NOAA 2003-R504
Contact: Jana Goldman
NOAA News Releases 2003
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A team of scientists and educators will be doing some mountain climbing this month, but instead of reaching to the sky, they will be heading for the deepest parts of the sea. Mountains in the Sea: Exploring the New England Seamounts, July 11-19, is the next expedition of NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Ocean Exploration will use Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s deep-sea submersible Alvin to visit several seamounts that have not been explored extensively and at least one unexplored seamount in the North Atlantic. “We plan to study deep-sea octocorals and other organisms living on and around the underwater mountains,” said Ivar Babb, co-principal investigator of the trip and director of the NOAA Undersea Research Center at the University of Connecticut-Avery Point. Les Watling of the Darling Marine Center, University of Maine, is the chief scientist.

Deep-sea corals have been known to exist for over a century, yet little is known about them. Deep-sea corals consist of both hard and soft coral species, such as the octocorals which have eight feather-like tentacles, that are located in the waters off of North America and Northwestern Europe. They are distinct from shallow tropical water corals as they occur in dark, frigid ocean waters often beyond the continental shelf break. Recent pioneering studies have shown that deep-sea coral communities are very diverse and function as essential fish habitat. Many of the coral species act as climate change indicators, and may provide potential sources of unique novel bio-compounds for use in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

With the recent exception of observations of Bear Seamount by NOAA Fisheries, the New England Seamount Chain has been explored only by geologists. Because of their isolation, seamounts act as an oasis in an otherwise barren landscape, and are known to harbor species found nowhere else. Since most seamounts in the North Atlantic have never been explored scientifically, there is great potential for new discoveries during this expedition.

“We will map the distribution of the octocorals and take a look at the overall diversity of organisms living in the coral communities,” Babb said. “We also hope to determine if the New England octocorals are genetically unique, and assess the effect of bottom trawling on the octocorals.”

Detailed lesson plans can be accessed via the Ocean Explorer Web site which will be updated with logs, images, and essays from the expedition to allow students and the public to follow the journey. A link on the Ocean Explorer website will permit the general public to ask questions near-real time during the mission.

Ocean Explorer Professional Development Institutes for Educators will occur at several locations in the New England region. One has been held at the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn. and another will be held in Woods Hole, Mass. where teachers will also tour the research vessel Atlantis. The ship will also be used as an educational platform for three educators who will participate in the cruise from several K-12 institutions.

The education portion of the cruise will include a “then and now” component that will compare life at sea and technologies used by the HMS Challenger mission 130 years ago to those used on the Atlantis and Alvin today.

Participating institutions include the University of Maine, UCONN, NOAA NURC -Avery Point, College of Charleston, Florida Atlantic University, Ocean Technology Foundation, NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration, Smithsonian Institution, NOAA Office of Coast Survey, Lincoln Academy High School, Newcastle ME; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and crew of the R/V Atlantis and DSV Alvin.

The Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through research to better understand weather and climate-related events and to manage wisely our nation's coastal and marine

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Ocean Explorer program:

An image of an Atlantic octocoral: