This expedition is supported by NOAA's Ocean Exploration and Research program and the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory

Cruise Overview

CIOERT May 2015 research cruise map A 14-day cruise, May 7-20, 2015 will be conducted using University of Miami’s R/V Walton Smith with the Mohawk ROV to map and survey selected areas of interest to NOAA, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council on the southwest Florida shelf, and in particular, areas of northern Pulley Ridge outside of the Pulley Ridge Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC), and the outer shelf at depths of 70 m to 300 m (maximum depth of ROV).

The objectives are to ground-truth new sonar maps that will be made with the Bluefin-12 AUV, and to conduct ROV photographic/video transects to characterize the benthic habitats, associated fish communities, and benthic macrobiota, including coral and sponge densities. These data will be analyzed specifically to better understand the interrelationships of mesophotic fish communities, including commercially and recreationally important species, relative to the mesophotic and deepwater reef ecosystem habitats.

The primary focus of the CIOERT Mesophotic Reef Project is to advance NOAA OER goals while complementing the management objectives of NOAA’s Mesophotic Reef Ecosystems program, NOAA’s Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program, NOAA’s Sanctuaries Program, NOAA Fisheries, and Regional Fishery Management Councils. A major goal of the CIOERT project is to characterize mesophotic and deepwater reef ecosystems across a variety of sites in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) off the west Florida shelf, targeting northern Pulley Ridge and adjacent shelf-edge banks and hard bottom habitat that are prospective Essential Fish Habitat, and prospective Marine Protected Area sites. This will provide a comprehensive examination of mesophotic communities in this region of the GOM within the jurisdiction of the GOM Fisheries Management Council. We will also continue analyses on connectivity of the fauna within the vertical scale from shallow to deep reef ecosystems and horizontally among reef systems that will be used to supplement and add value to the NOAA-NOS-NCCOS Project (“Understanding Coral Ecosystem Connectivity in the Gulf of Mexico-Pulley Ridge to the Florida Keys”).


Cruise Track

Study sites were selected in cooperation with NOAA Fisheries and the Florida FWC to select sites of interest for our surveys. In addition, data from prior studies guide our selection of unexplored or unmapped sites:

  • FWC (Kathleen OKeife) provided target sites that have high interest to FWC and NOAA Fisheries from bottom longline fisheries data and are potential hard bottom and reef habitat. Except for a single swath of multibeam sonar (D. Naar, USF) along northern Pulley Ridge (~70-80 m depth, from Pulley Ridge HAPC north to off Fort Myers; Fig. 1), the outer shelf in this region has not been mapped.
  • FWC has considerable data from sonar mapping and drop cameras just north of our area of interest.
  • ROV and drop camera data were provided by NOAA Fisheries (Andy David, Stacey Harter, Panama City Lab) for a few sites on northern Pulley Ridge.
  • The Harbor Branch Marine Biomedical & Biotechnology Research Program conducted several submersible dives and bottom trawls in the 1980s and '90s on the outer shelf in this region. Continental Shelf Associates provided data from their surveys for the Bureau of Land Management in the 1980s.

The study area is on the west Florida shelf. The general area of operations is along north Pulley Ridge, ~70-80 m depth, north of the Pulley Ridge HAPC, and areas on the outer shelf west of north Pulley Ridge at depths of 70 to 300 m. Figure 1 shows the general areas of interest.


Cruise Summary

John Reed
Research Professor & Expedition Chief Scientist
FAU Harbor Branch

ROV retrievalThe CIOERT team tallied an impressive list of statistics during the cruise to the southwest Florida shelf:

Total days at sea – 14

Total survey days – 12

Total ROV dive sites – 20

Maximum dive depth – 732 ft

Total ROV bottom time – 35.4 h

Total ROV dive distance – 100.6 mi

Total AUV dive sites mapped – 10

Pomponi and ReedAverage area of each sonar map – 2000 m x 800 m

Total area mapped – 4.86 mi2 (new side-scan sonar maps of shelf edge reefs)

Total underwater photos taken with ROV – 2,258 (habitat, benthic fauna, fish)

Total underwater AUV photos – 187,804 (yes, that’s right! 5 photos/second – wow!!)

 Total samples collected with ROV (with the new tool sled designed and manufactured by FAU Harbor Branch engineers – 174:

  • Sponges – 115
  • Cnidaria (corals, gorgonians) – 28
  • Fish and other chordates – 4
  • Crabs – 1
  • Sea urchins and starfish – 7
  • Snails – 2
  • Algae – 5
  • Rocks/sediment – 12Sample collage

Number of samples collected for marine biomedical research at FAU Harbor Branch – 51

Number of sponge species for which cells and explants were cryopreserved for biotechnological research at FAU Harbor Branch – 16



John Reed – Chief Scientist – HBOI-FAU

Shirley Pomponi – Principal Investigator – HBOI-FAU

Stephanie Farrington – Research Scientist, Database Manager – HBOI-FAU

Megan Conkling – M.S. student (S. Pomponi) – HBOI-FAU

Brian Cousin – Videographer – HBOI-FAU

Melissa Price – Fish Biologist – U.S. Geological Survey

Don Liberatore – ROV Ops and Collections – HBOI-FAU

Guido Wijffels – Undergraduate student (S. Pomponi) – HAN University, Netherlands


May 19, 2015 Dispatch


Final Days

John Reed
Research Professor & Expedition Chief Scientist
FAU Harbor Branch

Dr. Shirley Pomponi
Research Professor & CIOERT Executive Director
FAU Harbor Branch

We are steaming home from our last two days of operations off Key West. After 6 hours of AUV side-scan sonar mapping of what we hoped was an uncharted deepwater reef, our Bluefin AUV team produced a map covering 3000 m x 800 m which showed apparent ledges, ridges, and pits in several hundred feet of water outside of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Then our 6-hour ROV dive confirmed what we had hoped. There is a deepwater reef that provides habitat for numerous juvenile snowy grouper, blueline tilefish, and schools of snapper and small deepwater reef fish. We will be sharing our discoveries and “facts” with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.ROV launch

