenneri), a Gracilechinus urchin and a Circeaster sea star preying on octocorals, and a wood fall (possibly bamboo), which served as habitat for animals such as gastropods and shrimp. Notable water-column observations included two swordfish, a swimming pycnogonid (sea spider), and two cutlass fish (Benthodesmus tenius).


 


 

 

 

We observed several of these tripod fish (Bathypterois sp.) perched on their fins and facing into the current, waiting for food to drift by.

We observed several of these tripod fish (Bathypterois sp.) perched on their fins and facing into the current, waiting for food to drift by. Click image for credit and larger view.

The most dramatic part of the dive was a steep section of wall covered in Euplectellidae sponges.

The most dramatic part of the dive was a steep section of wall covered in Euplectellidae sponges. Click image for credit and larger view.

This polychaete worm had incorporated a number of pteropod shells into its tube.

This polychaete worm had incorporated a number of pteropod shells into its tube. Click image for credit and larger view.

video Watch video of the "wall of life."

 


NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
December 1, 2017

Dive 02: “Escarpment Canyon”

During Dive 02, we explored a canyon feature along the West Florida Escarpment, southwest of Pulley Ridge, starting at a depth of 2,319 meters (7,608 feet) and working up the canyon wall. The slope of the canyon wall varied throughout the dive, with less steep areas covered in sediment and generally harboring less life than steeper areas with hard, exposed carbonate substrates. Along a particularly steep section of the wall, we encountered an area of exposed hard substrate covered with thousands of glass sponges belonging to the family Euplectellidae. Large coral colonies (Isididae spp., Chrysogorgiidae spp., and Corallium sp.) also appeared in high numbers here, but only on corners and promontories that projected outward from the wall. Many of these coral colonies had commensals such as shrimp, brisingid sea stars, scalpellid barnacles, chirostylid squat lobsters, and featherstars. Other notable observations during the dive included a live larvacean (Bathochordaeus? sp.), an argonaut shell, and a polychaete worm, which had incorporated a number of pteropod shells into its tube. We also collected a bathycrinid sea lily or stalked crinoid that is likely a depth record for its family in the western Atlantic. The geology along the upper edge of the wall was particularly dramatic and consisted of several large, heavily pitted carbonate outcrops. Unfortunately, we encountered a large amount of marine debris throughout the dive, from gaskets and plastic bags to a bucket, glass bottles, and even a fluorescent light bulb.


 


 

 

 

A chirostylid squat lobster hangs out in an octocoral fan (Paramuricea sp.) that has been overgrown with colonial anemones (zoanthids).

A chirostylid squat lobster hangs out in an octocoral fan (Paramuricea sp.) that has been overgrown with colonial anemones (zoanthids). Click image for credit and larger view.

Two blind white lobsters (Acanthacaris caeca) share a burrow.

Two blind white lobsters (Acanthacaris caeca) share a burrow. Click image for credit and larger view.

Dr. Chuck Messing pulls a carnivorous cladorhizid sponge sample out of Deep Discoverer’s biobox.

Dr. Chuck Messing pulls a carnivorous cladorhizid sponge sample out of Deep Discoverer’s biobox. Click image for credit and larger view.

video Watch video of the giant isopod seen during the dive.

 


NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
November 30, 2017

Dive 01: “South Reed”

Today’s dive took place at “South Reed,” a site southwest of Florida located in an area proposed as a Habitat Area of Particular Concern by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Deep Discoverer touched down at a depth of 816 meters (2,677 feet) on a fine muddy bottom and immediately encountered large numbers of shortfin squid (Illex sp.). We saw these squid throughout the dive. Their aggregation may have been associated with breeding, because we saw many dead specimens; squid often die after reproducing. We also saw the giant deep-sea isopod pill bug, Bathynomus giganteus, as well as several species of decapod crustaceans, including Chaceon fenneri (golden crab), C. quinquedens (red crab), royal red shrimp (Pleoticus robustus), and Nematocarcinus sp. shrimp. These decapods highlight the importance of the area, as all are commercially fished species. Some of the most extraordinary organisms encountered were several species of sponge in the family Cladorhizidae – extraordinary because, unlike all other sponges, which feed on extremely small suspended particles, members of this family are carnivorous and trap small crustaceans on their hook-like skeletal spicules. Moving up the first escarpment, we encountered several species of bryozoans (moss animals), octocorals, and black corals with zoanthids and sponges. Many of them harbored commensals, including squat lobsters, shrimps, and scale worms. Continuing up slope, coral rubble appeared in increasing abundance and transitioned into an area of lightly sedimented hard substrate with patches of dead colonies of the branching stony coral, Lophelia pertusa. On the second escarpment, the bottom community became more diverse and dense, and included the stony corals Lophelia pertusa, Madrepora occulata, and solitary cup corals, as well as the octocorals Acanthogorgia sp., Paramuricea sp., and Pseudoanthomastus sp. Many of these also hosted commensals. The geology along the upper edge of the second escarpment was particularly dramatic, consisting of several small walls of limestone. The dive ended at the local high of the escarpment (645 meters; 2,116 feet), a flat terrace dominated by a high density of three species of black corals (Antipatharia).


 


 

 

 

A dolphin rides the bow as the ship leaves port.

A dolphin rides the bow as the ship leaves port. Click image for credit and larger view.

 


NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
November 29, 2017

Underway

On a beautiful Key West morning, NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer got underway and commenced mapping towards our first dive site. During our departure, we had the good luck to have a couple of dolphins escort us out of the harbor, which is traditional a good luck sign to mariners. Throughout the day, the science team spent the day familiarizing themselves with the ship and the remotely operated vehicle team made their final preparations for the expedition. We are all very much looking forward to our first dive tomorrow.


 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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