Expedition Purpose

Why Are Scientists Exploring Deep Underwater Caves around the Island of Bermuda?

A key purpose of NOAA's Ocean Exploration Initiative is to investigate the more than 95 percent of Earth's underwater world that until now has remained virtually unknown and unseen. Such exploration may reveal clues to the origin of life on earth, cures for human diseases, answers on how to achieve sustainable use of resources, links to our maritime history, and information to protect endangered species.

Anchialine caves are partially or totally submerged caves in coastal areas. Anchialine (pronounced "AN-key-ah-lin") is a Greek term meaning "near the sea," and anchialine caves often contain freshwater and/or brackish water in addition to seawater. These caves may be formed in karst landscapes as well as in rock tubes produced by volcanic activity. Karst landscapes are areas where limestone is the major rock underlying the land surface, and often contain caves and sinkholes formed when acidic rainwater dissolves portions of the limestone rock. Water in anchialine caves tends to stratify according to salinity, with the heavier seawater below the level of fresh and brackish water. This stratification produces distinctive habitats inhabited by a variety of species that are endemic to these habitats (endemic means that these species are not found anywhere else). Some of these species are "living fossils" known as relict species, which means that they have survived while other related species have become extinct.

Animals that live only in anchialine habitats are called stygofauna or stygobites. Investigations of these species have revealed some puzzling relationships, including:

Most investigations of anchialine caves have been confined to relatively shallow depths; yet, the observations described above suggest that connections with deeper habitats may also be important to understanding the distribution of stygobite species. Bermuda is a group of mid-ocean islands composed of limestone lying on top of a volcanic seamount. Because they are karst landscapes, Bermuda has one of the highest concentrations of cave systems in the world. Typical Bermuda caves have inland entrances, interior cave pools, underwater passages, and tidal spring outlets to the ocean. Bermuda's underwater caves contain an exceptional variety of endemic species, most of which are crustaceans. Most of these organisms are relict species with distinctive morphological, physiological, and behavioral adaptations to the cave environment that suggest these species have been living in caves for many millions of years. Yet, all known anchialine caves in Bermuda were completely dry only 18,000 years ago when sea levels were at least 100 m lower than present because of water contained in glaciers. Such observations suggest the possibility of additional caves in deeper water that would have provided habitat for anchialine species when presently-known caves were dry.

Expedition Questions

Key questions for the Bermuda: Search for Deep Water Caves 2009 expedition include:

Exploration Technology

Multibeam Sonar
Sonar (which is short for SOund NAvigation and Ranging) systems are used to determine water depth, as well as to locate and identify underwater objects. In use, an acoustic signal or pulse of sound is transmitted into the water by a sort of underwater speaker known as a transducer. The transducer may be mounted on the hull of a ship, or may be towed in a container called a towfish. If the seafloor or other object is in the path of the sound pulse, the sound bounces off the object and returns an "echo" to the sonar transducer. The system measures the strength of the signal and the time elapsed between the emission of the sound pulse and the reception of the echo. This information is used to calculate the distance of the object, and an experienced operator can use the strength of the echo to make inferences about some of the object's characteristics. Hard objects, for example, produce stronger echoes that softer objects. This is a general description of "active sonar". "Passive sonar" systems do not transmit sound pulses. Instead, they "listen" to sounds emitted from marine animals, ships, and other sources.

Multibeam sonar is used to make accurate bathymetric maps. A multibeam system uses multiple transducers pointing at different angles on either side of a ship to create a swath of signals. The time interval between signal transmission and return echo arrival is used to estimate depth over the area of the swath. In some systems, the intensity of the return echo is also used to infer bottom characteristics that can be used for habitat mapping. The Bermuda: Search for Deep Water Caves 2009 expedition will use a RESON SeaBat 7125 multibeam system that also includes side scan sonar capabilities to obtain information about shape and hardness of bottom features. Visit the Ocean Explorer Sonar web page for more information about sonar systems.

