Titanic Explorer Roams the Deeps Off Bodega Bay

Towering dark storm clouds moving in over the Pacific surf with rain, while sunlight shines through a hole in the sky.

Thirteen years ago, he made history by filming the sunken RMS Titanic where it lay broken on the Atlantic seabed.  Since then, he’s dived in nearly every ocean on the planet. On a good day he can swim for 24 hours, but at two tons, he needs help getting out of the water.  His associates call him Hercules. This month Hercules, the bright yellow remotely operated diving vehicle, was in the Pacific off Sonoma County, to explore, for the first time, the deep-water life in the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 6 miles west of Bodega Bay.scaledROV HERCULES SUNSET TETHER

For ROV Hercules, that meant commuting an hour and half to work, nearly six thousand feet beneath the rolling ocean swells.  With two flexible arms, dazzling lights, video cameras and a long, long tether, Hercules was designed to go where humans cannot, to peer into the unknown.


 

On a clear day when the fog lifts you can see the Cordell Bank Marine Sanctuary from shore, from either Bodega Head or Point Reyes.  On the surface, it’s an unremarkable patch of blue ocean.  But swim 115 feet down, and you’ll find a submerged rocky island, nine miles long and four wide, teeming with fish and a riot of other colorful marine life.

The shallow bank is actually the peak of an underwater mountain sitting in what scientists call a biological hotspot. Surrounded by deep, steep walled canyons, the rocky seamount perches on the very edge of the continental shelf, Underwater topography showing miles deep canyon and Cordell Bankwhich falls away in a vertical cliff another two miles down.

No sunlight can penetrate that deep, so the walls and bottom are in permanent blackness, the water is nearly as cold as ice, and the sheer weight of the ocean above creates crushing pressure, nearly five thousand pounds per square inch.

That’s equivalent to two fully loaded 747 jumbo jets sitting on your chest.

Up on the surface, for each of the six days Hercules was diving, marine biologist Gary Williams had the midnight to 4 AM watch in the dive control room of the parent ship, EV Nautilus. Williams, a specialist in corals and Curator of Invertebrate Zoology of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, was one of a handful of local scientists working on board the Nautilus for the groundbreaking survey.

On watch, their focus was locked on the wide screen color displays as Hercules inched through deep sea canyons and hovered along sheer vertical walls.  Part of their goal was to see what, if anything, lived here, and spot and collect samples of creatures scientists had never seen before.

CONTROL VAN BACK ROW
Control console aboard EV Nautilus during Hercules' dive.

The crew of the Nautilus aren’t strangers to the deep ocean. The Corp of Explorers, as they’re officially known, belong to the Ocean Exploration Trust organization, founded and chaired by Dr. Robert Ballard, the charismatic marine scientist who first found the Titanic. An outspoken advocate for ocean exploration, Ballard has advanced the design and use of remote diving vehicles like his Hercules for just that purpose. 

“Fifty percent of our country, our legal territory lies beneath the sea, and we have better maps of Mars than that fifty percent”.

Dr. Robert Ballard

And that was the reason Nautilus and her crew were offshore this month: to go into the unknown deeps of the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary.  Cordell is one of 14 federally designated ocean sites in United States territory, set aside to protect unique sea life and habitat from commercial exploitation and damage, and for scientific study.  The Cordell Bank sanctuary was established in 1989 following years of community activism, and then expanded by President Obama in 2015. Today it encompasses 1200 square miles, much of it unexplored.

Hercules’ white lights can pierce about fifteen feet of seawater, depending on how clear the water is.  In the dim control room onboard Nautilus, rolling in swells high above on the surface, Hercules’ pilot, navigator, engineers and scientific team watch and maneuver their craft with patient, deliberate adjustments. They have a very tight schedule to keep, because bottom time is extremely limited.

NAUTILUS DeckOps ROV Hercules OnCrane
Deck operations on EV Nautilus, hoisting ROV Hercules at twilight. With limited time, exploration continues around the clock.

“We’re barely scratching the surface”, Williams says. On this trip, Hercules will spend barely 76 hours on the bottom.  For scale, that’s like trying to explore Yosemite National Park, which is the same size, in absolute darkness, on foot, with a flashlight, in just three days.  

So what’s special about Cordell Bank?  Jennifer Stock, the enthusiastic Outreach Coordinator for the Marine Sanctuary, answers that question a lot from her headquarters at Point Reyes. Jennifer was also one of the lucky few pulling watch on board the Nautilus during Hercules’ dives.

 

Cordell is unique, Stock says, because of its position on the lip of the continental shelf, and the dynamics of the Pacific Ocean there. The seamount sits in the flow of the California current. Every spring, up on the surface, the prevailing winds blow strong, and drive the surface water away from the shore. That draws in water from far deep below, pulling it up and over the bank.

Schools of colorful fish and marine life near the surface of Cordell Bank

Near the sunlit surface, above Cordell Bank, a riot of colorful marine life and schools of fish thrive.  The incredible abundance of sealife here results from the upwelling of rich nutrients from the inky black deeps that surround the bank.

Photo: Joe Hoyt CBNMS NOAA

“That seawater, upwelling from the depths, is loaded with organic nutrients”, she explains. “Currents spread it like fertilizer in the water creating a bloom of life, particularly small marine planktons, and teeming numbers of tiny shrimp called krill”. The clouds of krill are the favorite dining choice for a wide diversity of life, including ocean-going salmon, blue and grey whales.

Along Cordell Bank the bloom supports more than 240 species of fish – 40 species of rockfish alone. All that sea life attracts predators, including seabirds, sharks and dolphins, and even the giant sunfish called moa. Leatherback turtles and black footed albatross make their way here from thousands of miles across the Pacific for the annual feast.  More than 25 species of marine mammal frequent the bank.

And remarkably, this is one of only four locations on the planet where such major upwelling events occur.

The cycle of abundance in Sonoma coastal waters also feeds the local onshore economy, Stock notes, with rich fisheries of salmon, crab and other seafood.

On this trip, the Nautilus team guide Hercules down deep to where the upwelling starts, into giant Bodega Canyon, and down along the steep cliff of the continental shelf, to the bottom. It’s an otherworldly place. Fine drifting white specks are reflected by Hercules’ lights in the blackness.

“We call it ‘marine snow’”, coral specialist Williams says. The tiny flakes are actually bits of organic material and the remains of creatures that have died, falling in constant slow motion from up above. The rich snow is the primary source of food for life further down. And that’s what Williams hopes to find.

Before the dive, no one is sure what Hercules might encounter. But as the flat screens reveal glimpses of life, what appears draws oohs and ahhs and a flurry of excitement in the control room. 

Amidst the drab grey mud and silt, Hercules’ wandering pool of light illuminates strange and beautifully delicate creatures. Pink rock prawns, bright yellow sponges, swimming flatfish and catsharks, spider-like orange crabs, the long feathery fans of sea pens, small tan octopus and brittle sea stars, finely branched outcrops of white and pink corals come into and pass out of view. 

It’s amazing how much life there is, so far beyond the reach of sunlight.

bamboo coral polyps nautilus aug2017
Bamboo coral lit by Hercules lights, more than a mile beneath the surface.

To William’s delight, the corals are particularly successful.  Corals, he explains, are an ancient type of animal, closely related to jellyfish and anemones. All corals, for protection, construct a hard exoskeleton around their delicate, tentacled polyps. They assume fantastic shapes, sizes and colors, and anchor the coral colony to rocky outcrops, while extending them into the currents which carry food. The polyps emerge to feed, looking something like flowers on delicate branches.

“When most people think of coral,” Williams says, “they’re thinking of the hard reef corals found in shallow tropical seas. But they only account for about 15 percent of known corals. Nearly 85 percent of all corals don’t build reefs, but actually live in the deep ocean.”

And in the oceans, Williams stresses, deep water corals play a critical role we’re only just beginning to appreciate. Corals are the nurseries of the sea. Their hard, anchored structures provide safe harbors where fish and other sea life can lay their eggs, protected from hungry predators ever on the prowl for a meal.  Without them, the population of fish around the world would suffer.

“When most people think of coral,” Williams says, “they’re thinking of the hard reef corals found in shallow tropical seas. But they only account for about 15 percent of known corals. Nearly 85 percent of all corals don’t build reefs, but actually live in the deep ocean.”

Gary Williams, Coral Specialist

Using Hercules’ flexible arms and skilled pilot, Williams manages to collect dozens of coral samples from the Marine Sanctuary. Many, he suspects, may be entirely new to science.  Given their link to fisheries and ocean health, understanding corals may be critical not only to protecting marine habitats, but humans as well. Small changes in ocean temperature, disrupted currents, acidity, or oxygen levels – effects we’re now witnessing due to climate change – can impact the health of corals in the sea.

That’s another reason marine scientists are eager to explore and study regions like the Cordell Bank, and why their protection is needed, according to Stock.  The Trump administration ordered a review of the Cordell Sanctuary expansion and 10 others approved by President Obama in 2015, and there’s concern they may lose their protected status.

“17,000 years ago, when the last ice age covered much of North America, the sea level off California was three hundred feet lower” Stock explains. “Then, Cordell Bank was a mountain on a coastal prairie.  Rivers draining to the sea left canyons”.  Then, when the glaciers melted, the sea rose and covered it all. 

Today, scientists are engaged in monitoring new changes in the ocean along the California coast, as warming and rising seas begin to alter the delicate balance of currents, life and their interwoven relationships. 

After a week in Northern California, Hercules and his team steamed northward, towards yet another unexplored stretch of ocean.

ROV Hercules Suspended scaled 2

Top photograph: Stephen Nett.    All other photographs credit “OET/Nautilus Live” and as noted.

A version of this article was first published in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat 2017

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