Green Guide

Researchers study ocean canyons in marine sanctuary

Posted September 2

— From one underwater canyon to the next, the EV Nautilus is shedding new light on the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

After a brief personnel transfer at the entrance to Neah Bay, the 211-foot expedition vessel set sail for the Juan de Fuca Canyon to look for organisms and changes in ocean chemistry 1,000 feet below.

The Nautilus is midway through a 2½-week study of the mostly unexplored Quinault, Quillayute and Juan de Fuca canyons off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula.

The underwater surveys are being broadcast in real time at www.NautilusLive.org.

"The highlight reels are going to be amazing," said Jenny Waddell, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary research coordinator and one of 31 members of the EV Nautilus science team.

Using state-of-the-art remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) Hercules and Argus, the Nautilus crew is exploring unseen habitats, geological features and cultural sites.

Just prior to the transfer of four scientists, the ROVs inspected the USS Bugara, a U.S. Navy submarine that sank while under tow in 800 feet of water off Cape Flattery in 1971.

"We've seen a lot of really cool stuff," Waddell said during a tour of the research vessel.

The Nautilus transmits real-time video from its ROVs to a satellite, allowing anyone with an internet connection to see the dives as they happen and to ask questions of the scientists.

"We've had a lot of people engaged," said Samantha Wishnak, Nautilus communications coordinator.

"We've had thousands of people watching our dives."

The dives are focused on the 3 percent of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary that is considered hard-bottom habitat, mainly rocky slopes of the canyons that support long-living species such as coral and sponges.

These surveys provide scientists with a sense of biological distribution, a "who's who in the zoo," Waddell said.

"We have seen a couple of attempted predation events, which are always fun to catch," Waddell said, "but nothing super-crazy surprising."

The communications technology on the Nautilus allowed former USS Bugara Commanding Officer Ed Ettner, 96, to participate in the livestream and to share stories about his time on the sub.

"It was a really big production," Waddell said.

"We had a lot of super senior people from the Navy helping to narrate."

The Nautilus is owned and operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust, a nonprofit founded by oceanographer Capt. Robert Ballard.

The 2017 survey of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary is a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Ocean Exploration Trust and Quinault Indian Nation.

The Quinault and other tribes will use information from the study in salmon recovery efforts.

"The tribes are very much engaged in this process," Waddell said.

The ROVs and high-definition cameras are controlled from a command center on the Nautilus in a pair of inconspicuous shipping containers.

Most of the dives in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary occur at night between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

"The general public has the same experience that we're having here on the ship," Wishnak said.

Highlights of previous dives are posted at www.NautilusLive.org and the ship's social media pages.

The first half of the study of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary focused on Quinault Canyon, an immense feature that cuts into the continental shelf.

"It went very well," said Kevin Grant, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary deputy superintendent for operations and administration.

"Not a lot of surprises, although when you're down at that depth, everything you find is pretty cool."

The Quinault and other canyons in the sanctuary funnel cold, nutrient-rich water from the abyss to the shelf through a wind-driven process called upwelling.

Organisms collected from the surveys are processed on the ship by a team led by science manager Steve Auscavitch, who was working with black coral and sponges on a recent Friday.

In addition to living organisms, one of the main goals of the expedition is to investigate ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification is caused by the uptake of carbon dioxide. It results in increasingly corrosive, low-pH and often hypoxic waters onto the continental shelf, according to the Nautilus website.

"We're really fortunate here," Waddell said.

"Even though ocean acidification is happening on this coast 2½ times faster than the global average, we also have some really stellar scientists working on the problem."

Ocean acidification can cause detrimental effects to organisms such as oysters, clams, sea urchins, corals and plankton, NOAA officials said.

It dissolves the shells of pteropods, a major food source for whales and juvenile salmon, according to NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

"Washington is definitely a leader in the United States for understanding and addressing ocean acidification," Waddell said.

"We're bummed that we're going to be right at the front lines, but at the same time, we're probably the best-prepared state in the nation to actually work on this issue."

In addition to cold water samples, the Nautilus crew is taking core samples of the abyssal sediment for a historical record of ocean acidification, Waddell said. The samples will be studied at the University of Washington's Burke Museum.

The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary has been designated a "sentinel site" for the study of ocean acidification and its impacts on coastal communities, Waddell said.

Waddell added that she plans to give a presentation about the 2017 Nautilus cruise in the Peninsula College-sponsored Studium Generale lecture series later this year.

The Nautilus arrived at the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary after similar research at the Channel Island and Cordell Bank sanctuaries in California.

Among other major discoveries, Ballard and his "Corps of Exploration" discovered the final resting place of the RMS Titanic in 1985.

Wood paneling and other features on the ship were designed in the style of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," a novel that inspired a young Ballard, Wishnak said.

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