It felt a lot like a moon landing to the researchers who experienced it—descending thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean into complete darkness. Ambient ocean light extends down only about 600 feet. After that, no amount of straining your eyes will help you see through the inky blackness.
Scientist Tim Shank and photographer Luis Lamar were descending into Lydonia canyon, one of several among the canyons and underwater mountains sitting 130 miles from Massachusetts, when they were slowly surrounded by darkness.
Descending thousands of feet can take hours.
When the lights affixed to the underwater submersible carrying the researchers were finally switched on, the world around them looked like a different planet.
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is made of sprawling underwater mountain ranges and vast canyons—the formations spread out for 4,913 square miles. From the surface of the ocean, it's impossible to see the vibrant Connecticut-size, deep-sea world unless you dive beneath the surface.
“It was like being in an aquarium, but you weren't sure where the aquarium started,” says deep-sea biologist Tim Shank from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “I was speechless.”
For two weeks in September, a team of researchers from Woods Hole, OceanX, and NASA spent time aboard the Alucia research vessel, with funding from OceanX and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The monument was established by the Obama administration in 2016 to protect a region known to be diverse and yet still largely unknown. Monuments restrict commercial activities like industrial fishing or mining.
Now, the monument is at risk of losing those protections under the Trump administration. Late last year, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recommended that the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument, along with several others, be opened for commercial activities, though the agency has yet to act on this recommendation.
Fearing the area could soon get degraded by human interference, the expedition members were eager to explore the biodiverse ecosystem.
“It's a whole new world down there,” says Rachel O'Neill, a geneticist from the University of Connecticut who was on the trip.
Aboard the ship, O'Neill sequenced the DNA of organisms that were collected below. This not only allowed the research crew to identify new species, but it also helped them learn how organisms are adapting to extreme environments.
“The crux of this is to understand the ecological adaptations that make these coral ecosystems thrive,” says Shank. “We know these corals grow at a very slow rate, so when we see one a foot tall, it could be 500 years old.”
Understanding how deep-sea wildlife grows can help conservationists better protect it, he adds. Even thousands of feet below the sea, ecosystems are not immune to contamination.
“We see plastic bags, cans, shower rods, paint cans—I've seen trash down to 11,000 meters. If you can name it, we've seen it,” says Shank.
A plastic bag caught on a coral could prevent it from feeding and eventually kill an organism that is home to other species, from fish to invertebrates. Scientists are only just beginning to understand how the deep sea helps wildlife thrive higher up in the water column. Above the biodiverse canyon walls, notes Shank, they've observed higher densities of larger marine creatures like whales, dolphins, and even sea birds.
The team plans to unveil the new species they've discovered as they continue studying samples throughout the next year.
Learning from the deepest reaches
Both Shank and Lida Teneva, an OceanX science officer, say researching deep-sea coral and other organisms could lead to medical breakthroughs. Some species of sea stars, for instance, are able to completely regrow severed limbs, a feat biomedical researchers want to adapt for clinical settings.
The expedition was also an opportunity for Woods Hole and NASA to test an autonomous vehicle called Orpheus.
“It can jump like a grasshopper and move around [on the ocean floor],” says Shank. Able to withstand the intense pressure of the deep sea, it can take measurements and search for signatures of life.
Beyond studying Earth's oceans, the research team says future iterations of the design will be used to explore Europa, a moon orbiting Jupiter that could have an environment suitable for life.
The future of the monument
Conservation groups like Earth Justice and the Natural Resources Defense Council have vowed to fight the administration in court if any steps are taken to roll back protections for the monument.
Scientists aboard the Alucia say they've only just scratched the surface of the park. Comparing the monument to Manhattan, Shank says they've only explored a parking space.
Still waiting to be seen are miles of canyons larger than the Grand Canyon and extinct volcanoes—endless stretches of mountain ranges and mysterious sea creatures hidden in the dark.