An estimated 10,000 shipping containers are lost over the side of cargo ships during rough weather each year. What happens to them? Some float for awhile and land on beaches, or break up and release their contents—a huge batch of Nike shoes washed up on northeastern Pacific beaches years ago. On a very rough, stormy day in February 2004, 15 containers fell from the Med-Taipae cargo ship into the waters of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The fate of 14 containers remains unknown, but one was found on an MBARI ROV dive just a few months later. This particular container had sunk to 1,281 meter depth on the continental slope about 20 miles west of Moss Landing. There was lots of speculation concerning what was inside—the leading rumor had it filled with expensive wine. In the end, it turns out to have 1,159 steel-belted Michelin tires. These tires are not likely to see a car anytime soon.
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) received compensation from the shipping company, and some of the funds are supporting MBARI and MBNMS research concerning what impacts the container might have on the seafloor biological communities. Today, we dove on the container—our last visit was in 2011—to continue studying its effects.
Conditions were perfect today. The winds were just as forecast—less than five miles per hour, and seas were flat calm. It doesn’t really feel like we are on a ship. The ship, ROV Doc Ricketts, and crew worked flawlessly and we were able to accomplish all of our goals without any problems.
Our plan was to collect video observations of the container, including any and all of the organisms that have colonized it since our last visit; video observations of the seafloor fauna up to 500 meters away; and, collect sediment samples near and distant from the container, for various purposes, including toxicology.
Colonizers on the container include crabs and deep sea snails.
When the ROV approached the container, we realized that the splendid conditions on the sea surface were not really the same at the bottom. A strong current was running over the bottom, making it difficult for the ROV to maneuver near the container, and stirring up quite a bit of sediment, reducing visibility somewhat. The pilots quickly adjusted to these conditions, and we were able to work efficiently. The trick is to not touch the bottom with the ROV until you must. Once you touch down, mud sticks to the bottom of the ROV and when it flies back up above the bottom, the mud slowly washes off, clouding the water for several minutes.
Once conditions cleared up, we asked the pilots to "fly" the ROV slowly around and over the container, allowing us to capture some great video—images from the video are shown in this log. We then "flew" all of the video transects necessary to determine if the distribution and abundance of seafloor animals has changed since our last visit. Our first objective was completed. Turning the video records to real data will take weeks of work in the lab to sort through all of this video and count all the animals.
We were amazed at the abundance and diversity of animals that have settled on the container. Worms, snails, crabs, scallops, hydroids, sponges, tunicates, nudibranchs, shrimp, medusa, anemones, sea stars, amphipods (sea fleas), bacterial mats, and many others cover some areas of the container.
Animal life has increased since our last visit in 2011. This close-up video image shows grey tunicates, flower-like medusa, and white tubeworms, among other animals.
Sediment cores were also collected efficiently. We had to make a trip up to the surface to swap out the cores we’d used with a new set of 30, so that we could collect all that we needed from around the container. This exchange took about two hours, and happily coincided with lunch, giving most of us a short rest.
Processing the sediment cores at the surface was pretty quick. We had lots of help with everyone pitching in and within a couple hours, we were finished. The majority of the cores will be used to measure the distribution of trace metals near and distant from the container. Are trace metals leaching from the container? And if so, how widely is it distributed? We hope to answer those questions from the samples collected today.
The robotic arm of the ROV collects a sediment core sample near the base of the container while a large crab supervises.
It seems pretty obvious that this one container could have only localized effects on the seafloor ecosystem. It is marine trash, and is not something we want to see on the seabed, but we cannot conclude that it is anything more than a minor blemish in the immediate vicinity. But what about the 10,000 containers lost yearly, each that may persist for decades or centuries? If this is indeed accurate, then these containers are accumulating on the bottom of the ocean, leaving a far larger area of impact. They may be out of sight, but they shouldn’t be ignored. Marine debris is an increasing problem that can be solved quite easily with a modest increase in effort to avoid such losses.
Tomorrow, we return to the urchin studies described in yesterday’s blog. Thanks for reading.
— Jim Barry
Day 6: Shallow water
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: Exploring unknown territory
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 3: Hooligan fish
Sablefish were common here a couple of days ago, but today it was as if a gang of troublemakers showed up.
Day 2: Out of sight - out of mind
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: Busy first day
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.
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).
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 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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.