Exploring Gulf of Mexico Deep-Sea Habitats


Operation Deep Scope is a mission to study the fantastic life forms of four alien landscapes in the Gulf of Mexico up to 3,000 feet deep. A Harbor Branch-led international team of scientists will be using the most advanced array of imaging tools ever deployed in the deep sea with the goal of revealing never before seen animals, behaviors, and phenomena. Journalists are invited to tour the ship and submersible before departure.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Office of Ocean Exploration, which was created to investigate the oceans for the purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge, is funding the expedition.

Deep Scope will take place aboard Harbor Branch's Seward Johnson II research vessel and the Johnson-Sea-Link I (JSLI) submersible. Besides Harbor Branch scientists, the expedition will include researchers from Duke University; the University of Queensland, Australia; the Whitney Lab of the University of Florida; the University of Ulm, Germany; and Physical Science, Inc., in Andover, Mass.

"This is the first time we've ever been able to assemble a team like this, with such a range of tools," says Dr. Edith Widder, expedition co-leader and head of Harbor Branch's Biophotonics Center, "It's a dream come true."

The explorations will begin at Desoto Canyon where the team will study unexplored deepwater pinnacles about 120 miles south of Pensacola that support a diverse range of animals. Next they will visit a spectacular deepwater coral reef at a site known as Viosca Knoll. The third site is a community of clams and worms that rely on methane-eating bacteria for nutrition. The worms are plentiful around the seeps and attract a number of predators such as fish and deep-sea sharks. Finally, the group will travel to a bizarre site 150 miles southeast of New Orleans known as the Brine Pool. There, salt deposits in the seafloor dissolve to create water so dense that it forms a shallow lake 2,100 feet below the ocean's surface.

The team will study the chemical-based bioluminescent light most deep-sea animals produce, as well as the fluorescent light also given off by many marine animals. Other tasks will include measuring the amount and types of light found in the deep sea, as well as how the eyes of deep-sea animals allow them to see the faint light found in their dark home.

Scientists are confident that the deep sea still holds numerous secrets, in part because of severe limitations with conventional techniques. Submersibles and remotely operated vehicles can scare away most mobile life with their bright lights and loud noises, while nets allow countless animals to swim away unseen and shred slower, softer animals. For this expedition, the team will be relying mainly on innovative camera systems to avoid the conventional pitfalls

"We're absolutely certain that we're still missing a great deal," says Dr. Widder, "There's just no telling what we'll be able to find using these new techniques. That's the best part of exploration - discovering something totally new and unexpected. It just doesn't get any better than that."

© 2005, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution