Oceana on the Water
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South Nehalem Reef
We awoke this morning to calm seas and a beautiful sunrise coming up over Cape Lookout, Oregon. Knowing it would be the last land we’d see for the next six days, we motored offshore for three hours and arrived at South Nehalem Reef; over 20 miles off the coast. Getting the ROV set up, our deployment and retrieval operations had already started becoming second nature. Attracted by the only vessel in sight, hundreds of seabirds flocked to the vessel. They are probably accustomed to getting a fisherman’s scraps or bycatch tossed overboard. We were joined by albatross, sooty shearwaters, storm petrels, several species of gulls, and our favorites; tufted puffins. But the only thing we were sending over the side of the Miss Linda was our remotely operated vehicle (ROV).
We chose South Nehalem Reef because new seafloor mapping data showed that it had extensive hard substrate. This is a new piece of habitat data not previously available. When the ROV arrived at the bottom, about 500 feet deep, what we first saw instead appeared to be a flat silt plain. Looking closely we saw sea whips, sea pens, flatfish and one large ray hiding in the mud. All of a sudden we came upon a six foot high wall with rockfish, sponge, fern like crinoids and multiple types of gorgonian corals. We quickly brought up the ROV to avoid tangling in the rocks. Descending back down to the top of the reef we saw canary rockfish and rosy rockfish, and other fishes hanging in the interface between the high relief rock and the flat fields covered with thick silt. Our last dive, however, was relatively stark and it has possibly been trawled, with signs of linear trenches in the seafloor and few of the structure forming invertebrates we hoped to find. Looking back on shrimp trawl data we have, there appeared to be some historic trawling in this area. While a barren seafloor is a stark contrast to the other vibrant areas we dove on, it is a strong reminder of how fragile marine life is, and how even a single pass of a trawl can have lasting impacts.
Why Expand the Cabrera Archipelago National Park?
The Cabrera Archipelago has been a sea-land National Park since 1991. It is one of the best preserved natural enclaves of the Spanish Mediterranean. This applies to its area with spectacular wind-shaped stubby vegetation and geology and what lies underwater. These protected areas, when they are well managed, hold a sample of how the Mediterranean would be if we treated it with the respect and care that it deserves.
We have come again, as in years past, to take samples from the seabeds that lie outside the park’s limits. On previous expeditions, we were able to document deepwater areas going down to more than 100 m, to the North as well as to the East and South of the archipelago. Today we have headed to the Eastern area of the archipelago again to film the deepwater laminarian forests and the red gorgonians that exist in the area. These species and the coralline reefs that we have filmed lie in abundance here. They are well developed and are still in very good condition. These are without a doubt spectacular seascapes worthy of immediate protection. This is why the expansion of the park’s limits to at least the East would ensure the preservation of these important marine habitats and would add value, efficiency and relevance to this National Park.
A Field of Spectacular Bamboo Coral
Two ROV submersions and a dredger in Ses Olives in the South are the result of a fairly complete day. This mount, some 20 nm to the east of Ibiza is the one we were looking at before the ROV broke down, and we have returned here to continue documenting its deepest slopes and beds. We had the opportunity to film three hours of seabed in the morning and about four hours in the afternoon with a dredger to collect a sample of the type of seabeds between submersions.
The two submersions have been very, very interesting, but we have to stress the luck we had in the second one in stumbling upon a field of bamboo coral or Isidella elongata, one of the most important deepwater species, considered as a sensitive habitat whose protection is being internationally claimed. This species of gorgonian has practically disappeared entirely from the Mediterranean as it grows in typical muddy trawling areas. This is why it is practically impossible to find specimens anymore like the ones we found today after almost half a mile of searching. It seems that the location of a submarine cable, that prevents trawling in this area, has saved this field and the biodiversity it maintains, from disappearing from trawling.
New Species Found!
The Oceana Explorer was added to our operation on the third day of our work on the Gulf of Cádiz. Last night, we began coordination with the launch team for the following day because we will work with the divers from the Explorer and with the ROV from the Ranger.