AUV recovery Juvenile snowy groupers Snowy grouper and scorpionfish

We heartily thank the crew of the R/V Walton Smith (Captain Shawn Lake), UNCW Undersea Vehicles Program ROV team (Lance Horn and Jason White), and Bluefin AUV team (Andrew Vachon and Matthew Lockhart). This cruise would not have been possible without their camaraderie and hard work. Our science team and students are wonderful to work with and made the long days seem short.Ghost fishing gear



May 18, 2015 Dispatch #2


Reflections at Sea

John Reed
Research Professor & Expedition Chief Scientist
FAU Harbor Branch

Grouper comes in for his/her closeupIt begins, if I am lucky, a few days into the cruise. Where the mundane daily life, world news, and daily grind, slide away. After a few days at sea, if I am lucky, I can go the bow of the ship and hang on the railing, with no view but the cobalt blue of the sea fading at the horizon with the robin blue sky; the only sounds are the rhythmic crash of the ship’s hull into the waves; the only smell is sea salt. The only thoughts are Zen-like, nothing, mesmerized by the rhythmic rolling of the ship, the wave after wave to eternity. Like Siddhartha watching the babbling brook, contemplating the continuous cycle of life, no birth, no death, just the great recycling bin.John Reed @ sunset

For the past two weeks we have been 150 miles offshore, the only ship as far as I can see. I only saw one other vessel, a lone fishing boat, a hard struggle to put food on the plate and meager funds for the family. At sunrise and sunset a few of us take the time to stop what we are doing and just watch silently. The rosy fingered dawn is no match for the brilliant display of the orange and crimson sunsets, followed on a rare occasion by the mystical green flash as the orange orb passes just below the horizon. Is it real or just my burned retina from staring at the sunset?John Reed in the ROV lab

If lost at sea, I would be hard pressed to survive here. In the past two weeks, we only saw a meager amount of life on the surface, even though 500 feet below was teaming with life. We had a few visitors to the ship, passersby taking a respite on deck: a cattle egret stayed for a day and got a sip of water we provided, a brown booby, and a couple of species of warblers. These tiny warblers, that fit in the palm of your hand, fly thousands of miles on their migrations from North to South Americas, but usually when they get exhausted or confused, landing on the ship, they don’t make it. Into that eternal recycling bin again. We saw just a few dolphin, and one school of small Mahi Mahi (dolphin fish), and one turtle. So no, I would not want to be drifting at sea hoping to catch a fish here.Top-deck hot tub

One of the favorite times at sea for me, is going on the upper deck at night with all the lights off. Without the pollution of light that we are all used to now, the sky is brilliant, teeming with what seems like thousands, “billions” of stars. The Milky Way looks like an interstate highway, maybe it is. We lost all that with our industrial revolution and the invention of incandescent light. Our ancestors must have took it for granted, as they gazed at the brilliant night sky, alone, naked and afraid, as they imagined or realized the glories of life, death, eternity, and their insignificance as a speck in this whole of the universe.Clothesline

But the present is knocking at my cabin door. It is 6 a.m. and I smell bacon baking. It is time to go to work. We are now on our final days of research on the unknown, uncharted, deepwater reef off Key West. The Bluefin AUV team is up already; they had to switch from their night operations back to the day shift, as they are mapping this ‘‘reef” all day with the AUV side-scan sonar. Hopefully we will find this reef to be real, and see it in person, for the first time, tomorrow, on our last ROV dive of the cruise.

Overall, the cruise has been successful; at times it has been exhilarating, exhausting, and at times frustrating, but always interesting. Not the mundane daily life that we will soon return to. But now we have cell phone coverage again and can talk to our loved ones. And that makes it all worthwhile to return to the real world.


May 18, 2015 Dispatch

This Lab Rocks!

Megan Conkling
Graduate Student
FAU Harbor Branch

Transporting samples from the ROVMy name is Megan Conkling and I am a cruise newbie. I am a graduate student of Dr. Shirley Pomponi and we are working to establish sponge cell cultures. The samples we have collected from this research cruise are going to allow us to test new species for culture and also identify any new species we may have come across>

My duties during this cruise have been to help with data entry to characterize benthic habitat and identify marine organisms discovered during ROV dives. This has expanded my ability to identify sponges, corals, and algae in addition to learning the database system and how it works. I also help with sample processing which involves taking taxonomic voucher samples so that we can identify sponges in the photos of the deep reefs we’ve explored, freezing samples for later analyses by the drug discovery team at Harbor Branch, and also preserving sponge cells for future experiments..Megan with pipette

In order to preserve sponge cells we take the sponges and squeeze the tissue to separate the cells from the rest of the tissue. Next, we strain the cell suspension to discard any debris such as spicules, aggregates, or tissue. Lastly, the cells are cryopreserved with a solution that prevents ice crystals from forming and keeps the cells viable after they are thawed. This technique can be difficult because the spicules—microscopic skeletal elements in the sponges—are very sharp, and everything becomes a lot more difficult when you are on a rocking ship.Megan in the ROV lab

I am so thankful to be given this amazing opportunity to work with such educated and experienced scientists and technicians. I have seen and experienced firsthand the hard work and person-hours it takes to get things done during the cruise and the importance of having an amazing crew to keep us well-fed, on course, and safe on this journey. I would like to thank everyone on the cruise for making this an amazing and educating experience.













