“This is an amazing natural laboratory to document incredible organisms and better understand how they survive in extremely challenging environments… we were continually surprised, catching our breath, and in awe of nature’s majesty.”

          — Dr. Samantha Joye, University of Georgia

Researchers working on R/V Falkor made remarkable discoveries and scientific advancements throughout 2019, broadening the scientific community’s understanding of unique ecosystems and fueling future ocean exploration.

Beautiful underwater landscapes seen during the ROV dives in the Cocos Island National Park off Costa Rica. This expedition represents the first time that seven of the seamounts in the area were surveyed.

The first surveys of never-before-seen seamounts around Isla del Coco National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Costa Rica, led to the discovery of four novel deep-sea corals and six ocean species, providing insight into unexplored deep-sea biogeology. The science team constructed a complete characterization of each seamount, including how oxygen dynamics control community structure. The findings have led to a call to protect these specialized ecosystems (#CostaRicaDeep).

Coral genomic studies across the Emperor Seamounts provided the first complete assessment of coral diversity across the Main Gap in the Mid-Pacific. This new data indicates an important boundary of deep coral species, including Octocorals, between the Aleutian and Hawaiian Ridges.

A boundary as sharp as what was observed (over a distance of 100 to 125 miles) is an unheard of occurrence in the deep sea. Octocorals provide essential habitat for deep-sea fish and other organisms; several new corals species were also discovered, including a new type of bamboo coral (#DeepCoralDiversity).

Another expedition in Hawaiian waters focused on coral diversity along Necker Ridge. The data retrieved will provide a better understanding of seamount communities and the connection between Pacific deep- sea ecosystems. The science team has started geochemistry measurements to characterize the modern water column and create paleoceanographic reconstructions. They are looking at deep-sea coral distributions to reconstruct past changes in ocean pH, and nutrient changes over decades (#BridgeOrBarrier).

Close up of a particularly puzzling octocoral, likely in the family Plexauridae, but new to all the biologists on board. It was found at the summit of Nintoku Guyot. Numerous brittlestars are wrapped around the branches.
Ann Allen processes water samples taken by the CTD in the wet lab. Fine filters collect stray cells from animals, which are then folded, placed in a solution and packed for analysis on dry land.
ROV SuBastian takes a sample of a glass sponge, believed to be Tretopleura sp. during the “Necker Ridge: Bridge or Barrier?” expedition carried out over September and October of 2019.

In a search for a species of beaked whale never seen by researchers, scientists used a combination of tools, including environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis and acoustics, for an unprecedented study of the elusive mammal. During the cruise, three Drifting Acoustic Spar Buoy Recorders (DASBRs) designed by NOAA were deployed at sites around the Hawaiian Islands. The acoustic data was coupled with continuous CTD sampling, allowing for the acoustic detection of the beaked whales to be associated with genetic information from water samples. The data are still being analyzed, but knowledge of these whale communities is essential for their protection and reducing negative human impacts on the whale population (#ListeningToWhales).

Working in collaboration with the crew of the R/V Falkor, the science team successfully recover the first DASBRs (Drifting Acoustic Spar Buoy Recorder) deployed during the 'Listening For Cryptic Whales Species' cruise.

Large mineral towers, cold seeps, and oil chimneys were discovered in the Sonora Margin and Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California. Surprisingly, these harsh and seemingly inhospitable conditions were teeming with biodiversity. Creatures thrived in the metal-laden minerals and highly sulfidic fluids collected across these features. Among these newly discovered geological formations, previously unknown features were also revealed: flanges angled downward that act as pooling sites for discharged fluids, creating the illusion of a mirror for those observing the super-heated (366°C) fluids beneath them (see image on at top of page). The first-of-its-kind sampling of vent fluids and microbial ecology represents a crucial step towards characterizing the relationship between hydrothermal system environment and ecology and how such diverse communities are supported (#MicrobialMysteries).

Hydrothermal vent fluid collects under the ledges and provides the chemical energy driving the entire ecosystem of microbes, scale worms, and riftia (tube worms).

The first study to simultaneously collect a wide range of data at cold seep sites in the Pacific Northwest was completed aboard Falkor to address crucial knowledge gaps of deep-sea systems. The science team constructed an in-situ laboratory that produced unprecedented knowledge of gas hydrate degradation, seafloor seepage, and aerobic oxidation of methane seep systems at the edge of stability. Extensive mapping revealed new water column gas plumes that could be traced to seafloor seeps, highlighting their role in injecting carbon and other nutrients into the ocean (#HuntingBubbles).

UNC Landers and the Bubble Box are deployed in Astoria Canyon. Their sensors take many readings, including measuring methane oxidation rates near seeps on the seafloor off the coast of Oregon.

Additionally, on a quick expedition in the summer, a team of NASA scientists found a one cubic millimeter, unmelted fragment of a meteorite during a three-day search aboard Falkor in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. The sample allowed the team to measure the unusual, metal-rich silicated iron meteorite, but further testing is still needed to confirm the meteorite type. If confirmed, this will represent the eighth “meteorite fall” of this type seen to date, and one of 261 found in total (out of over 63,000 known individual falls) (#SeekingSpaceRocks).

During the #SeekingSpaceRocks expedition, the team used many types of sifting devices in their search for meteorite fragments, including this large scoop known as the “star sieve.”
A beautiful school of cutlassfish, vertically feeding in the water column, lit up by the lights on ROV SuBastian while exploring on the #CostaRicaDeep expedition.
This species of octopus was only discovered about 3 years ago and is rarely seen. It has only been spotted on two expeditions: Once in 2016 from the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, and then again during Schmidt Ocean Institute's #BridgeOrBarrier research. It has not even been given a proper name (some have nicknamed it "Casper") since a specimen has never been collected.
Dr. Betsy Pugel and Dr. Marc Fries discuss which samples will be set aside for extraterrestrial biosignature studies.