Expedition to the Bering Sea Concludes Successfully with New Insights, New Questions

A bald eagle sits atop Unalaska's Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Ascension with Esperanza at anchor in background. (Photo by David E. Guggenheim)

A bald eagle sits atop Unalaska’s Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Ascension with Esperanza at anchor in background.
(Photo by David E. Guggenheim)

With a Terabyte (1,000 Gigabytes) of high-definition video, photographs and other data, along with numerous biological samples, now making their way around the world to scientists, policymakers and public forums, new insights and perspectives are emerging as the hard work of reviewing this vast volume of new data moves forward. The science team and sub pilots have departed Esperanza, which is continuing west along the Aleutian Island chain, continuing important outreach to local communities. The ship will eventually continue west to Japan.

Before departing Dutch Harbor, the science team/sub pilots made the first public presentation of its findings, including imagery and videos, to the community of Unalaska. The following day, members of the community were invited aboard Esperanza during an Open House to meet with the crew and see the ship up close.

Greenpeace Ocean Specialist, John Hocevar (left) and Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner, George Pletnikov (right) lead community outreach event in Unalaska, Alaska. (Photo by David E. Guggenheim)

Greenpeace Ocean Specialist, John Hocevar (left) and Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner, George Pletnikov (right) lead community outreach event in Unalaska, Alaska. (Photo by David E. Guggenheim)

Though the at-sea portion of the expedition has concluded, much work lies ahead in the analysis and review of the information collected. In addition, planning is underway for events to bring the new imagery and insights to the public, so stay tuned. Also, the team continues to review chart data regarding the pinnacles reported to be in the Zhemchug Canyon area which purportedly rise within 20 feet of the surface. Such features would certainly be biologically important, so the search will continue.

Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons revealed diverse and complex ecosystems, rich with corals, sponges, fish and other marine life. They also revealed striking human impacts from trawlers, damage that was documented during the expedition. For a reflection on the conclusion of the expedition, read David Guggenheim’s latest OceanDoctor blog post entitled, “A Sea Turtle is Born in Alaska.”

The Esperanza carried two manned submersibles, a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) and an international research team to the Bering Sea for a three week survey of Zhemchug and Pribilof Canyons,to map and document deepwater corals living at depths of more than 1,000 feet. The expedition was conceived of and was led by Greenpeace. [Read more...]

Attacked by the Giant Squid’s Cousins

Attack of the Giant Squid's Cousins!

Squid Attack!

It’s the fantasy of many a marine biologist and explorer. To catch a glimpse of the giant squid, alive,and in its natural habitat: The deep ocean. Giant squid have been scientifically documented at a size of up to an incredible 43 feet long based on specimens that have washed ashore. I’ve seen one such specimen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Laying there pickled and motionless in its sterile white display case, it was hard to imagine this animal rocketing about the dark depths, living up to its reputation as a formidable predator. During one of his talks when I first met oceanographer Bob Ballard, he compared trying to find the giant squid from a submersible to trying to find an F-15 jet racing by, on a mountain top, at night, in a driving rainstorm, with a flashlight. Yesterday I had second thoughts about looking for the giant squid when one of its cousins, less than 2% of its size, disabled my sub and aborted my dive as I was descending through 1,300 feet.

[Read more...]

Esperanza Heads South to Dutch Harbor with New Insights

Location of Pinnacles Remains a Mystery

A Dall's porpoise (top) gives Michelle Ridgway in DeepWorker a sendoff before her dive to 1,700 feet at Zhemchug Canyon in this surreal looking image. Hundreds of Dall's porpoises were present around the ship during the expedition. (Video still by David E. Guggenheim)

A Dall’s porpoise (top) gives Michelle Ridgway in DeepWorker a sendoff before her dive to 1,700 feet at Zhemchug Canyon in this surreal looking image. Hundreds of Dall’s porpoises were present around the ship during the expedition. (Video still by David E. Guggenheim)

The Esperanza began its 2-day steam south and endured gale-force winds and 15-foot seas along the way, but all are well and grateful for the successes along the way. The team achieved a total of 25 sub dives during the expedition, well-exceeding expectations for this part of the world where weather is typically unforgiving.

The team collected nearly a Terabyte (1,000 Gigabytes) of high-definition video, photographs and other data, now being archived, cataloged and distributed. Also collected were numerous coral, sponge, and other invertebrate samples which are being prepared for distribution to scientists around the world for further analysis. [Read more...]

Where Condos Fall from the Sky

The sublimely pink deepwater coral, Swiftia pacifica

The sublimely pink deepwater coral, Swiftia pacifica

They look strange, out of place — and they are. Because they’re not from around here. The odd-shaped stones and boulders that pepper the flat, dark, silty bottom here at nearly 1,800 feet look like meteorites, each surrounded by a wide, shallow crater. They’re not from outer space, but many have traveled a vast distance on Earth — hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles, over millennia. And now my sub is face to face with one of three I’d encounter on our first dive in Zhemchug Canyon yesterday (Saturday) afternoon.

