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Photography, sonar give scientists insight into ocean floor

Posted on 07.05.2004 - 03:28 EDT in SCIENCE & TECH NEWS by Rons_ROV_Links

Completing the most extensive mapping study ever of the ocean floor off Northern California, marine scientists Wednesday unveiled video footage and detailed sonar images of miles of sea bottom between Monterey and Marin County.

The project, a 21-day expedition in April, featured federal researchers on a 224-foot ship towing an underwater camera and using other high-tech gear to uncover some of the agelessness that lies beneath Monterey Bay, Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries.

The information ## an early phase of a project that could take 10 years ## provides valuable insight, scientists say, that will be used to help restore fish populations, track underwater earthquake faults and better monitor the health of the ocean.

"On land, we have maps that show where the redwood forests, the deserts and the grasslands are," said Rachel Saunders, spokeswoman for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, based in Monterey. "But we don't have anywhere near that kind of detail on the ocean. Now with this project, the public can start to see some of that in living color. This is our way to have a window into that world so we can make better management decisions."

The $300,000 survey was completed by teams of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Although oceans make up 71 percent of the earth's surface, there are more detailed maps of the moon than of most of the world's sea floors.

Off California, nautical charts have provided basic information to sailors for 300 years.

But it has been only in the last decade that the contours of the ocean bottom have been mapped with sonar and other technology. Those efforts have produced dramatic posters and computer images revealing underwater mountains, reefs, islands and canyons off the San Mateo County, San Francisco and Big Sur coasts.

The Monterey Bay Submarine Canyon, for example, meanders from Moss Landing 125 miles into the Pacific, carving a trench twice as deep as the Grand Canyon that is filled with fish, jellyfish, squid and other animals that live in complete darkness. Some have no eyes or make their own light.

The latest project represents a new generation of underwater maps: those that show where certain types of fish and other animals live, along with the geological details of their undersea world.

Even including the new project, habitat maps have been completed for only about 10 to 15 percent of the ocean bottom in the three national marine sanctuaries that stretch from Monterey to Marin County. Those three protected areas, where oil drilling is banned, encompass 7,100 square miles ## an area the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. They include roughly 325 miles of coastline, an expanse world famous for rocky cliffs, migrating gray whales, lush kelp forests, diving pelicans, sea otters, great white sharks, colorful tide pools and hundreds of species of fish, birds and other marine life.

It could take 10 years or more of additional video and sonar work to produce habitat maps for the entire area, said Roberto Anima, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who worked on the project.

Video, still photos and detailed maps of the areas studied have been posted on a Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Web site, at

"We need to understand that the ocean is multidimensional," said Jane DeLay, executive director of Save Our Shores, an environmental group in Santa Cruz. "When you drive by you see the top of the water. You don't realize what's underneath and how important that is. Now people can sit in their homes and see it. When we increase our level of understanding, we increase our ability to conserve it."

As part of the project, scientists took 200 hours of video.

The footage doesn't show brilliantly lit coral reefs teeming with colorful creatures, common in the tropical waters of the South Pacific or Caribbean. Nevertheless, it offers a rare glimpse of the rich underwater environment off Central California. In the video, the camera glides through dark, cold waters, occasionally coming across perch, croaker, rockfish and other commercial fish species. In one segment, a harbor seal zips by. In another, the camera pans past white sea anemones, an octopus, and fields of starfish that extend for hundreds of yards across the ocean bottom.

Andrew DeVogelaere, research coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, said the footage can be used when future marine biologists want to compare fish populations with years past to learn trends.

"We're providing a baseline in video," he said. "It would be great if we had this 20 years ago. We know now how many fish there are and how big they are. We're excited. It's sort of a dream coming true for us."

05 May 2004


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