Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
2013 benthic ecology cruise

Day 5 – Exploring unknown territory
December 15, 2013

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. No task list to complete or specific objectives to achieve. This was like exploring the hills with your friends,except today, the "hills" were 1,000 meters under the surface, and had never been explored by anyone.

The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Doc Ricketts was launched during a spectacular sunrise at about 6:20 a.m.. Only an hour later, the ROV landed on the bottom as we crowded the ROV control room to watch the video. There have only been a couple of ROV dives on Sur Ridge, and none in the area we were diving—so this was unexplored territory. Not a human eye in history has seen the bottom here.

We selected our dive site based on the best bathymetric map (map of the depth of the seafloor) of the area, and chose a route we hoped would lead to at least some deep-sea corals. We expected that corals would only be found in the steeper, more exposed areas on the ridge, since corals do not typically grow in areas with much sediment cover—flatter areas accumulate sediment. The dive started at the base of the Sur Ridge, and the pilots flew the ROV over the bottom toward the steep sloping sides of the ridge near its northern end. We hoped to see some rocky outcrops some time during the dive.

Forests of bubblegum corals (Paragorgia sp.) drape the steep walls of Sur Ridge.

After only the first few minutes, deep-sea bubblegum corals appeared out of the gloom (we can only see the few meters ahead of the ROV lit by the strong lights). As the ROV continued along the steep side of the ridge, we found a forest of corals and gardens of multicolored deep-sea corals and sponges—truly a spectacular sight hidden 1,000 meters below the surface.

A squat lobster sits next to a skate egg case on a bright yellow “Picasso” sponge near 900 meter depth on Sur Ridge.

The ROV arrived at the top of the ridge near noon, and we decided to move to another area near the south end of the ridge and continue our exploration. The Western Flyer steamed south, only six miles, and we began our second dive of the day just after lunch.

After the spectacular vistas in the northern part of the ridge, the south end of Sur Ridge was a bit of a let-down, at least for the first half of the dive. The rocky sides of the ridge at its south end are more eroded than in the north. We saw many corals, but in far lower densities and smaller sizes than observed in the north. It appears that the rocks are simply too friable (crumbly) for corals to live long lives and reach large sizes. Just when we were thinking nothing exciting would happen on this dive, the ROV flew across rocky outcrops rich in sponges and some corals. Yellow, golden, and white sponges commonly reach a meter or greater in size, and are the dominant sea floor animals in some parts of the ridge.

Coral/sponge gardens cover rocky outcrops on Sur Ridge.

As we neared the end of the dive at the top of southern Sur Ridge, we stumbled onto a group of ‘cold seep’ clams. These clams are common in specialized habitats rich in methane and sulfide in Monterey Canyon, but the top of Sur Ridge seemed one of the least likely locations for these chemosynthetic animals. Unlike most clams that filter water past their gills to capture food, seep clams (vesicomyid clams) have symbiotic bacteria filling their gills. These bacteria use sulfide as an energy source to live and grow using chemosynthesis. Chemosynthesis is very similar to photosynthesis, but chemical energy, instead of sunlight, is used to create sugars and other organic compounds from carbon dioxide and water. It is a win-win for both species. The clams carry a steady sulfide supply through their blood from the methane seeps to their gills where the bacteria thrive, and consume the bacteria as food. The bacteria are provided a perfect environment for growth, and produce food for the clams.

Chemosynthetic cold seep clams cluster over a methane seep near the top of Sur Ridge.

One puzzle that this discovery brings up is where does the methane and sulfide required to support chemosynthesis by these clams coming from? Most seep sites in this region are deep in canyons—this is the first we know of on top of a ridge like this. We expect that the rocks are rich in oils, and produce methane, which seeps out around the edges and can be used to produce sulfide, the key energy source for the clams.

A young vampire squid (Vampirotuethis sp.) about two inches long. An adult will be 12 inches or longer.

If the methane seep discovery wasn’t exciting enough as an end to the dive, a young vampire squid appeared in front of the ROV just as the pilots were about to begin the ascent of the ROV to the surface. We all stared in awe of the little squid for several minutes, before departing for the surface.

What a great dive day! Tomorrow, we return to sampling the urchin caging experiment as planned for last Wednesday and Friday.

— 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.