Although it is widely known that, at 8,800 meters (or nearly 29,000 feet), the waters around Puerto Rico are the deepest in the Atlantic Ocean and among the 10 deepest in the world, little was known about what lives in those depths — until recently.
Between February and April of this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducted an ambitious expedition, “Océano Profundo 2015: Exploring Puerto Rico’s Seamounts, Trenches, and Troughs,” around the island’s waters.
Crew and team members lived aboard the organization’s ship, Okeanos Explorer, and were charged with the task of exploring “largely uncharted deep-sea ecosystems,” mostly via remote operated vehicles. High-definition videos from the expedition, which were live-streamed, were thrilling — not only because of the real-time discoveries made and reported to viewers, but because the underwater terrain is mysterious and dangerous due to tectonic plate activity that makes the area earthquake- and tsunami-prone.
Over the course of the 52-day expedition, scientists explored the Puerto Rico Trench, Muertos Trough, Mona Passage, and the Virgin Islands Trough.
“Many of the places that [were visited], no one has observed with direct observation before,” intoned a voice in one of the videos. Scientists narrating the daily dives could barely conceal their excitement upon seeing a variety of marine species for the first time.
“Cool sea star; I’ve never seen it,” said one scientist. Another, presumably speaking from land, responded, “The last time it was seen was off Cuba; the only record [is] from around the late 19th-century. This is the first time this has been seen in probably a hundred years.”
“We don’t know much about the behavior of a lot of these deep sea organisms,” said another voice in one of the videos, “so using tools such as these deep-sea submersibles… [helps us] learn so much about [organisms’] behavior and real-life coloration. Before these technologies, people would send down dredges and trowels and back traps and bring up organisms to the surface and a lot of times they were damaged.”
The remote-operated vehicles allowed scientists to descend to depths of approximately 6,000 meters and to observe organisms without damaging them or their habitat.
What made Océano Profundo especially important was the fact that nearly all of the expedition images and data collected were open-source, available to anyone who wanted to follow along at home. Members of the research team reached an even wider audience with their Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), and, in an important gesture that expanded the reach of the expedition further still, researchers from NOAA ensured that materials were available online in Spanish, too.
The findings from Océano Profundo are important for what they say about environmental conservation. In one expedition video, the team finds a section of the ocean floor littered with trash. A canteen, a cup, and other garbage are observed, and though researchers refrain from making any finger-wagging “Don’t litter” statements, the amount of trash underscores the importance of marine habitat protection, which is especially vital in Puerto Rico.
Earlier NOAA reports indicated that the island’s more accessible coral reefs have been “badly degraded” in recent years by a cluster of threats, including “accelerated urban and industrial development on the coast combined with a lack of effective coastal zone management.”
Hyperdevelopment on the small island has had devastating effects on the marine ecosystem, with “massive clearing of mangroves, dredging of rivers for sand and harbors, runoff from large-scale agricultural developments, deforestation in large watersheds, raw sewage disposal, and building of power plants” all pointed to as factors contributing to coral reef damage. NOAA cited oil spills, large cargo ships anchoring, overfishing, poorly controlled or supervised recreational activities and the military bombing of the islands of Vieques and Culebra as other culprits.
NOAA anticipates that the “critical deep-water environmental data” collected “will improve ecosystem understanding and inform federal and local resource managers” on the island. All of the videos from the expedition are collected here.