Despite being frequently encountered by scientists aboard the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, E/V Nautilus, and other exploration vessels, much is left to learn about corals and sponges. Both are sessile (non-moving) organisms, serve as vital resources for other marine life, and can indicate the health of oceanic ecosystems. Learn more about these fascinating animals below!
Corals exhibit some plant-like characteristics, but are actually animal relatives of jellyfish and anemones. They are all within the phylum Cnidaria. All corals are classified as either “hard corals” or “soft corals”. Hard corals have a limestone skeleton, and make up the foundation of a coral reef. They can take a rounded, branching, or flat appearance. Soft corals bind together on a softer structure, and can take the shapes of whips, spirals, and trees. Hard corals can grow as much as ten centimeters per year, the same rate of growth as human hair, but most only grow up to three centimeters each year. Soft corals grow at a rate of two to four centimeters per year. When a coral reef is damaged by a storm, pollution, or by other factors, it may take a significant amount of time before it is able to recover and grow to its former size.
All corals are comprised of polyp colonies. Many reef-building corals with access to sunlight also share a symbiotic relationship with a single-celled algae called zooxanthellae. The zooxanthellae live within the polyps and produce organic material, most of which is transferred back to the coral tissue (providing energy to the coral). In return, the waste produced by the coral feeds the zooxanthellae, and the coral’s structure also provides them with shelter. Some corals feed directly via their polyps, using their tentacles to extend out and grab prey (typically microscopic zooplankton) from the water column. To reproduce, groups of corals may simultaneously spawn gametes into the water column; larvae drift and develop until they find a place to settle. Other corals are able to bud off polyps to begin new colonies, or even regrow from a severed branch.
In contrast to corals, sponges are the simplest multicellular animal, and one of the most ancient animals on Earth. They dominate the phylum Porifera, and have existed for over 500 million years. Most sponges typically have a skeleton of limestone, silica, or collagen. These skeletons are made up of small, fiber-like spicules which often aid scientists in identifying species. Unlike most animals, sponges are asymmetrical, and this varied shape optimizes water flow through passages in their bodies. Some sponges are even stalked, with their bodies elevated above the seafloor. This is more often the case for deep-sea sponges, rather than those in shallower, more turbulent waters.
The small currents created by a sponge’s body allows it to draw in plankton and other organic material from the surrounding waters. These materials then get caught inside the sponge’s fibrous body and are digested. Sponges can even be carnivorous, using hook-like protrusions to capture prey and secrete enzymes to break down the nutrients. The growth of sponges is highly dependent on the amount and quality of available nutrients, although they generally grow at a higher rate than corals. To reproduce, some sponges produce larvae which develop within their bodies. When ready to reproduce, the larvae will exit the sponge to drift for a short period before anchoring themselves to the seafloor substrate. Some sponges are even able to release chemicals that inhibit the growth of other sponge cells in their vicinity. Since sponges are sessile organisms, this strategy allows them to prevent space and food competition with other sponges settling in the same area. Similar to coral, severed portions of a sponge may also be able to regrow if they are reattached to the substrate.
Corals and sponges can each be precious resources for humans. Precious corals are vital to national economies all over the world, as they are harvested for fertilizer, consumption, and even jewelry. While sponges are also utilized for some of the same purposes, some scientists believe their potential can be expanded to aid in the fight against cancer. The composition of the growth-prohibiting chemicals some sponges secrete may lead scientists to a breakthrough in cancer research, since these sponges are able to kill other cells of the same species without harming their own cells. These innovations are just a few reasons to continue investigating these amazing creatures!
We are pleased to announce the launch of our Northwest Passage Project’s website, www.northwestpassageproject.org. The Northwest Passage Project (NPP), an innovative science and education initiative that includes an expedition into the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project will engage intergenerational cohorts of high school, undergraduate, and graduate students in hands-on research exploring the changing Arctic and collecting data.
The NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer has recently started another expedition exploring the waters off of Apia, Samoa, in the western Pacific Ocean. Live-streamed through ISC’s Mission Control, NOAA’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) will take place throughout the cruise, March 7- March 29. Baseline data will be collected on deep-water ecosystems in and around U.S. marine protected areas in the central and western Pacific. Be sure to follow along and tune into what should be some amazing exploration opportunities.
Registration is now open for the ISC’s Summer 2017 session of Ocean Science Exploration Camp! This year’s camp will take place from June 26th through 30th, 2017, and will focus on geological oceanography. During this week- long day camp, campers will conduct field investigations and apply scientific techniques to sample sediments, survey beaches, and investigate how coastal RI habitats differ and may be changing. Register for camp on the ISC Camps page.
Northwest Passage Project
The Inner Space Center (ISC) Associate Director Gail Scowcroft is the Principal Investigator and Project Director for the groundbreaking Northwest Passage Project (NPP), which will explore the dramatically changing Arctic by taking a team of natural and social scientists, students, and a professional film crew into the Canadian Arctic’s Northwest Passage during August 2017. The expedition team, including ISC staff members, will make the five-week journey aboard the Newport-based SSV Oliver Hazard Perry, the first full-rigged sailing ship to sail into the Passage in over a century.
Through exploration at sea and on land, the team will conduct groundbreaking ocean science research in a region that is now experiencing unprecedented environmental change, while actively engaging 35 graduate, undergraduate, and high school students in hands-on research activities. The project’s activities and findings will be shared with diverse audiences through real-time interactions, an ultra-high definition, two-hour documentary to be broadcast by a major television venue, and related community events. The project’s goal is to increase public understanding of the environmental and social consequences due to Arctic climate change; inform decision makers who influence policy development and action; and inspire students to become the next generation of scientists who will help lead efforts to ensure a more sustainable and prosperous future. Links to the live programs from the Arctic will be shared this summer. To learn more about the different science activities planned for the NPP expedition, please go here.
To learn more about the expedition, project partners, and more, please visit the Northwest Passage Project website. For project updates, please be sure to follow the ISC on social media (#NWPproject).
In April 2016, the ISC team worked with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to help investigators find the data recorder of the El Faro cargo ship that sunk during Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015. Transcripts from the El Faro‘s voyage data recorder (VDR; similar to an airplane’s black “box”) have been released by the NTSB. The VDR’s recording covers the last hours of the voyage and reveal what happened on the El Faro during its final moments. The ISC was integral in the discovery of the VDR, installing cutting-edge telepresence technologies on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s research vessel (RV), Atlantis. These efforts werepraised by federal investigators. 60 Minutes recently released a piece, “Voices of the Lost”, which tells the story of the El Faro’s unfortunate encounter with Hurricane Joaquin, the NTSB’s efforts to locate and decode the VDR, and the what the recordings revealed. The piece is available on the 60 Minutes website.
The NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer has been very active as it starts its 2017 exploration season. In conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, HI, the ship conducted a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dive on two Japanese mini submarines. Highlights of the dive are available on the Okeanos Explorer website. The historic dive was also broadcast live on USA Today and ABC News. Additional images of the dive are available on NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries website.
After initial shakedown cruises off Honolulu, HI, the ship then sailed to explore the waters surrounding American Samoa, a U.S. territory covering seven South Pacific islands and atolls. Data and information from this expedition will fill gaps in knowledge about the deep-sea habitats in the region and improve overall understanding of the deep-sea biogeography of the Central Pacific. American Samoa lies at the boundary between major biogeographic provinces, and thus is a key area to understand the biodiversity transitions that occur in the deep Pacific Ocean. It is also an extremely important area for deepwater circulation. During the first part of the American Samoa Expedition, from February 16 – March 2, 2017, many amazing discoveries
American Samoa Expedition, from February 16 – March 2, 2017, many amazing discoveries were made including the siting of a new species of cookie brittle star, an unusual stalked crinoid, and even a “living fossil”. The team discovered a living specimen of monoplacaphora mollusk, a species of snail that scientists had never seen alive.
