Three Oceana expeditions offer a rare glimpse of some of the ocean’s unexplored habitats
By Justine E. Hausheer
You might know the Balearic Islands as Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, and a handful of smaller islands clustered off the east coast of the Iberian Peninsula. Their sandy beaches and clear-blue waters are a popular playground for many Europeans, but beyond the partying tourists and shores of these famed isles lie vast expanses of unexplored and biologically rich deep ocean. In August 2013 Oceana launched an expedition to document the diverse and varied sea life inhabiting one of these places—the Emile Baudot escarpment.
“We have been working in Balearic Islands since the beginning of Oceana in Europe,” says Silvia García, Oceana marine scientist and member of the expedition crew. “It has rich marine biodiversity and important types of habitats and fishing resources that need to be maintained and recovered.”
Last August, the Ranger set course for the Emile Baudot escarpment, a large rocky wall that runs from Ibiza to Menorca, spanning more than 300 kilometers (or 186 miles) and reaching depths of up to 2,000 meters below the surface. The Ranger’s crew spent 10 days exploring the ridge with an ROV, gathering the first underwater footage of the escarpment and its inhabitants. Beneath the waves they encountered a fantastic and startling array of marine life.
Near the surface dolphins, manta rays, and swordfish leapt out of the water. Farther down, large grey groupers and long-spined sea urchins lurked in caves, while fields of brachiopods and crinoids blanketed the slopes of the escarpment. In the deepest areas, they found swaying sea fans and clusters of glass and lollipop sponges. But the expedition also discovered that these deep-sea habitats are increasingly at risk from oceanic garbage. Footage revealed plastic bags, cans, and fishing gear as much as 700 meters below the surface.
Though the Emile Baudot escarpment lies just beyond the southern tip of Spain’s famed Cabrera National Park, it is completely unprotected from pollution and overfishing. “Spanish law established that marine escarpments should be represented in the Spanish Network of National Parks, but this is not happening at the moment,” says García.
Armed with footage and scientific data from the expedition, Oceana is urging the Spanish government to extend the national park to include the Emile Baudot escarpment and its amazing and varied habitats. If Oceana is successful, Cabrera will become the first national park to include an underwater escarpment.
“The Emile Baudot escarpment could play a key role in enhancing the diversity of ecosystems and marine life found in the national park,” says Xavier Pastor, executive director of Oceana in Europe.
Road trips aren’t something you usually associate with ocean science. But when the 2013 Baltic expedition team kicked off their journey, they didn’t do it from the deck of a boat. In a first for Oceana, the team embarked on a 32-day amphibious research expedition, driving 7,000 kilometers through eight countries to document the health of the Baltic Sea. The expedition confirmed earlier reports that the Baltic’s shallow habitats are suffering from pollution and overfishing, like the deeper areas of the sea.
Scattered with large archipelagos, the Baltic Sea is home to a variety of underwater ecosystems and creatures. Where the southern Baltic meets the North Sea the ecosystems are distinctly marine, but as you move northward the sea gradually changes to a mostly freshwater environment. This shifting salinity makes the Baltic a very rough place for many of the species that live there, says Hanna Paulomäki, a marine scientist and Baltic Sea project manager with Oceana. “It’s a very fragile environment, because not many of the species are perfectly adapted to the Baltic,” she says. “For that reason it needs special care and special attention.”
Unfortunately, this fragile place is one of the most polluted seas in the world, and destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling are common. Twelve percent of the sea is safeguarded as marine protected areas (MPAs), but these MPAs are poorly managed and badly distributed, according to Xavier Pastor, director of Oceana in Europe and expedition leader.
After previous expeditions to the Baltic in 2011 and 2012, Oceana proposed the creation of 12 new MPAs and new management measures to improve the effectiveness of existing protected areas. If implemented, Oceana’s proposal for new MPAs would nearly double the total protected areas in the Baltic, protecting more than 20 percent of the sea. To safeguard the region’s biodiversity, Oceana’s ultimate goal is to conserve a full 30 percent of Baltic.
