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Day 1: Setting Sail to Explore Deep-Sea Worlds in the Atlantic

Brad Sewell

Posted September 30, 2012

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Today I’ll be heading further out to sea than any fishing trip I’ve been on. Like about 200 miles further.  


I’m about to set out on the 125-foot Scarlett Isabella (above) with team of scientists and engineers from the Waitt Institute, the University of Connecticut, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to undertake the first ecological investigation of two Atlantic seamounts, two of just four seamounts in U.S. Atlantic waters. We will then explore several nearby “submarine” canyons that cut into the southern flank of Georges Bank southeast of Cape Cod, again cataloging for the first time the life at the bottom of these ocean features. 

Seamounts and submarine canyons typically teem with all types of marine life – from vast schools of squid and mackerel to whales, tunas, and sharks – because of strong localized currents and upwellings that bring in and trap food (and sweep away wastes). The rocky walls and crevices of seamounts and canyons are frequently home to rare deep sea corals, some of which have been growing for hundreds, even thousands of years, in depths from several hundred to several thousand feet, splashes of color beyond sunlight’s reach.    

This trip came about when the Waitt Institute contacted NRDC last spring to discuss the possibility of using the Waitt Institute’s state-of-the-art AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles) to assist NRDC’s efforts to protect the sensitive resources of the Atlantic canyons and seamounts. The Waitt AUVs are submersible vehicles equipped with cameras, multi-beam and sidescan sonar, and other data collecting equipment, and the Waitt Institute had previously used them to look for deep sea corals off the South Atlantic coast. NRDC reached out to University of Connecticut’s Peter Auster, an expert on marine habitats, including specifically deep sea corals, who agreed to serve as the science lead. An expedition plan was drawn up and fleshed out, with our focus to be on the two seamounts and several canyons to the east of recent NOAA expeditions (just this week, NOAA announced they had discovered new hotspots of corals in these more western canyons).  Meanwhile, Waitt worked with WHOI on the equipment engineering. A suitable vessel was secured when Boston Harbor Cruises agreed to provide the Scarlett Isabella. And now this team is setting out to explore the depths of the Atlantic.  

Below is a photo of Mary Anne, one of the two Waitt AUVs, waiting to be brought on board.


Roughly 20 hours after we set out, I will be on top of Physalia seamount, the first of the two seamounts we will visit. The AUVs will come out of the steel vans on the deck in which they are serviced and housed when not in the water, and they will be lifted into the sea to start the expedition’s maiden “flight” (an AUV is said to “fly” through the water). 

The Atlantic canyons and seamounts remain frontiers – of our scientific knowledge and our imagination. We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about these places.  Physalia seamount – a craggy peak rising 10,000 feet up from the ocean floor – has its ecosystem, driven by complex currents around and over it. Tomorrow, scientists get their first look at it. 

I’ll continue to blog over the course of the ship’s two week exploration of these deep sea worlds. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

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Gib BroganSep 30 2012 12:11 PM

Brad, this is excellent and lets me follow along from my living room. Does the ship have AIS that allows us to follow your course on

Tomos MitchellSep 30 2012 12:45 PM

This is phenomenally exciting! Very jealous, good luck!

susan harnischSep 30 2012 08:16 PM

But does the sonar damage any sea life? And at all? If any life can "hear it", it can be damaging.

David StevensonOct 1 2012 04:43 PM

Hi Brad...I thought you were a lawyer! Keep us all posted and I hope the food and the weather are good. Tell Peter the Council almost decided on their own last week that there would be two habitat research sites - and where they should be - but we managed to delay action until after the next Habitat Comm meeting. And, as you probably know by now, they approved splitting DSC out as a separate action.

John HocevarOct 1 2012 05:16 PM

Great stuff!

Let's compare notes when you are back - there will no doubt be some good lessons we can share from our respective efforts, and there's a good chance that we can find ways to collaborate.

John Hocevar
Oceans Campaign Director
Greenpeace USA

Michelle BachmanOct 2 2012 08:41 AM

Hope you all have a successful cruise - I look forward to seeing the pictures!

Brad SewellOct 2 2012 03:24 PM

Gib: My understanding is that you should be able to follow the ship (the Scarlett Isabella) through AIS.

Brad SewellOct 2 2012 04:55 PM

Susan: NRDC recognizes the importance of reducing ocean noise and has been at the forefront of efforts to curb the impacts of manmade sound in the ocean. We are using side scan sonar for this effort, which is much less intense and at a higher frequency than the mid-frequency sonar systems that the Navy uses and sounds far less often. Because of the speed the AUVs are travelling, it is also transient in the environment. The information we learn from this expedition will allow us to protect these areas from sound sources like airguns that are used by the oil and gas industry that have far greater potential for causing harm to marine life.

Stu ClarkOct 4 2012 11:25 PM

I envy you the trip. The scientific possibilities are enormous, and being out on the water is always great for me. Hope you also have a great time and that you have good weather. Seward, Alaska is on Resurrection Bay, which has a miniature seamount that we passed over unexpectedly one day: 14 fathoms below us in the fjord that is 158 fathoms deep at that point. Having it show up on the depth finder was exciting. The fishing at that point was always excellent.

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