Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
2013 benthic ecology cruise

Day 4 – A corn field on the deep-sea floor?
December 14, 2013

The bumps and rolls during the night made it obvious that the seas had risen somewhat. We woke at 5:30 a.m. to 18 knots of wind—still very workable.

The first task for the day was to recover the benthic respiration system deployed two months ago. This contraption has eight chambers, each with pumps for stirring, flushing, and injecting fluids. We dropped it over the side of the ship in 3,200 meters of water here during our October cruise. The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Doc Ricketts followed it down and we used the suction sampler to carefully slurp up small squat lobsters (galtheid crabs) and placed them into seven of the chambers. We quickly closed each chamber before the crab was able to escape. For the past six weeks, the systems "brain" has been measuring rates of oxygen consumption in each chamber. The pumps stir the water in each chamber and oxygen levels are measured every 10 seconds. Since each chamber is closed, oxygen concentrations drop slowly or rapidly according to how much oxygen each crab is using. After every four hour incubation period, the chambers were automatically flushed with fresh water so that the animals didn’t simply suffocate. We calculate the average rate of oxygen use over each four hour period as a measure of each animal’s respiration rate.

The benthic respiration system (BRS) is hoisted aboard the R/V Western Flyer.

The first 10 or so incubation periods are used to measure the average baseline respiration rate for each animal. After that, the system was programmed to inject a small volume of carbon dioxide-rich seawater (held in a bag on the system) into each chamber at the beginning of an incubation period to make the water inside a bit more acidic. Our purpose is to evaluate the sensitivity of these animals to more acidic waters that are expected in the future due to ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification is the change in ocean chemistry caused by the rapidly rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Each year about one-fourth of our CO2 emissions are absorbed through the sea surface. That extra CO2 reacts with ocean waters to make the oceans more acidic. Ocean acidification is changing the chemistry of the oceans so rapidly and so much that by the time my son is an old man, ocean surface waters will be more acidic than has occurred in many millions of years—this is a very significant change that will affect ocean organisms and ecosystems in ways we don’t yet understand.

A bale of corn stover (what you have left of a corn plant after harvesting the ears) on the seafloor at a depth of 3,200 meters off central California, as part of a study evaluating the idea that crop debris could be sunk in the ocean as a carbon sequestration effort to mitigate global warming.

Our second objective for today was to visit the bale of corn stover we sank in 3,200 meter depth in 2009. One idea to help mitigate global warming is to gather up crop debris from fields across the nation, package it, add some ballast rock, and sink it into the deep sea. This would replace the current practice of extensive burning of the unwanted plant material. Not many organisms in the deep-sea are capable of digesting cellulose, so it is expected that the crop debris would last for centuries. We thought we’d test this idea and sank this four feett by four feet by eight feet bale of corn stover (what you have left after harvesting the ears).

The ROV-operated oxygen probe and pore fluid sampler about to be inserted into the corn bale.
A squat lobster, or galetheid crab, walking across the top of the corn bale.

We inspected the bale, measured changes in oxygen from the outside to the inside using a special oxygen probe operated by the ROV, and sampled lots of the small animals found on the bale. Why are they on the bale? Can they digest cellulose? It turns out that at least some can. Several squat lobsters are known to have gut bacteria capable of producing cellulase, the key enzyme for digesting cellulose. In fact, the species of squat lobsters we find on the bale differ from those we find elsewhere on the seafloor away from the bale. Are these squat lobsters specialists on corn? We doubt it. But they may have evolved adaptations to exploit sunken plant debris (e.g., logs) that make their way to the deep sea. Will sinking crop debris solve the global warming crisis? No, but we will definitely need to examine lots of creative ideas that may help our climate change problem.

We finished by late afternoon and were able to see a beautiful "green flash" as the sun set.

Tomorrow, we explore Sur Ridge.

— Jim Barry

Previous log Next log


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.