Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
2013 Benthic Biology cruise

Cruise Background

Are deep-sea animals more sensitive to climate change and ocean acidification than shallow water animals? Could crop debris left in fields after a harvest be packaged and sunk to the deep waters of the ocean to help reduce the effects of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere? What happens to the estimated 10,000 shipping containers per year that are lost over the side of container ships and sink to the deep sea floor? Do they affect the animal communities living on the seabed? Do deep-sea urchins plowing through the muddy bottom in the deep waters along the continental margin affect the macrofauna in the mud—the small worms, molluscs, and crustaceans that comprise the prey for many megafaunal animals? These are some of the research questions the benthic biology group is addressing on the December cruise on the Western Flyer as they continue studies initiated over the past several years.

Researchers' top priority for the cruise is to measure the sensitivity of deep-sea crabs to ocean acidification and low oxygen levels, two consequences of fossil fuel emissions to the atmosphere—it is amazing to think emissions are affecting animals at the bottom of the sea. The benthic respiration system was deployed over the side of the ship during a cruise in October. As it slowly sank, the ROV Doc Ricketts was launched and followed the respiration system down to the bottom. The ROV pilots then used a suction sampler to slurp up small galatheid crabs, which were placed gently into the eight respiration chambers. Over the past six weeks, this deep-sea robot has automatically measured the respiration rates of the crabs under normal deep-sea conditions, as well as under more acidic, or lower oxygen conditions, or both. When the ship arrives on the site, now scheduled for the 12th of December, we will send an acoustic signal to the respiration system, commanding it to release the anchor weights that were used to sink it to the bottom. Once released, it will float slowly back to the surface. The transit requires about two and one-half hours. Once it reaches the surface, a radio beacon will be automatically activated and we will hear the transmission aboard the ship. The crew will attach a grappling line to the respiration system, then hoist it aboard. Ultimately results from these deep-sea studies at 3,200 meters depth will be compared to similar studies with shallower living crabs to increase our understanding of how sensitive these animals are to changing ocean conditions.

In 2006, researchers sank a large bale of corn stover—what remains from a corn plant when the cobs are harvested—into 3,200 meters water depth about 50 nautical miles from Moss Landing. They are returning to the bale to determine how rapidly it is decaying. If the rates are extremely slow, they might be able to consider sinking crop residue like this to the deep-sea to help offset rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. This idea sounds pretty wild, but we need to consider, and evaluate carefully, all available options to cope with climate change.

What happens to lost shipping containers? During a fierce storm in February 2004, 24 containers fell off the Chinese M/V Med Taipei container ship while it was transiting the central California coast. Just a few months later, one of these containers was found at a depth of 1,281 meters (4,202 feet) off Monterey during an ROV dive. Researchers from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and MBARI have been studying the container and the surrounding seabed to follow changes in animal communities and potential contaminants to assess the effects of the container on deep-sea communities. They will revisit the container during this cruise to resample the biological communities on and around the container. One container may not be that important, but what about the accumulation of containers on the seafloor if roughly 10,000 are lost from ships each year?

Finally, the ROV Doc Ricketts will dive on sites at 200 and 600 meters depths where a deep-sea 'caging' experiment is underway to measure the effects that deep-sea urchin have on other seafloor animals. Caging experiments are a mainstay of ecology for intertidal and terrestrial studies, but are rarely attempted in the deep-sea. Three of six cages (two meters width by two meters length and 30 centimeters high) included appoximately 15 urchins, and three cages had no urchins. The team will use the ROV to move the cages, then collect all of the urchins and any other megafauna using a suction sampler, as well as numerous sediment cores from beneath each cage. Once the samples are on board, the science team will sieve the sediment to separate the little animals—the macrofaunal worms, and the meiofauna, the microscopic animals. In the lab, these samples will be analyzed and comparisons will be made of the fauna sampled in cages with or without urchins to determine how important urchins are in controlling the distribution and abundance of the smaller animal assemblage.

Benthic Biology 2013 cruise map
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Benthic biology map

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Day 6 Day 6: Shallow water
December 16
We moved to shallow waters last night to prepare for our last cruise day, working on finishing our sampling of the urchin caging experiment.

Day 5 Day 5: Exploring unknown territory
December 15
We were all excited about today's exploration dive on Sur Ridge, a ten-mile-long submarine ridge about 20 miles due west of Pt. Sur, on the California coast.

Day 4

Day 4: A corn field on the deep-sea floor?
December 14
Our second objective for today was to visit the bale of corn stover we sank in 3,200 meter depth in 2009.

Day 3

Day 3: Hooligan fish
December 13
Sablefish were common here a couple of days ago, but today it was as if a gang of troublemakers showed up.

Day 2

Day 2: Out of sight - out of mind
December 12
An estimated 10,000 shipping containers are lost over the side of cargo ships during rough weather each year. What happens to them?

Day 1

Day 1: Busy first day
December 11
The research objectives for the day were to retrieve a benthic mooring deployed in the canyon six months ago, and to begin sampling a deep-sea urchin caging experiment that was initiated two years ago.


R/V Western Flyer

The R/V Western Flyer is a small water-plane area twin hull (SWATH) oceanographic research vessel measuring 35.6 meters long and 16.2 meters wide. It was designed and constructed for MBARI to serve as the support vessel for ROV operations. Her missions include the Monterey Bay as well as extended cruises to Hawaii, the Gulf of California, and the Pacific Northwest.

ROV Doc Ricketts

ROV Doc Ricketts is MBARI's next generation ROV. The system breaks new ground in providing an integrated unmanned submersible research platform, with many powerful features providing efficient, reliable, and precise sampling and data collection in a wide range of missions.