May 17, 2015 Dispatch


Data Coming

Stephanie Farrington
Biological Scientist
FAU Harbor Branch

Stephanie's data stationLet’s be honest: No one really cares about data. Even I am bored thinking about writing an update about it. But, besides getting to spend two weeks away from my work desk, watching sunsets every night, seeing dolphins ride the bow at night with bioluminescent plankton streaming off their tails like a scene from Avatar, and exploring deep-sea sites that no human has ever seen, it really is the ONLY reason we go to sea. Scientists and Fisheries Management Councils’ ferocious appetite for data is the driving force behind every scientific proposal, every cruise, every scientific paper, and every Marine Protected Area closure. Without data, being a marine biologist would consist of only sunsets and dolphin watching (what my friends and family think I do).Stephanie checking data

So far, as of Friday, we have collected 82,922 dive track records (latitude, longitude, depth & time) from 13 ROV dives, and this data is the base of all the data that follows. Every single specimen collected, photograph taken, dive note recorded, species and benthic observation made; every second of HD video watched and every single piece of data we create connects back to that dive track – where we were on the Earth and when. That is the basis for everything I do: a tiny row of dots on a geospatial map.Stephanie at sunset

Data is what determines the future of our funding and the closures of MPAs to protect critically endangered species or threatened habitats. A row of tiny dots could inspire a multitude of scientific papers, species' geographical expansions, understanding of the processes that control global warming, fisheries management, and the locations of biomedically important sponges.

So, while my friends and family are sitting at home jealous of me watching dolphins and sunsets, I am sitting on a rocking ship, at my laptop making sure that 83,000 dive tracks, 1900 images, 735 collection images, 6 Tb of HD Video, 1 TB of SD Video, 200 specimens, 171 subsamples, 83,000 CTD records totaling 8 TB of disk space (that is for one week at sea) are recorded, logged, tracked, backed-up (which takes 5 hours every night), and curated properly every day. It may be boring to most, but it is my life, my life’s work, it is the reason I get up in the morning, it is the reason I go to work every day, it is the reason I go to sea.


May 16, 2015 Dispatch


Nighttime AUV Sonar Mapping Means 24-Hour Operations

Andrew Vachon
AUV Operations
Bluefin Robotics

AUV launch at twilightMy name is Andrew Vachon and I am responsible for the AUV operations during our cruise. I work alongside Matt Lockhart and together we make up the night shift AUV team. We work for Bluefin Robotics, located in Quincy, Massachusetts. We are aboard the R/V Walton Smith with a Bluefin-12, a 12” diameter AUV. Our job each night is to use the high resolution side-scan sonar on the AUV to survey new sites for the science team to visit with the ROV on the following day.

My night usually begins with carefully planning the AUV’s mission for the night over the area the science team wants to map. In the evening the AUV is launched and begins a three-to-four-hour dive collecting sonar data over about a square kilometer of the seafloor. During the dive Matt and I carefully monitor the AUV to ensure it is operating as expected and to take action if problems arise. Once the AUV is safely back on the surface it is recovered and data processing begins. Each night the side-scan sonar produces about 40 GB of data, which we spend the rest of the night processing into charts the science team can use to determine areas they would like to investigate with the ROV. The ROV pilots also use these charts to navigate to the exact locations of rocks, pits, ledges, and other features the science team wants to visitSide scan showing rock outcroppings.

The Bluefin-12 AUV we operate consists of three sections: a tail section, a battery section, and a payload section. All of the sections are free-flooded, meaning that seawater is present inside the vehicle when it is submerged. The electronics are kept safe and dry inside aluminum pressure vessels.Bathymetry image

The tail section contains the propulsion system and the main electronics housing (MEH). Among other things, the MEH contains the AUV’s main computer and navigation systems. The tail section also contains a radio antenna and an acoustic modem transducer. We communicate with the AUV using the radio antenna when it is on the surface and with the acoustic modem when it is underwater.

The battery section contains three 1.5 kWh lithium ion batteries, which can be easily removed and replaced with freshly-charged batteries in just a few minutes. Depending on the power consumption of the payload being used, these three batteries together can power the vehicle for up to 20 hours.

The payload section is the forward-most section on the AUV. We have two payload sections on this cruise with us. The first is a high resolution side-scan sonar. The second is a downward-facing HD camera. The vehicle can be quickly reconfigured to use either of these two payloads.

The side-scan sonar produces acoustic images of the seafloor and is capable of detecting objects down to one square inch in size. The sonar covers 100 m on each side of the AUV, for a total width of 200 m. This sonar is also capable of producing bathymetry data at the same time that it is collecting side-scan imagery. This can be used to create three-dimensional maps of the ocean floor, much like a multibeam sonar would. When using this payload the AUV operates at an altitude of 8 m above the bottom.

The camera payload section contains a camera, four very bright LED lights, and a green laser which projects a bright line on the bottom. Photos of the reflected laser light can be post-processed to generate three-dimensional maps of the bottom. The camera records up to ten images per second, producing over 100,000 images on a typical night’s dive. When using the camera payload the AUV operates at a much lower altitude of 3 m. Because of this lower operating altitude, the camera section also contains a forward-looking sonar to warn the AUV of any obstacles protruding from the seafloor ahead.


This video provides a look at AUV operations.


May 15, 2015 Dispatch #2


Let’s Go Explorin’

John Reed
Research Professor & Expedition Chief Scientist
FAU Harbor Branch

Warsaw grouperThis is my favorite time of the cruise where we go exploring into relatively unexplored areas of the ocean. By “relatively” I mean no one has seen the bottom where we are going. This can be somewhat hit or miss; we may find “gold” (really cool habitat, deepwater reef, lots of fish, coral, and sponges) or it may be a “bust” (mud).

Prof. John ReedTo decide where to go and to most likely find “gold,” I started planning a year ago and gathering data about what is known about the area. First, a literature search going back 100 years or more of what has been done here – previous research cruises, references of geology, biology, and mapping surveys. A lot of work was done on the continental shelf all around the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1980s by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM which is now called BOEM: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) which was conducting surveys for future potential oil/gas exploration. Recently NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer’s ROV surveyed the very deep ocean in this area. Also, a lot of fisheries work by NOAA Fisheries and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has been conducted on the continental shelf off Florida.

arcGIS imageBut the area of interest for this CIOERT cruise was in between these previous survey areas. We wanted to find new shelf edge, deepwater reef areas that may be important essential fish habitat. The only data I could find for where we are surveying this week are 50-year old NOAA bathymetric charts which are fairly good for showing depth and topography but often not that accurate. The region of interest is along the deepwater shelf break off the southwest Florida coast. We digitized these charts and imported them into our Arc GIS computer program which allows us to make maps and select “target” sites that look likely to have rocky, reef bottom habitat.

