Brilliantly hued coral found off Olympic Peninsula

11 June 2010 – Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES, Wash. (AP) – The light on the traveling robotic camera sweeps back and forth over the ocean floor in a bleak darkness that no natural light ever penetrates.

The beam illuminates an unexpected glory.

What appears to be a garden, but which is actually a colony of animals – deep-sea coral – glows orange or gold or blazing pink in a place so dark that the vibrant colors would never be seen by anything that lives there.

Scientists in the mother ship above the remotely operated vehicle watch the real-time video display of the discovery via the cable from the camera and know that they now have another tiny piece of a slowly accruing map of deep-sea coral colonies in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

This is how is how 15 crew members – four from the North Olympic Peninsula – will spend the next five days on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, research ship, the McArthur II.

Starting Saturday, they aim to chart as many colonies of deep-sea coral as they can, working off Cape Alava near Neah Bay during the first leg of a three-pronged exploration of the seafloor off the West Coast of the nation.

The mystery of the coral’s intense color won’t be solved this trip.

“This coral is living in perpetual darkness,” said Ed Bowlby, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary research coordinator, based in Port Angeles, who is the chief scientist for the trip.

Imagine standing in a walk-in refrigerator with no light and the door closed, he said. It’s that dark.

“Not all, but many species (of deep-sea coral) are brightly colored,” he said.

“We don’t know why. No other animal can see it. It’s totally dark.”

And it’s just as cold as that imaginary walk-in refrigerator, with temperatures on the ocean floor – the sanctuary contains depths from the intertidal zone to 4,800 feet – just above freezing.

Because of the dark and the cold, the coloring of deep-sea coral can’t come from the algae that scientists believe tint the shallow reef coral.

“Reef corals have symbiotic relationships with algae, but deep sea corals don’t have symbiotic algae… They can’t live without light,” Bowlby said.

“It’s a different phenomenon.

“Apparently, it’s just a pigmentation, but why it would have it when there’s no advantage to the animal?”

Researching the reason for the coral’s bright colors will be done in labs.

The mission of the crew that was in Seattle on Wednesday preparing for the expedition is to map the colonies and hopefully learn enough about the depths at which they live, the fish and other animals that depend on them and other aspects of their environment to protect them.

Two others from the Port Angeles sanctuary office are on board: Jennifer Bright, research scientist, and Janet Lamonte, who will serve as an assistant and who will gather photos for use in education outreach.

Another Peninsula member of the crew is Colby Brady, Makah fisheries biologist.

They are working with scientists from all over the country – Hawaii, Connecticut, Oregon – as well as from Washington State University and the Seattle National Marine Fisheries Service.

“Our prime mission is to locate and map the location of the corals,” Bowlby said.

“We don’t know their distribution.”

The information will be used to help make decisions about how to protect the coral.

Little is known about the seafloor from which the coral grows.

The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary spans 3,310 square miles and extends 25 to 50 miles seaward from the Washington state coastline, covering much of the continental shelf and several major submarine canyons.

It’s almost two-and-a-half times larger than the nearly million-acre Olympic National Park.

Only about 25 percent of the ocean floor in the sanctuary has been mapped.

The charting of the ocean is what Bowlby calls an acoustical map.

That’s accomplished through an autonomous underwater vehicle which, unlike the unmanned camera, is not tethered to a ship.

It uses sonar to survey the ocean floor for six to eight hours and brings back data to provide three-dimensional views of the bottom of the sea, Bowles said.

The maps are created from the data and are used to decide where to send the robotic camera to look for deep-sea coral, which grows attached to hard rock on the ocean floor.

“We can’t just arbitrarily dive,” Bowlby said.

Instead, the scientists look for “patches of hard bottom where we can expect to find deep-sea corals.”

The Fairweather, one of NOAA’s hydrographic ships, has been surveying off Cape Alava since last week, Bowlby said.

The Olympic coast sanctuary crew will hand the McArthur II over to a crew that will explore the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones national marine sanctuaries off the Central California coast from June 19 through June 25.

The final leg of the NOAA effort to explore the West Coast will be from June 26 through July 3 in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Southern California.

This is the first of three such expeditions NOAA plans this year.

Two more are scheduled for fall off the Washington and Southern California coasts.

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