Campus: CSU Long Beach -- June 04, 2003

CSULB Biology Professor Participating in Atlantic Seafloor Dives for Marine Life Census

There isn't an inch of the earth's surface that can't be seen nowadays by satellite, but knowing what lives along the deep ocean floor is another matter. Large swaths of the sea's deepest fathoms remain unexplored, holding scientific secrets yet to be revealed.

In June, Raymond Wilson, a marine biology professor at Cal State Long Beach, will join an international team of scientists who will dive in two submersible vehicles to around 10,000 feet (3,200 meters) in the North Atlantic Ocean. Wilson will serve as the deep-sea fish expert on the pilot project of the Census of Marine Life (CoML), a major 10-year global research venture that will explore the distribution and diversity of aquatic life.

Wilson will be among a team of seven American and Russian scientists who will depart from Copenhagen, Denmark on June 3 aboard the R/V Akademic Mistislav Keldysh and head to the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge 600 miles southeast of the tip of Greenland. There, weather permitting, they will take two Russian submersibles for two concurrent dives within a three-day window from June 10-13. The three-person submersibles, MIR I and MIR II, will run perpendicular courses along the sea floor, allowing two researchers in each vessel to log and videotape what they see while a pilot maneuvers the craft. After the dives, the Keldysh will travel to St. Johns, Newfoundland, arriving June 17.

Wilson's responsibility will be to identify and count the fishes they encounter throughout the dives. Other experts will evaluate marine mammals, turtles, plankton and animals that live from the surface to along the sea floor.

"Diving on a spreading ridge is a rare opportunity. There's a lot of use of submersibles for general study, but spreading ridges are generally far away from land. It's a big trip," Wilson added. "You cannot do as we've done here in the Catalina Basin, just take off from Avalon or take off from Scripps and be there within a day. For these other trips, it's a week to get out there in a big boat with a large crew, and it requires a lot of support. That's what makes it special."

The expedition is part of MAR-ECO, Patterns and Processes of Ecosystems in the Northern Mid-Atlantic, one of several CoML projects that are examining seas around the world. MAR-ECO is directed by a steering group of scientific representatives from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Iceland, Portugal and Germany, with Norway serving as lead nation. The Ocean Exploration program of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation are funding this trip.

The research vessels are owned and operated by the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences and three of its scientists are taking part in the mission.

"We're going to be transecting the ridge, observing, identifying and counting the organisms that are there as part of an ocean survey," Wilson pointed out. "You need an expert for every type of fauna that's out there, so someone can look out the window and accurately record what's being seen; that's why the diversity of zoologists who participate is needed."

"It might sound trite, but in a way we can truly call it a 'voyage of discovery' because when you go someplace new where no one has been, you're possibly going to find something new that's worth the effort," he continued. "My job will be to identify the fish by sight, not only to look at what species are there, but also to obviously count them and to record other transect information. But I'm not just looking out the window to see fascinating things. Submersible work is how you obtain your data. You're not actually collecting the specimens, so a video transect alone isn't adequate; an observer is also needed."

The dives will serve as a reconnaissance for future expeditions, and what they see will help determine later activities. For example, the researchers might say, "We saw a concentration of these species in this particular area," Wilson explained. "We look at what's attracting them there that they're not elsewhere, or you see other indicators of aggregations that may suggest some sort of oasis area attracting them. Then from your transect lines, you might map those positions on the ridge. Then you go back home and design experiments around those particular locations and ask follow-up questions.

"After you figure out what's going on there, then you might say, we need a larger scale picture of what's the frequency of these little oases, so then you may design another dive plan where you make your transect intervals broader," he added. "They might then dive and recover the subs, then move the ship 10 to 15 miles—you probably wouldn't transit underwater 15 miles in the subs—then dive them again. Then you might interpolate between those two dive sites. That's one reason why it's a multi-year program."

After the recent discovery of a previously unknown and unusual-looking large red Pacific jellyfish, opportunities for new discoveries resulting from CoML research remain tantalizing.

For more information on the Census of Marine Life, see www.coreocean.org, and for the MAR-ECO project, see www.mar-eco.no/sci/.


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