Over the next several months, a deep-sea exploration vessel will make its way back to Galveston as part of a study of the Gulf of Mexico in which researchers are charting new marine territories up to 200 miles offshore.
The surveys already have resulted in the discovery of several likely new species, a centuries-old shipwreck and an underwater cache of appliances that give clues about how long it takes marine life to adapt to environmental changes, said Brian Kennedy, expedition coordinator for the Okeanos Explorer, a ship operated by the federal Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.
The diving vehicles captured videos of underwater brine lakes and mapped more than 26,000 kilometers of previously unexplored seafloor and collected 13 terabytes of publicly available digital data, Kennedy said.
And as researchers and scientists continue to use the public data from the trip, new findings are almost guaranteed, Kennedy said.
The Okeanos Explorer, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration exploration vessel, visited the northern Gulf of Mexico off the Texas Coast in a recent trip spanning from late November to Dec. 21, during which it traveled to several spots between Key West and Galveston, according to the administration.
The ship will be back in Galveston in late March to spend time mapping the Gulf off the coast of Texas.
The primary mission of the office, which conducts exploration trips around the United States, is to explore unknown reaches of national waters and collect information to assist researchers at home and around the world, Kennedy said. From there, researchers develop further hypothesis to test and infer information about the oceans, he said.
Less is known about the oceans — even just several miles offshore — than about the moon or even other planets nearest to Earth, Kennedy said. That’s in part because of the difficulties in studying the oceans, such as the inability to transmit radio waves as satellites do and the density and pressure of the deep sea, he said.
“We’ve only explored maybe 5 percent of the deep sea,” Kennedy said. “Once you get deeper than scuba diving depth we know virtually nothing. Even just more than a mile offshore you’re starting to hit barely charted territory.”
Recreational divers can reach up to about 140 feet below surface, while technical divers may get closer to 500 feet, he said. The remote vehicles used by the explorers on the most recent dive reached depths of 7,500 feet, Kennedy said.
On its most recent voyage, the crew explored an early 19th-century shipwreck about 30 miles off the coast of Louisiana, Kennedy said. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management had directed the Okeanos to the area after an oil and gas company discovered it using sonar, he said.
In another stretch of the trip, explorers anticipated they would search a site containing a shipwreck off the coast of Louisiana, but instead turned out to be a site where a container had fallen off a ship and dumped cargo, said William Kiene, a regional science and policy analyst at the administration’s Galveston facility.
“The whole seafloor was covered with old washing machines and refrigerators,” Kiene said.
Given the amount of degradation, the site could be anywhere from 20 years to 30 years old, he said. Kennedy said the site was particularly important to marine biologists who could track back the container date and analyze how much life had grown on it since.
“We’ll know what organisms have grown in the last 20 years or however long it’s been down there and that’s really valuable information,” Kennedy said.
The Okeanos also captured footage of several suspected new species, including at least two new species of invertebrates related to starfish, Kennedy said.
New species discoveries on deep-dive explorations of the Gulf are not uncommon, Kiene said. Despite being possibly the most industrialized body of water in the world with heavy oil and gas activity, researchers have only explored a small portion of the Gulf of Mexico, Kiene said.
“There’s so much we don’t know about the Gulf of Mexico,” Kiene said. “Every time we go out there like this we find these spectacular places and communities.”
Kiene, who is based in Galveston, was one of a handful of marine scientists communicating with the crew aboard the Okeanos Explorer throughout its journey. The ship’s crew live broadcasts on the web, allowing scientists and interested viewers to tune in from around the world.
Ship crew use remotely operated vehicles to do dives up to 3,000 meters below the water surface, Kiene said. The vehicles take live video footage and perform deep sea mapping, Kennedy said.
The Okeanos had 49 crew members total, including engineers, captains, scientists and stewards cooking food, Kennedy said. But in any given dive, 70 to 100 scientists would tune in remotely to watch the explorations and communicate with people onboard, Kennedy said.
The vessel is slated to return to Galveston March 19 before again heading out to chart new territories.