At 8 a.m., the aroma of coffee was already luring us from our beds. A few minutes later, the divers arrived with all of the photography gear that they will need. Without wasting any time, we set sail for our first sampling point with the ROV. Outside the proposal to expand the Doñana marine area, the seabeds are muddy with a scant abundance of fish. We barely observed sessile species, and the seascape is somewhat monotonous as a general rule. Nevertheless, the good part is that we have not seen any mark from trawlers or remains of fishing gear or garbage.
When we moved between 3 or 4 miles offshore, the seascape changed with the presence of rocks. Major forests of tree coral (Dendrophyllia ramea) appear, and amid the rocks, fish like African striped grunts (Parapristipoma octolineatum) and a sargo (Pagrus sp.) here and there crossed our path from time to time. A fish, the swallowtail sea perch (Chromis sp.), attracted our attention because it doesn’t seem like the typical species in this area. Therefore, we tried to capture images to confirm it. But in addition to that, a finding opened up our eyes and excited us: we discovered an area with plenty of golden cup coral (Astroides calycularis). This species, besides being precious, had not before been described in the Gulf of Cádiz because it is typically found in the Mediterranean and the Strait of Gibraltar, and it is cataloged as vulnerable on the Andalusian and Spanish Red Lists.
The Bold Loggerhead
We set sail this morning from the port of San Sebastian in La Gomera to work around the island.
We, the divers, will remember this port because of what we saw yesterday, and saw again today. At the end of the dive we started to come up to the surface when we saw a loggerhead sea turtle at 10 meters depth… the turtle reacted immediately: as soon as it saw us, it came swimming at full speed ahead, straight towards us.
It got so close to the cameras that we had no choice but to escape! I think it would have been great to see the Oceana divers chased by a hungry turtle! This lasted a few minutes and we were able to document this animal’s peculiar behavior.
Later, we were told that local divers feed this turtle regularly and the animal now associates divers with food. This reminds us that modifying the habits of wild animals is wrong: it distorts their behavior and gives the wrong impression of their true nature.
We sailed to the next dive site to work with the ROV and we passed closed to the coast of La Gomera Island. The cliffs and mountains offered an impressive site, with the towns hanging on the mountains along the coast.
After the dive with the ROV, we returned to port at the island of La Palma.
While we worked with the ROV, a Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis) approached us.
We are still in the southern islands. Today, we worked in front of Mogan again, protected from the trade winds.
Pitu had an intense day today piloting the ROV; we did three dives south of Grand Canary. We went down to 540 meters for the first time!
We had a few surprises. For starters, while the ROV was descending to approximately 410 meters, a thresher shark passed by us, directly in front of the camera. And as soon as we reached 540 meters…we were very surprised by the communities we identified. There were abundant sponges in a variety of colors on the rocky seabed, especially sponges in the shape of chupa-chups lollipops.
Oceana had already documented similar sponges in the Alboran Sea and in the deep waters of Galicia, possibly from the Stylocordila genus. But in this case, white lollipops were blended with blue ones, and we have yet to identify this species. It is surprising to see these colors at such depths.
And the last surprise was a solitary Venus flytrap anemone on the muddy seabed, which bears the name of the carnivorous plant it resembles. It looks like Ricardo made some kind of deal with the archipelago’s communities. Most mornings, he would wake up and say something like, “and today, it would be perfect if we found a…” and then... He would say a long name in Latin. That’s how our day started: we wanted to find a Venus flytrap anemone.
Cristina Fernández from the Oceanographic was with us. For years, she has been working on issues concerning conservation, science and the dissemination of information throughout the islands. She’s a diver, so she knows these areas quite well. But, looking at the screen, she couldn’t hide her surprise as the ROV descended to 500 meters right before her very eyes. She no longer has to imagine the scenery.
Today we changed our location and travelled south, to the Bocayna Strait, to carry out two dives with the ROV, one on each side of the strait.
We documented black coral, seaman’s hand coral, yellow coral, pandora and monkfish, although in this case, the most impressive site was a field of glass sponges (Asconema setubalense) at 376 meters depth.
These sponges, which can reach up to 1 meter in height, are usually found off the coast of Portugal, hence the name (Setúbal, Portuguese city). Recently, this species has also been identified in El Cachucho, a seamount off the coast of Asturias. There are also texts from 1933 that mention these sponges seen off the coasts of Africa (Morocco) and in Concepción Bank, although after that, they were not mentioned again.
As such, this is the first time this sponge has been identified in waters of the Canary Islands. Furthermore, Oceana previously documented this species in the Seco de lo Olivos seamount.
Voyage to the Canary Islands
The voyage aboard the Ranger has been stupendous. We sailed the whole way with sails, and we took advantage of the force 5 or 6 NW and NE winds.
First we passed the underwater mountains of Dacia and Concepción with the idea in mind of making some submersions with the ROV. However, in spite of the fact that sea and weather conditions have been good for sailing, the wind and some waves reaching up to 3 meters did not allow us to work with the ROV.
So... we continued on our course. We have been left no other choice than to leave these banks for another time throughout the campaign.
Of course, even though we were not able to document the animal life on this ocean bottom, surrounding the mountains, we saw a group of sperm whales, another group of striped dolphins and another group of Atlantic spotted dolphins, besides a turtle, many North Atlantic great shearwater, the odd European petrel and a shark. We were unable to identify this shark, but it appeared to belong to the genus Carcharhinus.
Ocean sunfish in Ratón de Guetaria
Ana de la Torriente and Enrique Talledo
Early in the morning, we departed from Zumaia and headed towards Guetaria. Once there, we carried out one of the most spectacular dives you can have in the Cantabrian. This is a coastal area where ocean sunfish appear during the summer months.
After Ignacio San Miguel from the K-sub diving centre showed us the exact location, we descended to a sandy seabed at 22 meters with large rock formations that rise to 15 meters. This area is a place where ocean sunfish come to be cleaned by other fish -- seabreams, black seabreams -- and by gulls on the water's surface.
Apart from enjoying this cleaning session, we documented the presence of a large school of mackerel, grey triggerfishand invertebrates including the gorgonian (Leptogorgia lusitanica) and the polychaete (Sabella spallanzani).
But the surprise came at the end of the dive, when we found a gillnet in which various species of fish, including an ocean sunfish, were caught.
Vanishing into the Darkness — A 4 a.m. Expedition
At 4 a.m., with only the stars and the moon illuminating the darkness of the sea, our expedition team -- Carlos Perez, Cesar Fuertes, Maria Jose Cornax, Gorka Leclercq and myself -- rapidly descended down a vertical ladder from the Oceana MarViva Med into the rigid inflatable boat (RIB) underway at eight nautical miles per hour.
Our objective this morning was to use the RIB to get close (within 50ft/20m) to the driftnet fishing boats and to photograph them catching pelagic fish, such as swordfish and tuna.
Onboard the RIB, racing through the dark mist of the warm ocean mixing with the cool air and flat seas, we accelerated for about twenty minutes to our first targeted boat -- the S. Maria. In the open ocean, as we approached the driftnet, extreme care was taken not to let the propeller get caught in the drifting net that was nearly impossible to see. For a brief moment, our propeller did get entangled in the net but was quickly removed by Cesar Fuertes.
Continuing onward, we arrived at the S. Maria at 4:35 a.m. and noted the crew had already finished hauling in the driftnet. In frequent communication with Xavier Pastor onboard the Oceana MarViva, he proceeded to give us coordinates for our second targeted driftnet fishing boat, the Anna Prima.
With tensions high, our team carefully positioned the RIB so we were able to photograph, as best we can with virtually no light, the net being hauled in.
With the RIB underway, we accelerated through the Tyrrhenian Sea towards our second targeted driftnet fishing boat. During the 15 to 20 minutes of reeling in the driftnet, we did not observe them catching any pelagic fish. Perhaps they weren’t fishing for them or maybe there were no fish left in this area to catch.
Driftnet fishing is one of the worst methods of fishing as these walls of death kill anything and everything they comes in contact with.
Many of the Italian driftnet fishing boats are aware of their illegal activities and have adopted a number of strategies to avoid being easily documented. Recently, the fishermen have begun hauling in the driftnet under the darkness of night, finishing before light breaks at 5 a.m. A second technique to avoid being photographed is to cut the driftnet and return later in the day. Lastly, the driftnet fishing boats, knowing in advance they have caught a pelagic fish, reposition the stern of the boat to block the fish being photographed by our RIB.
As the light broke, we continued to look for other driftnet fishing boats before heading back to the Oceana MarNiva Med and picking up some plastic drifting in the ocean.