[Read more...]

Deep Dives at Zhemchug Canyon Reveal Corals, Intricately Woven Ecosystem

Before rough seas rolled in on Tuesday, the team aboard Esperanza was able to complete six manned submersible dives and three ROV dives at Zhemchug Canyon, considered the largest canyon in the ocean. The subs worked close to their maximum depth of 2,000 feet while the ROV worked at its deepest depth ever, around 3,000 feet. Numerous coral species were present and documented throughout the dives.

Zhemchug Canyon has also revealed an intricate ecosystem whose inhabitants depend upon small holes or rises in the otherwise flat, silty bottom, including “flatfish holes,” depressions made by halibut, flounder, sole and skates, and drop-stones, rocks and boulders that fall from melting icebergs above. Read more about this unique place on David Guggenheim’s OceanDoctor blog. [Read more...]

Alone in the Dark with a Pen Light

Trawl scar on bottom, DeepWorker 7 in background

Trawl scar on bottom, DeepWorker 7 in background

Yesterday (Thursday) morning, Michelle Ridgway and I descended in the twin subs for our expedition’s penultimate dive on Pribilof Canyon.Michelle’s lights shone as tiny pinpoints in the distant green as the light from above slowly vanished and the cold darkness of Pribilof Canyon enveloped us.I had a rare moment amid the descent’s harried series of checks and radio transmissions to reflect on where I was, and Michelle’s lights reminded me of how tiny we were, trying to comprehend an enormous, complex tapestry in the darkness armed with only a pen light. But on this dive, some of those complexities began to tell a story. [Read more...]

Esperanza Now at Zhemchug Canyon, Largest Underwater Canyon in the World

The Esperanza crew had an opportunity for a brief shore leave on St. Paul Island on Friday (August 3) before steaming north to Zhemchug Canyon. On St. Paul, they visited a fur seal rookery. Populations of fur seals are down dramatically. (Photo by David E. Guggenheim)

The Esperanza crew had an opportunity for a brief shore leave on St. Paul Island on Friday (August 3) before steaming north to Zhemchug Canyon. On St. Paul, they visited a fur seal rookery. Populations of fur seals are down dramatically.
(Photo by David E. Guggenheim)

Continued favorable weather and few mechanical problems means that the team aboard Esperanza has been able to complete 14 manned submersible dives at Pribilof Canyon. On Saturday (August 4), Esperanza arrived at Zhemchug Canyon to explore this, the largest undersea canyon in the world, much larger than the Grand Canyon. Within the first few minutes of the deepest ROV dive yet, more than 3,000 feet down, the team discovered corals, including pink “bubblegum” corals along with other soft corals.

Earlier, during the final dives at Pribilof Canyon, the team documented numerous corals, but also evidence of extensive trawling damage in the area.

The Esperanza is carrying two manned submersibles, a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) and an international research team to the Bering Sea for a three week survey of Zhemchug and Pribilof Canyons,to map and document deepwater corals living at depths of more than 1,000 feet. The expedition was conceived of and is being led by Greenpeace.

[Read more...]

Choose Nausea or Sleepiness. Or Perhaps You’d Like Both?

The Bering Sea, with Attitude

The Bering Sea, with Attitude

Earlier in this blog I’ve confessed my darkest secret as a marine scientist: I get seasick. So my biggest fear of the Bering Sea is what the Bering Sea is fond of doing often — getting rough with the boats that dare to ply its waters. Yesterday, things got a bit rough for the Esperanza. A major front pushed through and seas kicked up from nearly flat to a confused sea state — wind-driven waves 4-5 feet heading one direction, a much larger swell, Penny the boatswain noting swells up to 12 feet, heading at a 45 degree angle. The result made for a rough ride. Awakened at 4am, I dashed up to my hideout, the video editing room, to make sure that our precious data stored inside several hard drives, were secured. I added some bungee to keep things from sliding. I tried to return to sleep, but it was fitful. [Read more...]

I Go First

Preparing for Dive #1

Preparing for Dive #1 (Photo: Todd Warshaw)

When I used to teach marine science at Seacamp, a wonderful marine science camp in the Florida Keys, I always tried to impress upon my students (especially the ones reluctant to get into the water) that I always saw something new every time I went diving or snorkeling. This axiom has held true my entire life, but with a submarine and the deep waters it reaches, it seems that I see something new every 5 minutes. [Read more...]

Whales Everywhere!

Humpback Whale Sounding on the Way to Pribolof Canyon

Humpback Whale Sounding on the Way to Pribolof Canyon

We departed Dutch Harbor at 4pm Alaska Time today. It’s after 11pm now, still plenty of daylight, as we head north to Pribolof Canyon for our first dive in the morning. I’ll be one of the pilots, so I hope to get some sleep soon. As we headed north away from the Aleutians, there was a steady stream of announcements from the bridge over the intercom: “Whales, port side. Whales, starboard side. Whales, off the bow.” Humpback whales in groups of ten. We also saw fin whales. [Read more...]

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