NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
May 30 - July 12, 2019
Windows to the Deep 2019: Exploration of the Deep-sea Habitats of the Southeastern United States was a 38-day, two-leg, telepresence-enabled expedition on NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer to collect data on priority exploration areas identified by the ocean management and scientific communities. During the expedition, scientists explored a diversity of features with mapping and remotely operated vehicle (ROV) operations, including deep-sea fish habitats, deep-sea coral and sponge communities, midwater habitats, cold seeps, submarine canyons, submarine landslides, and other unique geological features.
Major accomplishments of this expedition are summarized below. For more information, download the summary fact sheet (pdf, 4.1 MB).
Coral reefs – including deepwater coral reefs – are some of the most valuable marine ecosystems on the planet, creating structures that provide shelter, food, and nursery habitat to other invertebrates and fish, including some that are commercially important. On many dives (10 out of 18) throughout the Windows to the Deep 2019 expedition, the team observed a high diversity of deep-sea corals and sponges in previously unexplored areas. This expedition continued to build on the Windows to the Deep 2018 and the DEEP SEARCH 2018 expeditions, revealing expansive coral habitats throughout the Blake Plateau and Escarpment that were not previously known.
During this expedition, the team also conducted mapping and ROV exploration to support Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) objectives put forward by the NOAA Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program, SEARCH Inc., and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). While the team unfortunately did not find any shipwrecks, they were able to narrow down the areas where targets are not located and collected data that can be further analyzed for potential targets of interest to the maritime archaeology community.
This expedition also included exploration of the water column, the largest and least explored biome on the planet by volume. Scientists conducted midwater explorations at depths ranging from 300 to 1,000 meters (about 984 to 3,280 feet) during two dives to investigate the diversity and abundance of the largely unknown pelagic fauna of the region. This expedition marked the first time ROV Deep Discoverer was able to collect mobile fauna using the a new suction sampler.
Not only do these discoveries change our expectations in terms of what lies in the deep sea, but since we can’t manage and protect what we don’t know, these observations can also help to inform management of sensitive habitats and potential resources within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.
During ROV dives, the team collected both biological and geological samples, adhering to the Okeanos sampling objective of collecting a limited number of samples in order to characterize a dive location. Several of these samples are potentially new species or new records for the region. Throughout the expedition, scientists observed several potential new species, recorded significant depth and geographic range extensions for several species, and documented the presence of commercially important species – including wreckfish (Polyprion americanus), Atlantic Roughy (Hoplostethus occidentalis), red crab (Chaceon quinquedens), golden crab (Chaceon fenneri), and a large aggregation of Alfonsino (Beryx decadactylus) – in newly mapped and in previously unexplored areas.
The team also had a very rare observation of a swordfish fall being devoured by several dogfish sharks, one of which was subsequently eaten whole by a wreckfish. Additionally, numerous observations (~40 individuals) of brooding Warty Octopus were made in Wilmington Canyon.
When combined with other deep-sea and water column discoveries, these data will be important for increasing our ability to manage marine resources, as well as increasing our understanding of deep-sea ecosystem connectivity across the Atlantic basin.
During the Windows to the Deep 2019 expedition, the Okeanos Explorer team mapped about 28,988 square kilometers (11,192 square miles) of seafloor. Several of these areas had never been mapped before, including deep-sea areas in the Blake Plateau. During ROV dives, geological samples were collected, which will increase understanding of the geologic history of the region and be used to characterize habitat substrate. Understanding geological history can lend insights into potential causes and consequences of natural hazards such as submarine landslides and resulting tsunamis along the U.S. East Coast and the probability of future hazard occurrence.
During the expedition, two new cold seeps sites were found, one at Bodie Island off the shore of North Carolina, and another at an unexplored extension of the Norfolk Deep Seep site. Cold seeps have global significance for the transfer of methane carbon from long-term storage in seafloor sediments into the water, which often leads to changes in ocean chemistry. The discovery and mapping of deep-ocean seeps is essential to understanding the future global carbon budget and management of renewable energy resources, including hydrocarbon and gas hydrate reservoirs along the U.S. continental slope. At the Norfolk Deep site, an unusual fluid seepage from the seafloor was observed. While similar features have been seen in the Gulf of Mexico, this type of emission was not previously known to occur along the U.S. Atlantic margin.
Data collected during this expedition are intended to inform initial characterization of the areas visited and include multibeam, single beam, subbottom, ADCP, XBT, CTD, and dissolved oxygen profiles; surface oceanographic and meteorological observations; video and imagery; and physical specimens. All data from this expedition will be publicly available through national archives. A direct link to expedition data will be posted on this website once available.
The second leg of the Windows to the Deep 2019 expedition marked the 100th mission during which ocean exploration data was collected from NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. On this expedition, over 130 scientists, resource managers, and students from 27 U.S. states and eight countries participated regularly in the expedition – mostly from shore. Additionally, ship tours, ship-to-shore interactions, and live online streaming of ROV dives to the general public opened a window of understanding into the deep sea for audiences around the world.
Windows to the Deep 2019: Exploration of the Deep-sea Habitats of the Southeastern United States was one of several expeditions being conducted from NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer as part of the Atlantic Seafloor Partnership for Integrated Research and Exploration (ASPIRE) campaign, a major multi-year, multi-national collaborative field program focused on raising collective knowledge and understanding of the North Atlantic Ocean.