SurveyOut on the ship now, each night we map a small region of our target area (about ½-mile square) with the unmanned underwater vehicle (Bluefin AUV 12) using side scan sonar. This survey produces a topographic map of the bottom in very high detail; we are able to discern objects a couple feet in size.

But still you cannot tell from the side scan what the bottom is like or the fauna or fish. We still need to see “in person” via the ROV video (or manned submersible, my favorite) in order to describe the habitat and fish community. Using the side scan we plot our ROV dive plan to check out any apparent bump, ledge, or hole that we see. So far we have been extremely lucky.

Two days ago I described a really nice site that is essential fish habitat for red grouper, and then the dive into the incredible deepwater sinkhole. Yesterday we discovered another incredible site that was essential fish habitat for blueline tilefish, golden tilefish, snowy grouper, scamp, and huge warsaw grouper. We have two more days exploring along this shelf, then we head to a new, unknown deepwater reef off the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. See you there! 


May 15, 2015 Dispatch


Leiodermatium and the Path to a Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer

Amy Wright
Research Professor & Director
Center of Excellence in Biomedical & Marine Biotechnology
FAU Harbor Branch

Collection of Leiodermatium sp. One of the sponges we have observed and collected during three of our deeper dives is a demosponge called Leiodermatium sp. It’s a “lithistid” sponge because it’s rock-like: it has siliceous spicules (microscopic skeletal elements) that interlock to form a rigid skeleton. Our team at Harbor Branch has discovered a chemical in this sponge that has potent activity against pancreatic cancer. The chemical is called “leoidermatolide”. We often give common names to these chemicals based on the scientific name organism – in this case, a sponge – from which the chemical was derived.

Leiodermatolide slideA hallmark of cancer is uncontrolled cell division, and many cancer chemotherapeutics (Taxol™, Vincristine™, Halaven™) function through blocking cell division. These compounds are called anti-mitotic agents. Leiodermatolide is in a class of chemicals called polyketide-derived macrolides. It is a very potent anti-mitotic agent that kills tumor cells at very low doses (nanomolar, or nM) and is highly selective for dividing cells. Leiodermatolide differs from clinically useful drugs that block cell division, but we’re still trying to determine exactly how it works. It appears to block spindle formation (required for cells to divide), but without interacting with tubulin. This is unique.

We are very excited about the potential for leiodermatolide to be developed into a drug to treat pancreatic cancer. This is a long process: our team identifies and collects unusual deepwater organisms (usually sponges), and then tests the chemicals derived from these organisms to determine if they have potent, selective activity. If they do, we conduct further research to determine exactly what the chemical is, as well as how it works (its “mechanism of action”). We then patent our discovery and license it to a pharmaceutical company for further development. The process can take many years – but leiodermatolide is ready now for licensing!



May 14, 2015 Dispatch #2


Flying the Mohawk: A Pilot's Perspective

Lance Horn
ROV Pilot
Undersea Vehicles Program, University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Lance HornThis is my job. My name is Lance Horn, and I operate undersea vehicles to support scientific research. I work with Jason White at the Undersea Vehicles Program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Driving the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) is really the easy part; however, it requires a great deal of concentration to get the exact data that the scientists want. Camera angle, lighting, computer screen presentation (zoom in – zoom out!), altitude off of the seafloor, speed and direction over the seafloor, and the ship's positioning in relation to the ROV, and features of interest on the bottom all require constant attention.

Thrill of victory, agony of defeatOn the other hand, driving the ROV requires a certain amount of finesse and familiarity with the vehicle. Fine tweaks, combinations of vehicle movement, or full power maneuvers achieved with the controls of the ROV can provide smooth video documentation, digital stills that are not blurry, or safety measures to keep the vehicle out of trouble. The hardest part of the job is keeping everything running. Electronics and seawater definitely do not mix! We monitor the status of the equipment on the ROV continuously, log all discrepancies, and make a "To Do" list of things we need to take a closer look at and fix when we get back to the lab.Mohawk comes home

Jason and I are not scientists, but basically operations personnel specializing in remotely operated vehicles. It just would not be feasible for every scientist that requires a ROV for research to go out and buy one, maintain it, and become proficient in getting it to fulfill the tasks required to conduct the research. That's our job, and that allows the scientist to concentrate on the SCIENCE.

On this cruise I got to do something that I have never done before. I piloted our Mohawk ROV down to the bottom of a sinkhole in the Gulf of Mexico. On the way down into the sinkhole, the scientists pointed out several species of fish, algae, and sponges – different colors, shapes … some moving, and some sessile.

Fathometer showing sinkholeSometimes I had to "park" the vehicle so that we could use the manipulator to grab a sample and put it into the collection box on the sample collection skid. This proved to be very difficult on the vertical walls inside the sinkhole because one wrong move would allow the sample we were after to slip out of our grasp and sink into the abyss. It was kind of funny because every time we got a sample in the box the scientists would remark "Alright! Okay! Great job!" But when we dropped one, just a low groan arose from the crowd.

Going down the wall, we saw remarkable boulders and overhangs, huge craggy rocks reaching out to the ROV, and we were all on the lookout for stray pieces of fishing line that could get sucked up in the thrusters. I was glad when we got to the sandy bottom and started up the wall again. On the way down and back, we circumnavigated the entire sinkhole. All in all, we got several good samples that the scientists wanted and they seemed very happy with the day's work.


Here's a video from inside the sinkhole.