Oceana’s earlier expeditions concentrated on the deeper, offshore waters and some coastal areas of the sea. But the Baltic has many shallow, hard-to-navigate archipelagos not accessible to large boats. Approaching the areas from land provided better access some areas inside archipelagos, providing a more complete picture of the Baltic’s health, says Paulomäki.
So the 2013 expedition traded in their large boat for a caravan of small, trailered boats, driving clockwise around the Baltic. Oceana’s team piloted 50 ROV dives from an inflatable boat, pebble-covered beaches, and even a public pier in Poland. The crew also donned scuba gear and dove in from the coast 20 times. High-definition cameras recorded hours of video footage and snapped 6,000 photographs during the six-week expedition.
Data and photos from this expedition allowed Oceana to enhance current MPA proposals, including adding a thirteenth proposed protected area. The expedition’s findings confirmed that the sea’s shallow archipelagos are suffering from pollution and overfishing, much like the deeper areas of the sea. Some archipelagos are suffering from land-based pollution even more than open waters, resulting in filamentous algae blooms that suffocate other algae and plants, like sea grass. In the most polluted areas, the algae growth is so rampant that it consumes all of the water’s oxygen, killing fish and other animals.
“It’s time to start analyzing in depth the results of the expedition and use the information we have collected to advocate for better legislation, management and implementation of the fisheries and habitats conservation policies,” said Pastor in an expedition diary. “Oceana will keep carrying out initiatives to contribute to the protection and recovery of unique ecosystems of this region.”
The north winds blowing, the crew of Oceana’s Pacific expedition dropped anchor behind the cliffs of Cape Lookout, Oregon. The eight-man crew had set sail out of Newport, Oregon earlier that day, embarking on a week-long scientific expedition aboard a boat once used for bottom trawling. After watching the sun rise over the coast, they headed west to explore rare seafloor habitats off the coast of central and northern Oregon. The expedition collected data and footage that will now be used to support Oceana’s proposal for increasing essential fish habitat protections in the Pacific.
“Some of the places we went, no one has ever been there before with an underwater camera, and we were really getting a first look,” says Ben Enticknap, Oceana Pacific senior scientist and expedition leader.
Working long hours, the team completed 25 dives in seven days, reaching as far as 1,200 feet below the surface. Manned by Oceana’s Matthias Gorny, the remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) captured rare footage of the deep ocean floor, documenting some areas that have never been filmed before. The ROV filmed fields of vibrant cold-water corals, sea pens, sea whips, and clusters of decades-old glass sponges. “Hundreds of rockfish were nestled down in the folds of giant glass sponges, or tucked away inside barrel sponges, as if snuggled in a sleeping bag for the night,” wrote Enticknap in an expedition blog. One of the dive sites was so covered with sea cucumbers, sea stars, and fern-like crinoids that the crew nicknamed it “Echinoderm Heaven.”
But not every tract of seabed was overflowing with marine life. In some areas where the researchers expected to find abundant biodiversity, the ROV revealed deserts devoid of any living structures. No one will ever know what these previously unexplored habitats looked like in the past, so the crew can’t determine if this is the natural state of the habitat or the result of decades of bottom trawling, the most destructive type of fishing gear to seafloor habitats. Oceana’s discoveries illustrate the importance of protecting these rare rocky reefs and coral gardens.
Oceana will use this expedition data to fortify conservation proposals to protect important habitats for fish in the Pacific. Fish of all species need protected areas where they can find food, shelter, and where their offspring can grow. “If you are interested in having long-term sustainable fisheries,” says Enticknap, “then we need to have intact and diverse habitats for those fish.”
If implemented, Oceana’s proposal would protect an additional 20,000 square miles of key habitats on the continental shelf and slope like the ones explored during the expedition, and an additional 120,000 square miles of deep-sea habitats. Overall, this would double the total amount of seafloor protections in the Pacific off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California.
Photos and video footage are critical to conservation work, especially in the largely inaccessible deep ocean. “The only way we are going to be able to protect these places is if we can go and show people what is down there,” says Enticknap.