Preserving the First-Ever Biological Specimens from Okeanos Explorer
Ocean Genome Legacy’s custom sampling kit helped make a historic moment for the science team of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ship Okeanos Explorer.
For the first time, the shipboard scientists collected biological specimens, including a record-breaking soft coral, some hitchhiking barnacles, and a spiny sponge that is extremely rare in Hawaiian waters. After a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) safely retrieved the samples from nearly two miles deep, the team used OGL’s kit to preserve precious DNA.
We are thrilled that the team found our kit helpful and easy to use!
The Okeanos Explorer is currently cruising the depths of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Each day as the ROV Deep Discoverer (nicknamed “D2”) cruises over the seafloor, about 20 scientists, including OGL staff, join the cruise by phone and live chat. Almost as if they’re on board, the onshore scientists help the shipboard team identify marine life, point out geological features, and share their discoveries with viewers.
The first biological sampling dive took place at the Kanehunamoku Seamount on Monday, August 3. At 2,455 meters (1.5 miles) deep, the team spotted the delicate pink tufted branches of a Chrysogorgia soft coral, the first such sighting within the National Marine Monument and thought to be deepest sighting on record for these species! As a bonus, this specimen carried some hitchhikers: tiny gooseneck barnacles, crustaceans that sit on their heads and filter-feed with their feet.
With some skillful maneuvering by the pilot, D2’s robotic arm carefully snipped the barnacle-holding branch of coral and gently secured it in the specimen box. It was a proud moment for the Okeanos team, and the first of many! Back on board, the team documented the specimen, cut a small fragment for genetic studies, and used OGL’s homogenizer and sample tubes to preserve the DNA-containing material.
During the daily ROV dives, the Okeanos team continues to collect surprising and record-setting samples. They’ve collected black corals (Parantipathes), which are actually vibrantly colorful but contain a dark skeleton that’s the official state “gem” of Hawaii.
At a large rift zone, the team sampled a bristly-looking cladorhizid sponge whose carnivorous relatives are known to snag floating prey. These sponges are unusual in shallower Hawaiian waters, and the cruise will determine if they are actually more abundant at greater depths. The team makes these precise and delicate ROV maneuvers look easy. To prepare for sampling, the ROV team practiced their technique by cutting carrots!
The Okeanos scientists also encountered other diverse animals in the deep. Sinuous cusk-eels (Ophidiidae) and a bright orange shrimp (Plesiopenaeus) swam in front of D2’s camera. Scanning the sea floor, the team spotted a slow-moving sea spider (Colossendeis), some snowflake-shaped Freyastera sea stars (whimsically named for the Norse goddess Freya), and feather-like sea lilies (crinoids). Did you know that some sea cucumbers (holothurians) can swim? One particular holothurian, transparent with pearly internal organs, looked like it was performing an aquatic dance for the camera.
One discovery was unwelcome, however: a red plastic drinking cup on the seafloor. It was sad and surprising to see human-generated trash lying 4,824 meters (3 miles) deep and roughly 700 miles away from human habitation, in one of the most remote and protected areas of the world. Plastics can harm marine life and accumulate pollutants, so it’s important for people to reduce plastic marine debris and remember that human activities on land are still deeply connected to the ocean. You can learn more here.
As part of their mission to explore and help protect the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the Okeanos scientists and their onshore collaborators are discovering new things each day. The team is finding clues to how the Maro Crater was geologically formed, learning where high densities of corals and sponges can be found along ridges, and measuring how deep these animals can thrive. Understanding where these species live and how their communities form is essential to protecting them and managing the future of the monument.
Want to follow the expedition? Curious to join the ROV discoveries as they happen? You can watch live video with scientific commentary here.