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Oceana Magazine Fall 2011: Exploring the Pacific

By Ashley Blacow and Will Race

A red octopus elegantly glides across the ocean bottom, retracting and uncurling its tentacles like delicate choreography of a water ballet. At one point it tethers its body to a rock, blending into the seascape, and uses its long tentacles to explore the nooks and crannies of nearby boulders. It finally releases and continues its hunt for food among vibrantly colored  coral colonies, sea anemones, a wolf eel and copper rockfish.

A dance that would have otherwise gone unseen is now captured forever, thanks to Oceana’s underwater cameras. This footage will help Oceana establish new policies to protect the West Coast’s marine ecosystems, many of which are still threatened by destructive bottom trawling.

Oceana used remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) and cameras to explore the ocean off of California, Oregon and Washington this summer.

High definition cameras captured surface and underwater footage, documented dozens of areas and supported Oceana’s efforts to protect these special places.

“We know that images like this can open minds and change policy,” said Susan Murray, Oceana’s senior Pacific director. “Many times, ocean surveys are done with trawls or dredges that collect plants, fish and animals, so you know what is there, but not how it all fits together.”

The three-part expedition kicked off in Monterey Bay, which is located in themiddle of the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem. This area is one of the most productive and diverse temperate marine ecosystems in the world.

Working aboard the research sailboat Derek M. Baylis, Oceana’s crew of divers and scientists was welcomed by a pod of orcas for nearly an hour as the orcas breached, allowing Oceana to photograph the animals’ distinct fin shapes and markings and to document a family group of three generations of the whales at one time.

Underwater, the ROV documented shale beds, rocky pinnacles, soft bottom and recently-created marine protected areas. The ROV captured pink gorgonian corals, rock walls blanketed in colorful strawberry anemones, sponges and other living habitat, all together home for several species and schools of colorful rockfishes.

“In my ten years of running ROVs, I have never seen this amount of diversity and abundance of corals and fish species in one place,” said Matthias Gorny, science director of Oceana in South America, who came to California to participate in the expedition.

Next, Oceana’s crew departed out of  Charleston, Oregon to study some of the most remote and rugged areas off Oregon’s southern coast. Aboard a converted fishing trawler, the R/V Miss Linda, Oceana documented the large area of rocky reef just south of Cape Arago. This kind of habitat is essential for abundant fish populations.

Once the ROV traveled to the large shale rocky reefs, the camera panned to a massive school of rockfish. The ROV flashed its lights and the deep green ocean shimmered with the silver from the rockfish underbellies. Minutes passed and more fish continued to swim past the camera, but as the ROV flickered once more the school took off in flash and was gone.

The expedition concluded in the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound, WA on the eco-catamaran, Gato Verde. In the swift currents of this area, keeping the ROV steady was difficult, yet Oceana’s crew was able to document the rocky walls and boulders in Andrew’s Bay. The bay is home to yellow branching sponges, large anemones, scallops, copper rockfish, quillback rockfish, kelp greenlings and more.

The ROV also captured images of biogenic reefs. These reefs are unique because they are created by old barnacle shells that have accumulated over long periods of time and in turn create an exceptional reef structure that becomes fish habitat.

The habitat provides shelter for small fish and brings in large predators like sharks. Oceana recorded a school of spiny dogfish sharks swimming back and forth in search of food around such a habitat.

Many of the areas Oceana explored are still open to bottom trawling, and others are threatened with efforts to re-open the seafloor to this destructive fishing practice. The footage captured will be an integral tool in Oceana’s efforts to protect these special ocean places.