May 14, 2015 Dispatch


Cruising with the Fish on the Southwest Florida Shelf

Melissa Price
Fish Biologist
U.S. Geological Survey

ROV loggingOne of my favorite things about being at sea, aside from the free meals and no dishwashing, are all the peaceful sunsets. It’s a great way to end a 12+ hour, rigorous work day, especially when the dolphins decide to entertain us with their skills. Melissa in the labI began working on mesophotic reefs (minimal sunlight penetration) in the 60-90 meter range three years ago, identifying and counting reef associated fish for oil impact studies, and was extended an invitation to assist with fish identification and quantification for the current exploration mission. I am grateful for the opportunity and invitation to work alongside such accomplished scientists and hope this cultivates continued collaborative efforts for marine science in the future.Fish

Something that really caught my attention was the amount of sunlight penetrating to the bottom at 200 m below sea level caused by the overwhelmingly clear water. I am learning a bit more about some fish species present at these deeper depths (100-200 m) as well as gaining experience and knowledge from sponge and coral experts.Sunset at sea My favorite fish encounters so far (Manta ray and sharks aside) have been the Deepbody boarfish, Longspine snipefish, and French butterflyfish, as they were first time encounters for me and very interesting fish that inhabit deeper (>200 m) parts of the Gulf of Mexico where light is absent. We also observed and photographed several different large grouper species including Speckled Hind and Warsaw Grouper, Yellowedge Grouper, and Snowy Grouper. This morning we were informed there was a Leatherback sea turtle off the bow, so I enthusiastically grabbed my camera and safely ran to the front of the vessel, only to discover that sea turtles swim faster than I can run!

It has been a successful cruise thus far with a few minor setbacks. Yesterday the manipulator arm on the ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) broke, which had all the ROV crew and engineers in a frenzy to fix it in time for the next dive… and lunch. Luckily for everyone, they “MacGyvered” the arm to be functional once again. Now I just have to hope I don’t get rocked off the top bunk by the storm heading our way.

Wish me luck!

















May 13, 2015 Dispatch #2


New Explorations on the Florida Shelf Edge

John Reed
Research Professor & Expedition Chief Scientist
FAU Harbor Branch

Side scan imageToday was awesome. Last night we ran an AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) side scan sonar mission of what appeared on a 50-year old NOAA bathymetric chart to be a 700-feet deep mound. You never know what to expect.Speckled hind

This morning we were getting ready for the ROV dive when I got the AUV data. It looked like a bust: completely smooth bottom, no ridges or any evidence of ledges that I was hoping for, only dozens of pits about 30 ft. in diameter all over the bottom.Crinoids Cups

We hit bottom in soft muddy silt. It stirred up so bad we couldn't see a foot in front of us. Finally we got underway with the ROV and came to the first 'pit.' Amazingly, it turned out to be a steep-sided rocky hole; the sides were rugged rock ledges and boulders.

Stephanie's art

And filled with fish – and a huge speckled hind which is on the NOAA Fisheries list of Critically Endangered Fish. There also were lots of beautiful deepwater reef fish, angelfish, scorpionfish, and lots of sponges that the marine biomedical and biotech group has collected previously that have potent anti-cancer compounds that they are working on.

We got lots of neat video of the fish and collected some of the sponges. By then we were running out of time, so I told the ROV pilot to just go full speed to all the pits on the AUV sonar map that we can view on the video screen while we are driving the ROV. Every pit had one or two speckled hind. If I counted all the pits on the side scan sonar map and the whole area of the mound, it could be one of the biggest known populations of the species.

The afternoon dive was in a deepwater sinkhole – 750 ft. deep at the bottom, straight vertical jagged rocky walls, 200 ft. straight down. Talk about a nervous ROV pilot – as we were urging him on to go down the wall and collect sponges while doing so – but that is another story...


















May 13, 2015 Dispatch


Intern at Sea

Guido Wijffels
Student, Intern
The HAN University, Nijmegen, Netherlands

Guido carrying a sponge from ROV to wet labI am a Dutch biochemistry student and with my 19 years I am the youngest member of the CIOERT cruise. I am going on this cruise as part of my internship with Dr. Shirley Pomponi at FAU Harbor Branch for my undergraduate degree at the HAN in Nijmegen. Guido and MeganI would eventually like to do something that is going to help society with my background in biochemistry. I believe that sponge research has great potential for drug discovery which is exactly what I want to be involved in.

ROV launchWhen I came to Florida a few months ago, I never thought I would be in the Gulf of Mexico for 2 weeks. I had never been out to sea like this before. Looking at the wildlife, beautiful sunset over the water or the night sky without light pollution is amazing. Because of this I am more aware of how much more is out there to see, learn, and discover. This has been such a great experience which I will remember for the rest of my life.

Guido in wet labIt takes lots of preparation, a whole team of scientists and a wonderful support crew to make this all possible. I got to help them with cryopreserving sponges, collecting samples, collecting data, and deployment and recovery of the ROV. I am very grateful for the chance to be part of it all. The seasickness is definitely worth it.





A manta ray cruised around the R/V Walton Smith during recovery of the Mohawk ROV. Video by Guido Wijffels.


May 12, 2015 Dispatch


Expanded Deck Operations with the Mohawk ROV

Jason White
ROV Pilot
Undersea Vehicles Program, University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Jason White launches ROVMy name is Jason White and I am one of the two remotely operated vehicle (ROV) pilots on the cruise. This is our first cruise with our new sample collection skid (or tool sled). I’m going to go over how using this sample collection skid has changed our everyday operations on the back deck of the ship.

Lance Horn, ROV pilotThe Mohawk 18 ROV sample collection skid is a science purpose-built skid developed by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University. The manipulator and suction sampler provide the ability to collect a wide variety of sample sizes, textures, and consistencies. All samples can be geo-located so we can return to the exact spot in the future if necessary. We have a variable speed reversible suction pump connected to a 2 in. hose which we can use to collect samples in five discreet 2-liter buckets. We also have a 5-function manipulator on the front of the ROV and an opening and closing bio box. The bio box can be sectioned into as many as five compartments or just one, depending on sample size.

