Exploring Deep Sea Habitats for Baseline Characterization Using NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer

TitleExploring Deep Sea Habitats for Baseline Characterization Using NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
Publication TypePoster - Conference
AuthorsMcKenna, L, Cantwell, K, Kennedy, B, Elliott, K, Lobecker, E, Sowers, D
Conference Name2015 Fall Meeting, American Geophysical Union (AGU)
Conference DatesDecember 14-18
Conference LocationSan Francisco, CA
Keywordsdeep sea habitats, okeanos explorer

In 2015, NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, the only US federal ship dedicated to ocean exploration, systematically explored previously unknown deep sea ecosystems in the Caribbean and remote regions in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands. Initial characterization of these areas is essential in order to establish a baseline against which to assess potential future changes due to climate and anthropogenic change. In the Caribbean, over 37,500 sq km of previously unmapped seafloor were mapped with a high resolution multibeam revealing rugged canyons along shelf breaks, intricate incised channels, and complex tectonic features. 12 ROV dives, in the 300-6,000 m depth range, visually explored seamounts, escarpments, submarine canyons, and the water column revealing diverse ecosystems and habitats. Discoveries include large assemblages of deep sea corals, range extensions, and observations of several rare and potentially new organisms - including a seastar that had not been documented since its holotype specimen. In the Pacific, over 50,000 sq km of seafloor were mapped in high-resolution, revealing long linear ridge and tectonic fracture zone features, both peaked and flat-topped seamounts, and numerous features that appear to be volcanic in origin. To better understand ecosystem dynamics in depths greater than 2,000 m, the deepest ever ROV surveys and sampling were conducted in remote Pacific island marine sanctuaries and monuments. Novel observations include range extensions and exploration of dense deep sea coral and sponge habitat. Baseline habitat characterization was also conducted on seamounts within the Prime Crust Zone (PCZ), an area with the highest expected concentration of deep-sea minerals in the Pacific. The Hawaiian operations marked the first ever ROV sampling effort conducted onboard Okeanos, and several geological and biological samples are now available at museums and sample repositories in addition to all digital data available through the National Archives.