Remotely Operated Vehicle
Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are unoccupied robots linked to an operator by a group of cables. Underwater ROVs are usually controlled by an operator aboard a surface ship. Most are equipped with one or more video cameras and lights, and may also carry other equipment such as a manipulator or cutting arm, water samplers, and measuring instruments to expand the vehicle's capabilities. The Bermuda: Search for Deep Water Caves 2009 expedition will use a SeaBotix LBV200L ROV capable of diving to 200 m. A fiber optic cable connects to high resolution color and low-light black-and-white video cameras aboard the ROV. For more information about ROVs, visit Ocean Explorer ROV web area.

Mixed Gas SCUBA
Conventional SCUBA techniques using compressed air have several inherent problems. One of these is that as the pressure of a gas increases, the solubility of that gas in a liquid increases as well (Henry's law). In water, pressure increases by one atmosphere for every 10 meters (33 feet) of depth. So, a diver at a depth of 20 meters is exposed to three atmospheres of pressure. If the diver breathes air from a demand regulator at 20 meters for a while, her blood will contain three times the amount of dissolved gases from the air than it did at the surface. If the diver rapidly ascends from 20 meters, the dissolved gases in her blood may form bubbles, creating a problem that may block critical blood vessels. This condition is called "decompression sickness" or "the bends," and was first seen in miners working in pressurized coal mines (it was also a problem for workers constructing the Brooklyn Bridge, who spent hours working underwater in pressurized iron boxes called caissons, so yet another name for the condition is "caissons disease"). Since air is about 78% nitrogen, more nitrogen is dissolved in the blood than other gases so the bubbles formed during a case of decompression sickness are bubbles of nitrogen gas. Oxygen isn't believed to be involved, since much of the oxygen dissolved in a diver's blood is quickly bound by hemoglobin, and normal metabolism reduces blood oxygen concentration.

Another problem involves the effects of nitrogen and oxygen when they are breathed under pressure. The partial pressure of a gas in a mixture of several gases is equal to the percentage of the gas in the mixture multiplied by the total pressure of the gas mixture. So the partial pressure of nitrogen in air at one atmosphere (atm) pressure is about 0.78 atm. When the partial pressure of nitrogen in a diver's blood rises above about 3 atmospheres (corresponding to a depth of about 30 m) a condition known as nitrogen narcosis may occur which is an effect similar to alcohol intoxication. The severity of the impairment depends upon individual susceptibility as well as environmental conditions (temperature, time of day, etc.). Oxygen may become toxic at partial pressures above 1.4 atmospheres (corresponding to a depth of about 180 m), causing convulsions. Individual thresholds vary widely and depend upon degree of exertion as well as environmental conditions.

Divers using conventional SCUBA techniques avoid these problems by closely monitoring their dive time and depth, since they both affect the amount of gas that dissolves in the blood. With mixed gas SCUBA, divers breathe special gas mixtures instead of air. Nitrox mixtures contain nitrogen and oxygen but with less nitrogen and more oxygen than ordinary air. Nitrox mixtures can be used at moderate depths without risking oxygen toxicity, and allow divers to greatly decrease the time needed for decompression. Trimix is a breathing gas mixture composed of helium, oxygen, and a third gas which is usually nitrogen. The advantage of trimix is that the concentrations of oxygen and nitrogen are reduced so that divers may descend to greater depths without risking oxygen toxicity or nitrogen narcosis. In addition, the density of the breathing mixture is reduced compared to air, which makes it easier to breathe at higher pressures.

Another advanced diving technique uses closed-circuit rebreather systems, which recapture oxygen in exhaled gases and allow a diver to carry much less breathing gas. In addition, modern closed-circuit rebreathers constantly monitor oxygen levels in the breathing mixture and are able to adjust the oxygen concentration to a level that is optimum for the divers' depth. The result is much shorter decompression times and much less risk of oxygen toxicity. For more information on technical diving, visit the Cayman Islands Twilight Zone Expedition web page.


For More Information

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

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