ROV launchWhen we bring the ROV up on deck after a dive, the most important thing we have to do after securing the vehicle is get the samples out of the buckets and bio box. To complete this task takes several people. The ROV pilot coordinates with the deck ROV person (me in this case) to remove each bucket from the carousel on the back of the ROV and to open the bio box on the front of the ROV. Scientists wearing protective gloves then take each container with samples to the wet lab on the vessel to begin their analysis.

ROV tool skidMy job on the back deck is then to get the ROV ready for the next dive. I must work together with the ROV pilot to achieve this goal. After the samples are removed from the ROV, I wash it down with fresh water to remove all the debris, rocks, and sand. We have discovered during this cruise that we are getting a lot of debris from the bottom stuck in our chain drives and other important pieces on our sample collection skid. We believe this problem is occurring because we mounted a 6” pipe between the vertical thruster on the main body of the ROV and the bottom of the collection skid to direct water flow when thrust up and down. The thrust is picking up sediment and blowing it all over the ROV. We plan on working on this small issue when we return to the shop.

Biobox offloadAfter all the debris is cleaned out, I coordinate with the ROV pilot to put our next set of buckets in the suction carousel and bio box dividers in the bio box. At this point the ROV pilot tests every basic function of the ROV while I give him the A-okay signal via the vehicles HD-camera. We are now ready to deploy the ROV again. On this cruise so far we have collected anywhere from 1 to 22 samples per dive, so this whole process varies on time depending on the amount of samples we collect during each dive.












May 12, 2015 Dispatch Supplement


Having Fun at Sea!

John Reed
Research Professor & Expedition Chief Scientist

FAU Harbor Branch

Seas flat and beautiful weather. Saw a pod of dolphins swimming on the bow wake last night, could see them without artificial light from the glow of bioluminescence in the water.

Cruise animal visitorsAnd had a big manta ray swimming around the boat. Yesterday had a cattle egret land on the ship. Don't know what he was doing way out here, 150 miles offshore. We put down a bowl of water that he drank out of.

Today we started using a new way of doing laundry. The washer broke and the engineer can't fix it. We have 18 people on board.

I said we have two options: 1) rotate your undies inside out for the next week, or 2) wash in salt water. Most are opting for option 2 so far.

Laundry at seaSo I put my clothes in a mesh bag with Dawn soap – it is the only soap that works well in salt water and they use it to wash oiled birds. Then I tied a rope to it and dunked it up and down in the ocean for a while.

For the warm-water rinse cycle, I held the bag in the outflow of hot water coming from the engines. For the spin cycle, I jumped up and down on the bag to squeeze out the salt water; then for final rinse, I put in bucket of fresh water. To dry, I draped it over all the AUV gear on the back deck.

Now I smell like an ocean breeze!


May 11, 2015 Dispatch


Pulley Ridge – The Deepest Coral Reef in U.S. Continental Waters

John Reed
Research Professor & Expedition Chief Scientist
FAU Harbor Branch

This CIOERT expedition started along Pulley Ridge, beginning at the southern terminus and heading north along a deep rocky ridge off the southwest Florida shelf in the Gulf of Mexico. The ridge is actually an ancient shoreline of Florida that formed of limestone rock some 12,000-20,000 years ago at the end of the last glacial period. At that time when mastodons and saber-toothed tigers roamed Florida, sea level was nearly 300 feet lower than it is today because of the huge glaciers that covered much of North America.

Loop Current mapPulley Ridge is the deepest known light-dependent coral reef ecosystem off the continental United States. Located in the Gulf of Mexico, Pulley Ridge lies about 100 miles west of the Florida coast and extends north to south along the southwestern Florida platform at depths of 200-300 feet for nearly 150 miles. Only the southernmost 20 miles, referred to as southern Pulley Ridge, represents a drowned barrier island and supports deep coral reefs dominated by Caribbean flora and fauna. This is where we dove the first several days of the expedition.

Coral growth is supported by the Loop Current, the prevailing western boundary current in the Gulf of Mexico that becomes the Florida Current as it comes around Florida and up the east coast of the U.S. The Loop Current provides warm, clear, low-nutrient waters to Pulley Ridge. This current separates the clear, outer-shelf waters from cooler, higher nutrient, interior-shelf waters. Seafloor light measured at southern Pulley Ridge is only 1-2% of available surface light which is 5% of the light typically available to shallow-water reefs, but this is still sufficient for coral and algal growth.Pulley Ridge corals

Recent surveys of Pulley Ridge in 2012-2014 (Reed et al. 2013-2015) show that the reef habitat supports a biologically diverse and dense community that is dominated by algae (53.8% cover), including plates of crustose coralline alga, green alga, sponges, and hard coral. A total of 216 benthic plants and animals were identified from Pulley Ridge, including 14 hard corals, 15 seafans (octocorals), and 4 black corals. The hard corals are dominated by the plate corals Agaricia sp. and Montastraea cavernosa.

Pulley Ridge spongesA total of 78 fish taxa were identified from Pulley Ridge. The most common species include sharpnose puffer, cherubfish, reef butterflyfish, yellowtail reeffish, sunshinefish, purple reeffish, squirrelfish, wrasse bass, orangeback bass, chalk bass, greenblotch parrotfish, and the bicolor damselfish. Fifteen species of commercially- and recreationally-important grouper and snapper species also occur here with the dominant species being vermilion snapper, black grouper, graysby, mutton snapper, red grouper, and scamp. On southern Pulley Ridge, red groupers make burrow pits about 30 ft. in diameter and 5 ft. deep. Most burrows have one adult male or female red grouper of 20 in. or greater. The burrows provide habitat and act as oases for many small reef fish, but unfortunately most of the burrows now have dozens of invasive lionfish per burrow.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (GMFMC) expressed concern over ongoing damage to Pulley Ridge habitat by fishing operations, and in 2005 designated the Pulley Ridge a habitat area of particular concern (HAPC criteria include ecosystem services provided by the habitat, sensitivity to human impact, development stressors, and rarity of habitat type). This 346 km2 marine reserve is also considered essential fish habitat for both coral and fish. Fishing restrictions within the Pulley Ridge HAPC include prohibition of bottom tending gear such as, bottom trawls, bottom longline, buoy gear, pot, or trap and bottom anchoring by fishing vessels. In 2014, a proposal was submitted by our CIOERT team to the GMFMC to extend the Pulley Ridge HAPC boundaries to include the newly discovered reef habitat (321 km2) in the Central Basin.

