Epic expedition leads to classification of new habitats and species

After over a month on an expedition to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area in the Central Pacific, Associate Professor of Biology Erik Cordes and his team have defined—for the first time in scientific history— the habitat zones of a seamount from the deep-sea all the way to the surface. Once thought only to be marine hazards, these undersea mountains are now understood to support and sustain a wide variety of marine life, including deep-sea coral gardens and reefs up to the more well-known shallow water reefs in sunlit waters near the surface. Along the way, Cordes’s team also discovered at least two new species of coral and crab.

The research cruise was supported by the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and took place on board the R/V Falkor, a vessel owned and operated by the Schmidt Ocean Institute. It took seventeen underwater dives in SuBastian, a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) equipped with “squishy fingers”, a new soft robotics technology for adaptive sampling, to conduct this research into deep-sea habitats.  Cordes has researched the ecology of the deep sea for more than 20 years, spent over a year at sea on 28 research cruises and made 40 dives in manned submersibles.

As the largest UNESCO World Heritage Site and closed to all commercial activities, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area is now home to a flourishing deep-water habitat. Cordes’s research focused on the rich biodiversity allowed to develop in this area without human interference.

“This journey was in the tradition of the grand research expeditions of the past,” said Cordes, who served as chief scientist on this expedition. “We traveled nearly 3,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean and explored a part of the world that has remained entirely hidden from view until now.”

Using the diving and camera technology on ROV SuBastian, Cordes was also able to capture one of the deepest sightings of mantis shrimp; and film deep coral reefs, dumbo octopuses, and six-gill sharks. Photos and videos of the dives can be seen on the team’s social media pages by following @CordesLab.

—Hannah Amadio