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Life in the Deep Gulf of Mexico—Exploring Deep-Water-Coral Habitats

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map of north-central Gulf of Mexico
Above: Map showing locations of undersea features named in text.

Below: An enlarged, oblique view of West Flower Garden Bank. The oblique image, created from multibeam bathymetric data, is about 8 km across the bottom; circles show areas surveyed with the ROV in successive dives on September 27 and 28.

oblique view of West Flower Garden Bank created from multibeam bathymetric data

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Office of Exploration (OE) sponsored a recent cruise on the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown to explore deep-water-coral habitats (at depths ranging from about 200 to 2,000 ft) along the shelf edge and in canyons of the northern Gulf of Mexico, including sites previously mapped by USGS emeritus scientist Jim Gardner and others.

Some topographic features in the Gulf of Mexico have been identified as crucial spawning sites for commercially important fishes and reef-building deep-water corals. Cruise participants sought to learn more about the deep-water-coral systems and their inhabitants, whose abundance, extent, and diversity in the gulf are poorly understood.

A better understanding of these fragile and potentially valuable resources can assist management decisions in this region of extensive human activity.

The USGS participated in this cruise as part of its ongoing commitment to provide geologic-science support to NOAA in its characterization and management of the resources of national marine sanctuaries and other important habitats.

The cruise departed from Panama City, FL, on September 21 and ended in Gulfport, MS, on October 2, successfully navigating the difficult End-of-Fiscal-Year Passage. [Note to non-USGS readers: it is logistically complex to conduct field operations across the start of the Federal Government's new fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1.]

The primary device used for data collection was Sonsub's remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Innovator 12, a working-class ROV used primarily on offshore oil rigs and pipelines. Cruise personnel conducted 11 ROV dives at deep sites near Mississippi Canyon, Green Canyon, and Viosca Knoll and at shallower sites at Diaphus Bank and West Flower Garden Bank, as well as some multibeam bathymetric mapping.

remotely operated vehicle Innovator
The ROV Innovator 12 being lowered into the water to begin a dive. The cylinder on the top of the ROV is a detachable winch and housing that reels the ROV's control tether in and out; it is known as the tether-management system, or TMS.

Samples of fish, deep-sea corals, echinoderms, crustaceans, algae, mollusks, sponges, rocks, tube worms, water, and sediment were collected by using the ROV. The dives were documented by about 50 hours of video footage and several hundred still photographs and samples. The science plan was designed by personnel from the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) and the University of Alabama, Dauphin Island (DI).

Chief scientists were G.P. Schmahl (FGBNMS) and Will Schroeder (DI, not on board); John McDonough (OE) served as cruise coordinator. John Bratton (USGS, Woods Hole, MA) provided input on geologic framework of habitats, hard-substrate lithology, sedimentology, and influence of sea-level change on the systems.

Thirteen other scientists and science-support personnel participated, including Emma Hickerson (FGBNMS), Doug Weaver (FGBNMS), Mary Wicksten (Texas A&M University), Peter Etnoyer (Marine Conservation Biology Institute), Susanne Fredericq (University of Louisiana, Lafayette), Ron Hill (National Marine Fisheries Service, Galveston, TX), Julie Olson (University of Alabama), Sandra Brooke (Oregon Institute of Marine Biology), and Brett Phaneuf (Texas A&M University).

Staff from C&C Technologies, Inc., were responsible for underwater navigation.

Below left: The NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown just before leaving port in Panama City, FL.
remotely operated vehicle Innovator remotely operated vehicle Innovator
Above right: This video still image shows authigenic carbonate on the sea floor derived from cold seeps, and associated live tube worms. It was shot at a depth of about 1,800 ft at site GC354. The inset photograph shows a pair of chemosynthetic tube worms collected at the site. Tape measure is about 50 cm long.

Related Sound Waves Stories
CMG Multibeam Map Guides Sustainable Seas Exploration in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary
October 1999

Related Web Sites
Northern Gulf of Mexico Deep Sea Habitats Cruise
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Sea-Floor Mapping: Northwestern Gulf of Mexico
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Office of Ocean Exploration
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Innovator™ ROV
Sonsub Inc.

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in this issue: Fieldwork cover story:
Southern California Gas Hydrate Discovered

Gulf of Mexico Deep-Water Coral Habitats

Impacts of Hurricane Isabel

Research 2003 Hokkaido Earthquake and Tsunami

Outreach Marion County Springs Festival

Earth Science Week Exhibits

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Sally Ride Science Festival

Meetings Blacks in Government

Awards Estes Receives Meritorious Service Award

Maender Receives Communicator of the Year Award

Staff & Center News Marincioni Farewell

Publications November Publications List

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