Scientists go deep to study marine sanctuary coral

photo

14 June 2010 – wenatcheeworld

PORT ANGELES — The light on the traveling robotic camera sweeps back and forth over the ocean floor in a bleak darkness that no natural light ever penetrates.

The beam illuminates an unexpected glory.

What appears to be a garden, but is actually a colony of animals — deep-sea coral — glows orange or gold or blazing pink in a place so dark that the vibrant colors would never be seen by anything that lives there.

Scientists in the mother ship above the remotely operated vehicle watch the real-time video display of the discovery via the cable from the camera and know that they now have another tiny piece of a slowly accruing map of deep-sea coral colonies in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

This is how 15 crew members — four from the North Olympic Peninsula — planned to spend five days on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, research ship, the McArthur II.

Starting last Saturday, they aim to chart as many colonies of deep-sea coral as they can, working off Cape Alava near Neah Bay during the first leg of a three-pronged exploration of the sea floor off the West Coast of the nation.

The mystery of the coral’s intense color won’t be solved this trip.

“This coral is living in perpetual darkness,” said Ed Bowlby, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary research coordinator, based in Port Angeles, who is the chief scientist for the trip.

Imagine standing in a walk-in refrigerator with no light and the door closed, he said. It’s that dark.

“Not all, but many species (of deep-sea coral) are brightly colored,” he said.

“We don’t know why. No other animal can see it. It’s totally dark.”

And it’s just as cold as that imaginary walk-in refrigerator, with temperatures on the ocean floor — the sanctuary contains depths from the intertidal zone to 4,800 feet — just above freezing.

Because of the dark and the cold, the coloring of deep-sea coral can’t come from the algae that scientists believe tint the shallow reef coral.

“Reef corals have symbiotic relationships with algae, but deep sea corals don’t have symbiotic algae … They can’t live without light,” Bowlby said.

“It’s a different phenomenon.

“Apparently, it’s just a pigmentation, but why it would have it when there’s no advantage to the animal?”

Researching the reason for the coral’s bright colors will be done in labs.

The mission of the crew that was in Seattle on Wednesday preparing for the expedition is to map the colonies and hopefully learn enough about the depths at which they live, the fish and other animals that depend on them and other aspects of their environment to protect them.

Two others from the Port Angeles sanctuary office are on board: Jennifer Bright, research scientist, and Janet Lamonte, who will serve as an assistant and who will gather photos for use in education outreach.

Another Peninsula member of the crew is Colby Brady, Makah fisheries biologist.

They are working with scientists from all over the country — Hawaii, Connecticut, Oregon — as well as from Washington State University and the Seattle National Marine Fisheries Service.

“Our prime mission is to locate and map the location of the corals,” Bowlby said.

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