Indonesian, U.S. Scientists Explore Seafloor, Discover Significant Diversity and Find Unusual Inhabitants

August 25, 2010

Scleractinian hard coral.

Scleractinian hard coral. Based on published results, this coral may be 1,000 to 6,000 years old. Image captured Aug. 5, 2010, by the Little Hercules ROV at 1,382 meters depth on a new seamount mapped by Baruna Jaya IV during the INDEX SATAL 2010 Expedition.

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(Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX‐SATAL 2010)

A rare and exciting look at the seafloor – with images of unusual and beautiful creatures – was offered to U.S. and Indonesian scientists working side-by-side at Exploration Command Centers in Jakarta and Seattle this summer. More scientists from additional locations ashore participated using cutting-edge technology to fill their screens with live views of seafloor geology and of deep-ocean marine animals in waters off Indonesia.

As part of a joint mission, scientists from the United States and Indonesia partnered in a new model of ocean exploration that adds intellectual capital ashore to expeditions at sea. Scientists on land and technicians at sea were connected in real-time and received data and information from sensors and systems on the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. Called telepresence, the technology uses links via satellite and high-speed Internet pathways.

“Seeing these live images from a world away is even more astounding and exciting than I had hoped it would be when we were planning this,” said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “Having the ability to connect many scientists representing multiple disciplines to share observations in real time is invaluable.”   

One hundred hours of video footage and approximately 100,000 photos from high-definition cameras on the Institute for Exploration’s remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) Little Hercules were collected during 27 dives from the Okeanos Explorer ranging in depth from approximately 800 feet to over two miles. The high-definition imagery provided never-before-seen views of seascapes and colorful, fascinating marine animals. Some expedition scientists believe that conservatively, 40 or more potential new species were observed.

Sea lily.

A stunning sea lily filters the current for food. Rarely seen, sea lilies are much less common than they once were in ancient seas.

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(Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX-SATAL 2010)

“Stalked sea lilies once covered the ocean, shallow and deep, but now are rare,” said Verena Tunnicliffe, a professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. “I’ve only seen a few in my career, but on this expedition, I was amazed to see them in great diversity on nearly every ROV dive.” Tunnicliffe was part of a team of scientists that stood watches during the expedition at the Exploration Command Center at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

Tunnicliffe also observed large sea spiders on the ocean floor. “I’ve seen them before in other places around seafloor vents,” she said. “But those animals were perhaps an inch in size. The sea spiders imaged on this mission were huge, eight inches or more across.”

One animal that was imaged more than a half a mile deep on the seafloor appears as a lovely flower in a garden, but scientists think it is likely a sponge and probably carnivorous. This animal appears to have glass needles covered with sticky tissue. The needles slowly telescope out to capture food, most likely zooplankton passing by.

Marine biologist Tim Shank followed the first part of the mission from his lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Later while serving as lead scientist standing watches with Indonesian colleagues in the Exploration Command Center in Jakarta, he joined expedition scientists online, discussing what they were observing on live video. Time-coded to the video from the seafloor, their comments will later help identify deep sea marine animals and geologic features.

“This first exploration of the Indonesian deep-sea has revealed a high diversity of species and a significantly different composition between shallower water fauna and deep-sea fauna,” said Shank. “This discovery is significant because it suggests that the evolutionary processes that shaped this deep-sea faunal diversity may be similar to those that resulted in the high diversity of shallow water fauna in the broader Coral Triangle region.”

Circle of students.

A circle of students show their wrist bands with the message Duta Samudra, proclaiming them "Ocean Ambassadors” after their pledges to learn about, protect and teach others about the ocean.

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(Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX-SATAL 2010)

As part of this mission, NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) and its Indonesian partners led multiple education-focused activities. Students in Indonesia and the U.S. could participate in educational activities designed for the mission and written in both Bahasa Indonesia and English. OER partnered with SeaWorld Indonesia where students pledged to become Duta Samudra, or Ocean Ambassadors, and learn about, protect, and teach someone about their ocean every day. The Exploratorium in San Francisco also brought the excitement of the expedition to onsite visitors and others around the world through telepresence and webcasts.

The joint ocean expedition began June 23 and concluded on August 14 when NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer left Indonesian waters after conducting weeks of complimentary operations with the Indonesian Research and Fisheries Vessel Baruna Jaya IV. On July 18 the Baruna Jaya IV joined the Okeanos Explorer in the expedition, collecting biological samples and mapping nearly 21,000 square miles of sea floor.

Working together, the two ships demonstrated the power of the U.S. – Indonesia ocean exploration partnership. Neither ship alone could have accomplished what the two have done together. The 2010 expedition is the first in a multi-year partnership to explore Indonesia’s seas and part of a broader agreement between NOAA and the Indonesian Ministry for Marine Affairs and Fisheries to work as partners toward resolving ocean-related issues that affect us all.

Scleractinian hard coral.

In the closing ceremony in Bitung Indonesia. Representing friendship and scientific cooperation between ships and nations, Commanding Officer of NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer Joe Pica, and Master of the Indonesian Research and Fisheries Vessel Amir Anshori exchanged pennants that were flown on each vessel and signed by crew members.

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(Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX‐SATAL 2010)

At the conclusion of the expedition, leaders from NOAA and Indonesia agencies joined the crews of both ships, as well as other invited guests in a celebration where teams from both countries exchanged data collected, as well as large pennants signed by each of the teams that both ships had flown during the mission. Leaders from both agencies expressed a strong desire to explore together again in the years ahead as part of this multi-year partnership.

 NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer is jointly operated, managed and maintained by NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (which includes commissioned officers of the NOAA Corps and civilian wage mariners), and by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, which is responsible for operating all of the cutting-edge mission systems. The ship is the only federal ship dedicated to systematic exploration of the planet’s largely unknown ocean.

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