Deep diversity

A recent deep-sea expedition in Canadian waters revealed the power of technological advances and global collaborative science as it discovered a rare octopus nursery, providing compelling evidence to support the creation of a new Marine Protected Area.

Words by Nicole Holman
Photographs by Nicole Holman, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Northeast Pacific Deep-Sea Expedition Partners & CSSF ROPOS

As ROPOS, the deep-sea Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), navigates the seafloor, its powerful LED lights illuminate a 30-foot swath in front of it. Situated 1,550 metres beneath the ocean’s surface, this area, only 65 km west of Vancouver Island, in Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nation Territory, is shrouded in complete darkness. Massive slabs of ice slowly come into view, revealing an unexpected sight. A live feed transmits the ROV’s camera footage to screens in the control room onboard a research vessel, the CCGS John P. Tully, as it charts the Northeast Pacific Ocean with a team of scientists from the Northeast Pacific Deep-sea Exploration Project (NEPDEP). The ROV pilots, Keith Tamburri and Luke Girard, maneuver the submersible over carbonate rocks while the lead scientist on the expedition, Dr. Cherisse Du Preez, examines the structures. “Looks like we’ve got some more ice under there. Oh wait, not ice… octopus,” she exclaimed.

As the ROV moves closer, more forms come into focus. “Are those eggs?” asks Heidi Garner, a biologist in the Deep Sea Ecology Program, surprised, over the headset. Sure enough, the camera reveals dozens of small, sack-like formations as the octopus adjusts a tentacle. Tiny, newly formed eyes from within the eggs stare back at us. Sensing a pattern, Du Preez prompts the pilots to inspect the area further: “Let’s do a fly-around.”

“Are you guys seeing this?” Du Preez asks moments after the submersible moves toward another rock. The camera pans across three more brooding octopuses. These ones are paler than the first. “There are about four to five under the ledge we just passed. There’s another to the left. Oh my goodness. This is an octopus nursery ground,” says Du Preez. “We’ve seen a dozen octopuses all brooding their eggs.”

The ROV control room erupts in a chorus of cheers and gasps, expressing disbelief at the global significance of what has just been discovered. Only three other deep-sea octopus nurseries are known worldwide. Simultaneously as the scene plays out, some members of the science team, watching from a lab in another part of the ship, narrate the scene to a livestream viewership of thousands of people around the world. Twitter notifications and Slack channels light up with scientists tuning in, leaving comments and making requests for data during the shared viewing experience. Downstairs, more team members assemble gimbals and ring lights, readying their equipment to host a virtual Ship-to-Shore live stream event to classrooms across North America.

Thanks to the internet and real-time online streaming, a 40-person deep-sea expedition became a global think tank hosted by a network of hundreds of contributors around the world, from scientists to partner Indigenous communities, schools and media outlets. The shared contributions and knowledge of everyone involved spanned dozens of disciplines. Despite this incredible discovery, the cold seep site wasn’t originally on the expedition’s dive plan. “Towards the end of the expedition, a bizarre event suddenly forced us off course: a military weapons training exercise was about to begin,” said Du Preez.

In search of a new site, they reached out to Dr. Michael Riedel, who was watching the dive live in Germany. Michael is a research scientist with GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and led an expedition studying tectonic activity in the same area months earlier. “While they were out there, he asked if we needed any data. We were curious about potential cold seep habitat,” explained Du Preez. “Micheal had special equipment onboard that we don’t have access to. He detected signs of life never before documented on this coast.” Riedel reviewed his data and saw something he had missed before: gas flares over one kilometre tall at Hesquiaht slopes. “I knew it had to be something big,” he explained. “It was so anomalous. I pointed to the spot on the map and said we have to go there.”

With the teamwork of international collaborators, the NEPDEP team was able to piece together a map of where to go next, painted in detail with strokes from interdisciplinary brushes, which led to a significant deep-sea discovery. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, including my own,” expressed Tamburri, reflecting on the moments after the octopus nursery was discovered. At the end of a three-week research expedition, the octopus nursery was yet another highlight in a long string of groundbreaking discoveries fuelled by collaboration and knowledge co-creation. Other significant moments included completing the deepest dive in the Canadian Pacific, discovering an actively venting underwater volcano, and recording the first-ever footage of a deep-sea Pacific white skate laying an egg.

The deep sea is incredibly important for humanity. We are intricately connected to it, and it provides numerous ecosystem services that benefit us. These range from its extreme biodiversity, awe-inspiring landscapes, and fascinating creatures to more practical benefits such as biomimicry and biopharmaceutical research derived from deep-sea organisms. Additionally, carbon cycling in the deep sea plays a crucial role in mitigating climate change. Any alterations in deep-sea processes can have significant cascading effects on our climate and environment.

Photographs by Nicole Holman, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Northeast Pacific Deep-Sea Expedition Partners & CSSF ROPOS

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Issue 37
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This feature appears in ISSUE 37: WILD ALASKA of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 37
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