by John Hocevar
August 5, 2007
Zhemchug Canyon, Bering Sea. We arrived here yesterday, and have had two days of diving. On the way here, we stopped in St. George and St. Paul, in the Pribilof Islands, to help out a couple fur seal biologists and to drop off Andy Malavansky, who was with us on board for a couple days. Andy heads up the Ecosystem Office on St. George, and is on the Scientific Advisory Council for the expedition. All of us appreciated getting his insights on what we’ve been seeing, and it was great having him on board.
It was also a great chance for the crew to get ashore for a few hours, to see one of the wonders of the world: the fur seal rookeries of the Pribilofs. Aquilina Lestenkoff was a very generous host, patiently answering all our questions and setting us up with tour guides and a viewing permit. Then it was a mad rush back to the Esperanza for the 18 hour transit to Zhemchug.
The world’s largest underwater canyon, Zhemchug means "pearl" in Russian. Before this week, what little we know about the creatures that live here came from things people could see from boats or pull up in fishing gear. This expedition has barely scratched the surface, but already we are shedding light on some of Zhemchug’s mysteries.
In our dives in Pribilof Canyon last week, we saw large quantities of deep sea coral, but only two or three species. In just two days in Zhemchug, we’ve already found nine: feathery black coral, tiny chalice-shaped stony corals, sea whips, encrusting "stolon" corals, sea fans, and descriptively named but seldom seen bubblegum, bamboo, and red tree corals.
Along with the corals, we’ve seen some very interesting associations. For example, snail fish seem to go with black corals. Pacific Ocean perch are frequently seen among sea whips or fans. We often find worms, brittle stars, and other tiny invertebrates of the exact same color as the coral they live on. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – it’s going to take a lot more work before anyone can really claim to know what these canyons look like or what lives there, never mind how the different species interact with one another.
One thing that is clear at this point is that it is not possible to characterize these canyons in simple terms. Just when a particular area looks like a silt or sand bottom with limited structural habitat, the substrate will change abruptly for a while – and the marine life will change right along with it. The geology is complicated here, with nearly flat mud plains giving way to nearly vertical bedrock without any warning from the limited bathymetrical charts.
In fact, as I write, the ship is in a search pattern looking for three pinnacles reported to rise out of the depths to as shallow as 22 feet from the surface. The notations on the charts say it all: reported 1947, position doubtful. Like almost everything else about this expedition, it’s hard to say what we’ll find, or where we’ll find it.
The wind’s picking up and there are storms to our west, so we may not be able to dive tomorrow. The Bering Sea has been pretty kind to us so far, though, so we can’t complain.
Check out the deck cam to see how the waves are looking, and you’ll probably be able to guess whether we’re in the subs (good weather), using the ROV (pretty good weather), SCUBA diving (decent weather AND we’ve found the pinnacles), catching up on sorting through our data (sketchy weather), or feeding the fish (baaaaad weather).
I’ll leave you with the Weird Fish of the Day, with a suitably weird name: the blob sculpin. Stay tuned for photos!
"The does not belong to despots." – Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea