Deep Connections 2019: Exploring Atlantic Canyons and Seamounts of the United States and Canada

Expedition Summary

NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
August 6 - September 15, 2019

The deep sea is one of the final frontiers of human exploration, and the crew of NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer uses mapping operations and remotely operated vehicles to reveal seascapes that have never before been seen by human eyes. In the exploration of U.S. and Canadian Atlantic canyons and seamounts during the Deep Connections 2019 expedition, habitat suitability modeling predictions were used for selecting of many of the dive sites. Video courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deep Connections 2019. Download larger version (mp4, 275 MB).

This infographic provides a snapshot of the expedition by the numbers.

This infographic provides a snapshot of the expedition by the numbers. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deep Connections 2019. Download larger version (pdf, 1.2 MB).

Deep Connections 2019: Exploring Atlantic Canyons and Seamounts of the United States and Canada was a two-part, telepresence-enabled ocean exploration expedition. The overarching purpose of the expedition was to collect critical baseline information about unknown and poorly understood deep water areas of the U.S. and Canadian Atlantic continental margin. The NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) worked closely with many partners to address priorities recommended by scientists and managers from both the U.S. and Canada, as well as international working groups supporting Seabed 2030 , the Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance , and the European Union’s Horizon 2020  program. The priorities identified for mapping and exploration via remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dives during the expedition included submarine canyons, seamounts, slope habitats, deep-sea coral and sponge habitats, fish habitats, marine managed areas, submarine landslides, and other potential geohazards. Many of the expedition’s dive sites were selected because habitat suitability models predicted that they had a high probability of supporting deep-sea corals. Mapping data was also collected to fill in regional data gaps and to contribute to Seabed 2030 goals for mapping unexplored regions of Earth’s ocean.

Deep Connections 2019 was one of several expeditions conducted from NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer as part of the Atlantic Seafloor Partnership for Integrated Research and Exploration (ASPIRE) campaign, a major multiyear, multinational collaborative field program focused on raising collective knowledge and understanding of the North Atlantic Ocean.

The North Atlantic is of vital importance to humankind, providing goods, services, and livelihood opportunities for millions of people, from seafood to recreation, tourism to transportation. Expeditions such as this provide critical deepwater data needed to maintain the health of our ocean, sustainably manage our marine resources, accelerate economies, and build a better appreciation of the value and importance of the oceans in our everyday lives.

Major accomplishments of this expedition are summarized below. For more information, download the summary fact sheet (pdf, 3.9 MB).

New Species, New Records, New Observations

During ROV dives, the Deep Connections 2019 team collected both biological and geological samples. These samples were collected in accordance with the Okeanos sampling objective of acquiring the minimum number of samples needed to characterize a dive site. Of the 35 primary biological samples collected on this expedition, 26 represent range extensions, and several more may be species new to science.

Because the deep-sea scenes encountered by the ROVs are livestreamed, scientists had the rare opportunity to view animal behavior, associations, and form in the context of their natural habitat. Of particular importance were observations of several large endangered Atlantic halibut during a dive in an unnamed deep-sea canyon north of Kinlan Canyon, off the New England coast. So many observations in such a short period of time suggests that the canyon may be critical habitat for this species.

One characteristic of the expedition as a whole was the frequent discovery of deep-sea corals and sponges, which were recorded on all eleven of the benthic-focused dives of the expedition at depths ranging from 306-2,668 meters (1,004-8,753 feet). (The twelfth dive of the expedition explored the midwater column only). Coral reefs, including deepwater corals, and sponge grounds are some of the most important marine ecosystems on the planet, creating structures that provide shelter, food, and nursery habitat to other invertebrates and fish.

High-density communities of deep-sea corals and sponges were documented during five of the dives, including a highly diverse and dense assemblage of deep-sea sponges observed on Retriever Seamount. At 2,668 meters (8,753 feet), this is currently among the deepest high-density communities known in the Northeast U.S. region. Other such communities included a high-density bamboo coral forest observed during a dive at a high-priority site for our Canadian partners in the Gully Marine Protected Area, as well as patches of high-density communities on Kinlan Canyon, Bear Seamount, and Veatch Canyon.

These data will be important in improving the understanding and management of marine resources and increasing knowledge of deep-sea ecosystem connectivity across the Atlantic Basin.

A Transboundary Approach: Exploring Connectivity of Deep-sea Organisms and Habitats Across the Atlantic Basin

The connections between transboundary waters, as well as the deep sea habitats they support, inspired the name of the “Deep Connections 2019” expedition. Through international partnership and collaboration, this expedition allowed science and exploration to be pursued across U.S. and Canadian borders. Video courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deep Connections 2019. Download larger version (mp4, 284 MB).