The research conducted during the current cruise will provide valuable data about the deep reefs on the continental shelf off Florida. These relatively unknown reefs are essential habitat for a variety of commercially important fish species such as snapper and grouper. This is especially crucial if this region is opened for future oil/gas exploration and development.


May 10, 2015 Dispatch


Sonar Bathymetry on New Sites at Pulley Ridge and What’s There

Brian Cousin
Video Production/Photography
FAU Harbor Branch

AUV night launchAfter two dives yesterday with the Mohawk ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle), we transited 22 nautical miles to a site on Pulley Ridge outside the designated marine protected area (Pulley Ridge Habitat Area of Particular Concern). The first order of business on site ‘P44’ is to launch the Bluefin Robotics B-12 AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) to gather side-scan sonar imagery of the bottom so that Chief Scientist John Reed and the ROV team can make an informed decision about where best to deploy the vehicle. The sonar image shows an area about 1 kilometer by a half kilometer.Sonar image

Between AUV recovery time in the predawn and ROV launch time, the sonar data is processed to produce a geo-referenced color-coded bathymetric map of the sea floor in our survey area.AUV bathymetry map

On its first dive of the day, the ROV is on what Dr. Shirley Pomponi describes as a very nice site. The team is alternating between video/photo transects to characterize this habitat and sample collecting for Shirley’s cell culture work. We are also compiling a video and photo album of every organism prior to sampling it.Hard bottom lionfish

After the dive, John Reed said he would have not have chosen to dive here based on the side-scan sonar data collected during the night by the AUV, which showed the bottom to be relatively flat and featureless. But he says, “You never know what you’re going to find.” It turned out this is a very productive area, completely different from anything we’ve seen inside the HAPC at similar depths. There are sponges, soft corals and gorgonians, but none of the Agaricia coral, the ubiquitous alga Anadyomene, or the pink crustose coralline algae.Lionfish

Like most places we have visited on the southwestern Florida shelf, however, the invasive lionfish is here in force, occupying red grouper pits and hard-bottom reefs.

During the second dive of the day, about 5 miles due east from this morning’s dive, we encountered some of the Anadyomene alga we know from the south. We are diving in new territory that John has researched only from NOAA charts published about 50 years ago. So while it’s not exactly “uncharted territory” our work today with two vehicles for science will add a wealth of new information about this area.




May 9, 2015 Dispatch


It Takes a Floating Village

Brian Cousin
Video Production/Photography
FAU Harbor Branch

To perform multidisciplinary undersea research, our CIOERT expedition science team is well-complemented with talented scientists, technicians, and students. Private industry, government agencies, and academia are all here: working with undersea vehicles, characterizing the habitat, identifying species, and processing samples for biological and chemical analysis in pursuit of pharmaceutical discovery.

Some have been working in their field for years. Others are early-on in their careers and two represent the next generation of scientists and engineers. They are gathered here from points in Florida, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and as far away as the Netherlands to conduct some of the first explorations of new sites on the southwest Florida shelf.

We all thank Captain Shawn Lake and the crew of the University of Miami Research Vessel Walton Smith for providing us with an excellent scientific work platform, everything we need to keep operations running smoothly, and keeping us well fed – critical to the success of any scientific mission at sea.

 John Reed Shirley Pomponi  Stephanie Farrington
 Brian Cousin  Melissa Price  Don Liberatore
 Megan Conkling  Guido Wijffels  Lance Horn
 Jason White  Andrew Vachon  Mathew Lockhart


May 8, 2015 Dispatch


First Dive! First Collection!

Shirley Pomponi
Research Professor & CIOERT Executive Director
FAU Harbor Branch

After transiting for about 27 hours, with calm seas and clear skies, we reached our destination at about 11:30 a.m.: Pulley Ridge. It’s the site of the deepest hermatypic (reef-building) coral reef in the continental US, off the southwest coast of Florida. You can see more information about Pulley Ridge at NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center.ROV launch

One of the goals for this expedition is to explore, discover, map, and describe new deepwater coral reefs off southwest Florida. Chief Scientist John Reed conducted extensive literature research to identify sites where these may occur. This will be the first time any of these sites have been mapped and new information is of great interest to the State of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).ROV lab

Today we’re making our first dive at Pulley Ridge, an area we’ve been studying with our partners, the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies at the University of Miami, NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, and NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research, since 2011. We have hundreds of photographs of sponges, many of which we cannot identify without a specimen. On our next couple dives, we’re collecting sponges so that we can “ground-truth” the photos. Why is that important? Unless we know what’s there, we can’t accurately assess the biodiversity.Live collecting

We’re very excited because the Mohawk ROV was recently outfitted with a tool sled, designed by FAU and UNCW engineers and ROV operators. The sled has five buckets into which we can use a suction pump to gather samples, and two “bio boxes” that can be partitioned off to create from two to six individual containers for samples collected with the claw on the manipulator arm.Shirley Pomponi with sponge sample

This is the “shakedown mission” for the tool sled – the first time it’s been used in the field! The excitement in the ROV lab this afternoon was palpable as the first sample – a section of Geodia neptuni sponge was harvested by ROV manipulator operator Don Liberatore after ROV pilot Jason White maneuvered the vehicle into position. New collections for the biomedical and biotechnology labs at FAU Harbor Branch are officially underway.Guido Wijffels with sponge sample

Another very important goal on this cruise is to revisit sites we explored in 1999 and 2001 to collect sponges from which Dr. Amy Wright and her team at HBOI-FAU discovered chemicals with exciting biological activity against cancer and other diseases. We’ll be going back to the same sites to try to find more sponges so that we can conduct biological, chemical, microbiological, and molecular research on the chemicals to determine their mechanisms of action as potential drugs.