The second leg of this expedition will be a mapping leg to create images of the sea floor, and will take place in April 2017.
The OkeanosExplorer’s has begun its next expedition, “Discovering the Deep: Exploring Remote Pacific Marine Protected Areas”, which will take place from March 7 – 29, 2017. The goal of this expedition is to collect critical baseline information about unknown and poorly known deep-water areas in the Howland and Baker Unit of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM) and the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). Live footage from the ROV dives are streamed through the homepage of the ISC website as well as the NOAA Okeanos Explorer website. To learn about all, planned Okeanos Explorer activities for 2017, please read the ISC’s latest Okeanos article.
The E/V Nautiluswill begin their 2017 expedition season this spring off of Southern California. Until then, catch up on all of their highlights on nautiluslive.org.
Registration is now open for the ISC’s Summer 2017 session of Ocean Science Exploration Camp. This year’s camp will take place from June 26-30, 2017, at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography in Narragansett, RI, and will focus on geological oceanography.
Geological oceanography is the study of the sea floor, including its composition, structures, and history. Geological oceanographers study processes of the ocean to discover how the Earth and oceans were formed and how ongoing processes may change them in the future. They examine the ocean from the deepest depths to the shallow coasts, including beaches, estuaries, and rivers. New underwater mountains, seamounts, vents, and seeps are discovered during geological oceanography research expeditions. These undersea features are home to many kinds of marine life.
For more information about this summer’s Ocean Science Exploration Camp program and registration details, please visit the ISC Camps webpage.
ISC Education Program Spotlight: “The Unknown Ocean”
The ocean covers nearly 71% of the Earth, yet approximately only 10% of the ocean has been explored.
Scientists are continuing to explore the ocean’s biology, geology, chemistry, physics, and history. This program covers the tools and technologies that scientists use to explore the deep ocean, how animals have adapted to survive in extreme ocean environments, and the technology used to investigate the deep sea. Through videos, demonstrations, and conversations with scientists, participants will go on a journey into the unknown ocean.
All ISC education programs align with the U.S. Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), as well as the Ocean Literacy Principles and Fundamental Concepts. ISC education programs can be booked at the ISC, at your site, or virtually (online).
If this program interests you, take advantage of our “monthly spotlight special.” If you book a The Unknown Ocean program in the month of March (actual program does not have to occur in March) you will receive a 15% discount.
Special Programs with the Girl Scouts of Southern New England
The ISC continues to offer ocean science education programs through the Girl Scouts of Southern New England (GSSNE). Programming will continue through June with topics to include hurricane science and forecasting; plankton biology and ecology; and ocean exploration. Individual girls, or whole troops, can register for these programs. Specific dates and registration details are available through GSSNE website.
This month’s #TBT video takes a look at an uncommon creature found during a NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer ROV dive last month. Scientists were intrigued by this dandelion siphonophore found on the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument (American Samoa). It could be a new species!
It’s been another eventful year here at the Inner Space Center (ISC)! We outfitted two research vessels and a merchant vessel with telepresence technologies, and supported over 100 days of telepresence on the E/V Nautilus, and on the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. Our services facilitated the investigation the El Faro shipwreck, supported a 5-year study of submerged tribal cultural sites in Rhode Island Sound, and enabled the first ever telepresence broadcast from a manned submarine! During the summer, we hosted the next generation of deep-sea scientists at ISC Mission Control as they participated in a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) dive-planning boot-camp. Meanwhile, the Nautilus and Okeanos Explorer continued their ground-breaking deep sea explorations of offshore California, and the Marianas region. Continue reading 2016 – A Year in Review→
On December 7th, 2016, the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer dove on two Japanese mini-subs that sank 75 years earlier, during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The USS Ward fired the first shot of the Pacific War, sinking this submarine 90 minutes before the air raid on Pearl Harbor. This attack marked the introduction of the United States into World War 2. Highlights from the dives on these submarines can be viewed below:
The NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer‘s 2017 field season will kick off January 18, 2017, with a mapping expedition from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Pago Pago, American Samoa. This field season marks the third year of CAPSTONE, the Campaign to Address Pacific Monument Science, Technology, and Ocean Needs. The goal of which project is to collect data necessary to support science-based decision making for marine protected areas (MPAs) in the central and western Pacific.Continue reading New Year, New Field Season!→
Completed on July 10th, leg three of the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer‘s EX1605 expedition was chock-full of discoveries. The Okeanos‘s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) conducted 22 dives, exploring many recently-mapped sites in the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument (MTMNM). They ventured where no ROVs have dove before.
Ship-based sonar mapping, along with ROV imaging and rock sampling, revealed new hydrothermal vent sites, deep-water coral reefs, the first petit-spot volcano found in US waters, and a new mud volcano in the MTMNM.
Amid the geological findings, biologists cataloged many new species. The pictures and videos below highlight some of the newly-discovered inner-space aliens (strange alien-looking creatures) from leg three of the Okeanos Explorer‘s EX1605 expedition.
This cusk eel, found at Unnamed Forearc on June 28th, 2016, was among the first new species discovered during this leg of the expedition.
This ghost-like fish, dubbed “Casper” by land-based scientists, is a species in the fish family Aphonoidae. Until June 30th, 2016, when the ROVs came across Casper, no fish in this family have ever been seen alive.
After a long geology-based dive, the ROVs came upon this undescribed species of Pachycara, commonly called eelpout.
The scientists wished they had enough time to collect this new species of hard sponge that they discovered on July 6, 2016.
But, they were able to collect this new species of stalked glass sponge!
For more ocean exploration and discoveries be sure to check out the Nautilus Live website for updates from the E/V Nautilus! Situated of the California coast, the Nautilus is currently (pun intended) mapping and conducting dives off the Channel Islands.
If the ocean is so unfathomably wide and deep, how can scientists possibly hope to do any more than dip our noses beneath the waves to explore? Luckily, engineers have adapted machines to reach areas of the ocean that would never be possible with a human alone. This is where remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, become essential tools of discovery.
To use an ROV, three pieces of technology are crucial. The first is the ship. This is where the scientists are conducting their research, and where the ROV pilot maneuvers the vehicle. The second piece is the tow sled. This piece of technology is used to absorb all of the movement associated with waves and currents, allowing the ROV to be stable. Lastly, is the ROV itself. The ROV and sled are tethered to their research vessel via fiber optic cabling. Through this system, the pilot can maneuver the ROV safely from the ship.
ROVs are designed to withstand the extreme cold and pressure of the deep ocean without malfunction. They are typically either colored yellow or white to stand out against the blues of the ocean, and are built out of materials that are resistant to many atmospheres of compression. ROVs are also balanced with the dense components on the underside, and the flotation portion on top, to offer more stability as it traverses the deep ocean. ROVs can also be equipped with a variety of tools to help them explore efficiently. Since the ocean continually gets darker the deeper one goes, all ROVs are equipped with extremely bright lights. Each ROV has a few high definition cameras that allows us to watch the ROV. They also have two lasers that are used for scale, generally they are 10 cm apart. Most vehicles have biofeedback manipulator arms that are used to gather samples. Some vehicles have a sample box to take bring samples up to the surface for more research.
These incredible machines are vital for scientists to explore parts of the ocean that would not otherwise be seen by human eyes. Tune into the live video feeds below to see ROVs in action, along with more exciting content!
75 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer will be diving live on two Japanese mini submarines. Join us on December 7, 2016 to witness the first ever live broadcast of the exploration of the wreck site.