International collaboration was essential to the Deep Connections 2019 expedition. By taking a transboundary approach to exploration, the Okeanos Explorer was able to cross international boundaries in the same way that animals and deep-sea habitats of interest do. Understanding how populations of coral, sponge, fish, and other deep-sea species are related across geographically separated locales can offer insight into the resiliency of those populations. During the expedition, 124 biological samples were collected, including 35 primary and 89 associated taxa. Of these biological samples, three were collected specifically to support studies on connectivity and broad biogeographic patterns across the Atlantic Basin.

Of the twelve dives that took place during the expedition, four took place in Canadian waters and were informed by the guidance of Canadian scientists and ocean managers working together from the first exploration command center in Canada, the BIO-ECC, which was set up for this expedition. This transboundary approach allowed for the investigation of biogeographic patterns and connectivity among deep-sea organisms across the Atlantic margin.

In addition, the team also mapped more than 29,510 square kilometers (11,394 square miles) of seafloor, including 7,644 square kilometers (2,952 square miles) within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and 21,515 square kilometers (8,307 square miles) in the Canadian EEZ. Mapping operations included several areas that had never before been mapped with high-resolution multibeam sonars, including areas around the Northeast Channel and Fundian Valley, north of Alvin Canyon, and along the U.S.-Canadian boundary. This expedition will likely be the northwesternmost point that will be explored by mission personnel aboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer during the 2018-2020 ASPIRE campaign.

Geologic Insights

The ROV Deep Discoverer explores a sheer carbonate wall over 120 meters in height—taller than the Cliffs of Dover. Video courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deep Connections 2019. Download larger version (mp4, 80.1 MB).

During the Deep Connections 2019 expedition, the ROVs were used to explore a variety of geological features, including submarine seamounts, submarine canyons, intercanyon areas, and slopes. Submarine canyons and seamounts are both prominent and particularly important features along the Atlantic continental margin. Both are significant in their propensity to act as biodiversity hotspots, as they tend to harbor a great abundance and diversity of marine organisms, including commercially, recreationally, and ecologically important species. Seamounts can also help geologists reconstruct the movement of continental plates. The presence of submarine canyons so close to seamounts, as occurs along the U.S.-Canada margin, is relatively rare.

During the expedition, the team sought to inform the collective understanding of the geological history of the region, as well as our understanding of geological hazards, such as submarine landslides, which are more likely to occur in regions with steep slopes. Figuring out where these submarine landslides happened in the past, through both predictive modelling and ground-truthing, can help predict probable locations of future occurrences, which could cause tsunamis or damage submarine infrastructure, such as submerged data cables.

Geologic observations of note during the expedition included a visually stunning, unbroken sequence of carbonate rock with near-vertical relief at Veatch Canyon. Over 100 meters thick, the sheer wall was comparable in height to the Cliffs of Dover. The team also found evidence of seabed instability over short timeframes (less than seven years) by remapping a submarine landslide scarp at the head of an unnamed canyon between Gilbert and Lydonia Canyons. Five geological samples were collected, which can be used for future geochemical composition analyses and age-dating.

Data Delivery

The data collected during this expedition are intended to inform initial characterization of the areas visited. Types of data collected include multibeam, single beam, subbottom, ADCP, XBT, CTD and dissolved oxygen profiles; surface oceanographic and meteorological observations; video and imagery; and physical specimens. To learn more about the types of data collected during an Okeanos Explorer expedition, as well as what they are used for and how to access them, take a look at this informative blog from a Deep Connections 2019 partner from the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. All data from this expedition will be made publicly available through national archives. A direct link to expedition data will also be posted on this website once available.

Outreach and Participation: Connecting Scientists and the Public with Ocean Exploration

Reflecting a commitment to community-driven science and exploration, more than 50 scientists, managers, and students from seven different countries and 13 U.S. states regularly participated in the Deep Connections 2019 expedition via telepresence as members of the shore-side science team. In addition, explorers-in-training supported through student opportunities were able to sail during the mapping leg of the expedition.

In terms of public outreach, publically-accessible livestreams of the dives received over 112,830 online views and were also shown at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, the Natural History Museum in Halifax, and the Bedford Institute of Oceanography during all dives in Canadian waters. Collectively, these displays reached over 10,700 visitors. Members of the public around the globe were also engaged through web content, social media Q&As, and media coverage from international, national, and local sources.

Several live interactions connecting on-ship scientists with the public, including visitors to the Mystic and New England aquariums, were also held, as were in-person ship tours for Canadian partners.

All 9.2 TB of data collected during the expedition, including video and environmental data from each ROV dive and mapping, oceanographic, and meteorological data, will be made publicly available through national archives. Highlight images, videos, and descriptions of the accomplishments of the expedition, as well as educational materials, are already available via the expedition website.