Push cores

A push-core looks like a clear plastic tube with a rubber handle on one end. Just as its name implies, the push core is pushed down into loose sediment using the ROV's manipulator arm. As the sediment fills up the core, water exits out the top through one-way valves. When the core is pulled up again, these valves close, which (most of the time) keeps the sediment from sliding out of the core tube. When we bring these cores back to the surface, we typically look for living animals and organic material in the sediments.

Benthic respirometer system

Oxygen consumption (a measure of biological activity) of the organisms living in the sediment is measured using a benthic respirometer system (BRS). This instrument is used in situ (in place on the seafloor).

 Research Team

jim barry

Jim Barry

Senior Scientist

Jim Barry's research program focuses on the effects of climate change on ocean ecosystems. In addition to climate change, his research interests are broad, spanning topics such as the biology and ecology of chemosynthetic biological communities in the deep sea, coupling between upper ocean and seafloor ecosystems in polar and temperate environments, the biology of deep-sea communities, and the biology of submarine canyon communities. Jim has helped inform Congress on ocean acidification, ocean carbon sequestration, and climate change by speaking at congressional hearings, briefings and meetings with congressional members.

kurt buck

Kurt Buck

Senior Research Technician

Kurt Buck specializes in quantitative enumeration, ecology, and imaging of marine protists and bacteria. Upper water-column communities from Antarctic and Arctic sea ice to equatorial regions were his initial focus. He is currently working with deep-sea sediment communities including those from hypoxic zones.

patrick whaling

Patrick Whaling

Senior Research Technician

Patrick has worked at MBARI since its beginning in the fall of 1987. Prior to his move to MBARI, he spent seventeen years at Duke University Marine Lab investigating heavy metals in the marine environment. He currently works with Jim Barry in the design and construction of sampling gear used on the ROV to collect benthic animals, in addition to processing benthic samples and conducting carbon-hydrogen-oxygen (CHN) analyses.

Chris Lovera

Chris Lovera

Senior Research Technician

Chris supports Jim Barry's Benthic Biology and Ecology, and Free-Ocean CO2 Enrichment research projects. On this expedition, Chris's responsibilities are varied, from collection and curation of invertebrates used in Benthic Respiration System metabolic rate and manipulative oxygen and pH studies, to Geographic Information System work, to operation of the dissolved inorganic carbon analyzer. Chris's recent work focuses on the effects of ocean acidification on invertebrate behavior.

Josi Taylor

Josi Taylor

Research Associate

Josi will continue to look at the ecological impacts of the shipping container lost to the deep sea in 2004. After analyzing data collected during a joint MBARI and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary cruise in 2011, Josi is excited to see how the communities of animals on and around the container may have changed in the last two and a half years. She will also be taking samples specifically for toxicity analysis during this cruise. This information will provide a better idea of the possible effects of the thousands of shipping containers lost to the deep sea each year.

Andrew Devogelaere

Andrew DeVogelaere

Research Coordinator/SIMoN Program Director
National Marine Sanctuaries/NOAA

Andrew oversees the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary's research program. This includes facilitating collaboration among over 20 research institutions in the region, providing technical information to decision makers and the Sanctuary staff, and initiating research on resource management issues. He is also leading the effort to develop the Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network (SIMoN), a critical program that assesses how populations of marine organisms and habitats are changing through time. He has been directly involved in a wide variety of research projects, ranging in habitats from the deep sea to estuaries. Dr. DeVogelaere has an M.S. in Marine Science and a Ph.D. in Biology.

Erica Burton

Erica Burton

Research Specialist
National Marine Sanctuaries/NOAA

As a Research Specialist, Erica Burton works on marine research issues such as ecosystem characterization, marine protected areas, and submerged cultural resources. She also spends time at sea collecting scientific data and information. Several projects include characterization of the Davidson Seamount, monitoring and characterization of deep-water fish and invertebrate assemblages, and biological characterizations at shipwreck sites. Erica also provides programatic support to the Research Activity Panel, and on the evaluation of MBNMS research permits. Erica earned a M.S. in Marine Science. Her graduate research focused on age, longevity, and growth determination of fishes, including radiometric age determination of the giant grenadier, bocaccio rockfish, Atlantic tarpon, and Atlantic sturgeon.

Chad King

Chad King

Research Specialist
National Marine Sanctuaries/NOAA

Chad has been with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) since 2002, and is responsible for the collection, analyses, and dissemination of spatial data for the Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network (SIMoN) and MBNMS. These data help integrate past and present monitoring programs within the Sanctuary and are the foundation of decision-making tools such as interactive maps that are made available to the general public. He is also a NOAA divemaster and an active participant in subtidal research, including kelp forest and invasive species monitoring and underwater photography and videography. Additionally, he produces short outreach films and has produced significant content for the Sanctuary Exploration Center. Chad was instrumental in developing "SeaPhoto", an iOS app that features imagery and life history content of the MBNMS. Chad has a M.S. in Marine Science. His academic research focused on kelp forest ecology and subtropical ecological dynamics and genetics in the Gulf of California.

Oren Frey

Oren Frey

Research consultant
National Marine Sanctuaries/NOAA

Oren Frey has worked with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary since 2011, first as a Sea Grant fellow and then as a consultant on a variety of projects. In preparation for the MBARI/MBNMS cruise to the shipping container on Smooth Ridge in 2011, he researched the phenomenon of shipping container loss. Oren is interested to see how ecological conditions at the container site may have changed, as a means of better understanding the range of impacts that lost containers can have. Oren will be involved with sample processing and will also assist with science communication of some of the team's activities.