And last, but not least, we’ll be testing a new laser camera on the Bluefin 12 AUV … but that’s for another day…

Oh, and of course, there will be at least one more dispatch about the sponges we’re finding!

Meanwhile, here's a video that shows the ROV collecting a specimen and securing it in the ROV sled's "biobox."



May 7, 2015 Dispatch


Heading Out!

Brian Cousin
Video Production/Photography
FAU Harbor Branch

Welcome to the CIOERT-FAU mission to North Pulley Ridge and the Southwest Florida shelf. CIOERT-FAU is not the easiest acronym. It stands for the Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research and Technology-Florida Atlantic University. CIOERT itself was established in 2009 with the University of North Carolina Wilmington as Managing Partner and SRI International and the University of Miami as Limited Partners. The FAU part is Florida Atlantic University, where CIOERT is situated at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute research facility.R/V Walton Smith

We are on the University of Miami’s research vessel, the F.G. Walton Smith, with some cool technology to enable our planned surveys of mesophotic and deepwater coral reefs on north Pulley Ridge and the southwest Florida shelf. Check the map on the Exploration page to see where we’re headed.

There’s the Bluefin Robotics Bluefin 12 AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle), a free swimming torpedo shaped unit with a new Cathx white light/laser recording camera that can provide resolution to less than a millimeter from about 3 meters off the bottom using the laser mode. Add that to Solstice side-scan sonar with bathymetry that can resolve objects to one square inch from an altitude of 8 meters, in a swath 100-meters wide on each side of the vehicle.AUV buoyancy test

Then there’s the Mohawk ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle). It’s tethered to the surface where pilots and operators will ‘fly’ the vehicle over the bottom, recording video and still images, and for the first time, collecting samples of marine organisms that populate this unique region. That’s tremendously important. This new capability enhances of the breadth, depth and quality of the data that our researchers can provide to the agencies and decision makers interested in conservation and sustainable economic utilization of these undersea resources.

That’s one of the reasons CIOERT Executive Director Dr. Shirley Pomponi is out on this mission. An expert sponge taxonomist and biomedical researcher, she will be able to not only accurately identify sponge species, but examine their biology for novel activity that may help fight some of the dread diseases humans face today. Not possible with only pictures and videos – possible with specimens in the lab.Loading a freezer by crane

It’s now Thursday and we are underway, the Miami skyline well off our stern. Seas are calm and the sky is clear. There had been some concern that conditions might not be so favorable due to an area of low pressure that formed yesterday in the Bahamas. While it is forecast to become an early-season subtropical cyclone with a little more strengthening, it has headed up the east coast of Florida and is off Georgia now.

We took advantage of the calm to stop in Biscayne Bay to do a preliminary buoyancy adjustment on the AUV. The vehicle went over the stern and Bluefin techs Andrew Vachon and Matt Lockhart weighted it until it just slipped below the surface. That took 12 pounds of lead. With a target of being 5-6 pounds positive buoyancy, Andrew and Matt will open the vehicle and install about 6 pounds of ballast for the first deployment, likely two evenings from now. It’s important that AUVs float when not working and diving. A vehicle that loses power or somehow becomes ‘lost’ is easier to find bobbing at the surface than it is below the waves.

Transit time to our first site of operations is expected to be 24 to 36 hours from the University of Miami dock. The science crew, ROV and AUV teams are set up on deck and in the labs, checking systems and plans as we head for our first operations site at the north end of Pulley Ridge in the Gulf of Mexico.


May 6, 2015 Dispatch


Welcome to CIOERT@SEA

M. Dennis Hanisak
Research Professor & CIOERT Education Director
FAU Harbor Branch


ROV launch Welcome to CIOERT@SEA: dispatches from expeditions by the Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research & Technology (CIOERT) at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute-Florida Atlantic University (HBOI-FAU). CIOERT works with NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research to address NOAA’s priorities for technology innovation, continental shelf frontier exploration, and improving understanding of vulnerable deep and shallow coral and sponge ecosystems.

 CIOERT is based at HBOI-FAU in Fort Pierce, Florida. Harbor Branch has been recognized since its founding in 1971 for innovation in ocean exploration, research, and technology. CIOERT continues that rich tradition.

Ocean exploration is the first step in ocean inquiry; through disciplined exploration we discover new environments, organisms, and phenomena. Ocean explorers have diverse interests, but share a passion for discovery and the use of the best available technology to gain knowledge of the ocean. Through CIOERT@SEA, we seek to immediately share our experiences at sea with all who are interested. Our dispatches by scientists, technicians, and students will elaborate on the science and technology we use at sea and will immediately share our discoveries with a broader audience.

CIOERT@SEA builds on similar efforts we have done in the past, beginning with the Harbor Branch @sea website, and continuing with blogs from our two Florida Shelf Edge Explorations (FLOSEE in 2010 , FLOSEE II in 2011 ) and mission logs from two NOAA signature cruises to Pulley Ridge, Coral Ecosystem Connectivity 2013 and 2014 . Daily dispatches from at-sea mission correspondents on CIOERT@SEA will provide news and insights of ocean exploration as they happen.Harbor Branch photographer/videographer Brian Cousin

CIOERT@SEA’s first expedition is a 14-day cruise, May 7-20, 2015, on board CIOERT partner University of Miami’s R/V Walton Smith with the Flower Gardens Bank National Marine Sanctuary’s Mohawk ROV, operated by CIOERT partner University of North Carolina, Wilmington. We will map and survey selected areas of interest on the southwest Florida shelf, and in particular, areas of northern Pulley Ridge outside of the Pulley Ridge Habitat Area of Particular Concern, and the outer shelf at depths of 70 m to 300 m (the maximum depth of the ROV).

So, join in on our ocean exploration: What happens at sea, does not stay at sea anymore!