Highlight of season was sampling the first Lophelia coral from Meso-American Reef near 600 m depth
An aggregation of the reef building scleractinian coral Lophelia pertusa at 580 meters (1,903 feet) depth in Roatan, Honduras. In 2010 and 2011, a NOAA-led team of researchers explored the deep Meso-American Reef off Roatan, Honduras, as part of a multi-year expedition called 'Deep Coral and Associated Species Taxonomy and Ecology', or DeepCAST. The goal of DeepCAST is to estimate deep-sea coral abundance and diversity; and to discern the nature of the relationship between host corals and their associated species. The primary reasons we study deep-sea corals are because they provide habitat to other species of fish, sea stars, shrimp and crabs; and they grow very slowly, so they are vulnerable to bottom contact fishing gear.
Image credit: NOAA DeepCAST I Expedition
SOI Research Fellow Dr. Peter Etnoyer spent much of summer 2010 at sea using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to survey deep-sea coral habitats off Washington State and California. The NOAA team documented over 100 deep coral colonies in six different species within Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, discovered new coral and sponge habitat in Sur Canyon, CA, and helped to break the depth/duration record (at the time) for Kraken II ROV with an 11 hour dive to 600 meters depth.
Later in the field season, Peter's team descended to the deep reefs of Roatan, Honduras using Idabel submersible to document deep coral abundance and diversity as part of the Deep Coral and Associated Species Taxonomy and Ecology (DeepCAST) Expeditions. Participants joined from Texas A&M University- Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC), Conservation International, and Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
Schmidt Ocean Institute funded DeepCAST I entirely, and gave substantial support for DeepCAST II and III, including travel, sub time, and research equipment (deep-sea camera and laser mount). DeepCAST II collected the first physical evidence of the deep-sea coral Lophelia pertusa along the Meso-American Reef in May 2011.
In summer 2011, Peter joined NOAA's Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and Southwest Fishery Science Center staff on an expedition to document and protect new deep coral habitats 500 meters deep off Washington State. The team used NOAA's high-definition, high-voltage ROV "The Ark" to collect high-resolution images of rarely seen deep-sea fish, corals, and invertebrates. Many fishes, corals, and sponges were observed.
Later in the year, the research team returned to Roatan, Honduras for DeepCAST III with students from TAMU-CC, College of Charleston (CofC), and James Cook University (JCU). The group reprised photo and video sampling efforts for community ecology studies with Dr. Tom Shirley and Kate Lavelle at TAMU-CC, and added new research components, including water sampling for aragonite saturation with Leslie Wickes at CofC, and DNA sampling of octocorals and stony corals with Dr. Marcelo Kitahara of JCU.
The highlights of the season were the first-ever sub dives for the students, the first DNA and the first water samples from Roatan's deep-coral habitats at 700 meters. Click to the photo gallery to share the adventure.