Undersea observatory reveals what's in the ocean off the coast of Vancouver Island

There are psychedelic colours, underwater chimneys, decaying bodies and strange, strange creatures under the ocean off the coast of Vancouver Island. Across the globe, scientists and students are watching as the watery world reveals some of its secrets.

Unique “eyes” under the ocean are spread along 850 kilometres of cable dotted with scientific instruments, stretching from the rocky shores off the west coast, near Port Alberni, to the deep abyss of the Cascadia Basin, 2,660 metres beneath the surface.

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NEPTUNE, the largest regional cabled undersea observatory network in the world, is run by Ocean Networks Canada, along with VENUS, its sister coastal cabled observatory — which runs under Saanich Inlet and across the Strait of Georgia to the Fraser River delta — and a smaller Arctic observatory.

The project is led by the University of Victoria for a consortium of universities and other organizations, and ONC, which has adopted the slogan “Discover the Ocean, Understand the Planet.”

ONC president Kate Moran said more than 90 per cent of the planet that supports life is in the ocean, although people typically think only of the ocean surface.

“For us, it’s about the sea beneath the surface … so what we have are instruments and sensors, submarines and underwater robots that explore this 90 per cent of our ocean planet,” she said.

“When it comes to cabled ocean observatories, we’re the first, we’re the biggest and we’re the best.”

An example of the wide-ranging international co-operation the research inspires is Wally, an Internet-operated deep-sea robot that conducts experiments on gas hydrates in Barkley Canyon and is operated by a research group out of Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany.

That means a German scientist wakes up every day and goes for a spin in Barkley Canyon, said Kim Juniper, ONC science director.

In addition to the shared brainpower, German engineering has its advantages.

“Wally works like a Mercedes Benz,” Juniper said. “Even when we accidentally dropped him, he went 850 metres through the water column and landed on his feet.”

The unplanned rapid descent happened during one of this year’s science expeditions.

“Wally was being gently lowered over the side of the ship when he became unhinged — as did a lot of other people,” Juniper said.

Non-stop undersea video transmitted through the Internet is riveting for at-home viewers, who play an important role. With the vast quantity of information pouring in, ONC relies on citizen scientists to notice unusual incidents.

The essential role of amateurs became an international story earlier this year when a Ukrainian teen, enthralled by the live underwater images, noticed a nose and whiskers at the top of the screen, then saw the unknown animal swallow a slimy hagfish.

Information provided by the teen showed how deep-diving elephant seals can eat a seemingly inedible fish by inhaling it.

The scope of the research sets NEPTUNE apart from other projects.

“No one else does this continuous monitoring on such a scale, which scientists need to have accurate information over the long term,” Juniper said.

In addition to cutting-edge, big-picture science, much of the research is vital for B.C.

Information is collected on everything from earthquakes and underwater mudslides to the rate of corpse decay and noise pollution.

B.C. Ferries is one of the newest contributors to the project. As the Queen of Alberni travels along the surface on the Tsawwassen/Duke Point run, water is pumped into a portable laboratory that collects the data that is then sent to ONC researchers, Juniper said.

“We need to understand more about plankton blooms in the Strait of Georgia,” he said.

“It is critical for juvenile salmon coming down the Fraser.”

Neptune project

Webcams and hundreds of subsea instruments are centred on observatory sites known as nodes spread along the NEPTUNE and VENUS cabled undersea networks, recording the daily soap opera of life under the Pacific Ocean.

Research tools ranging from robots to dead pigs, which help researchers learn about decomposition, are spread over one of the most diverse ocean environments on earth, providing information to scientists and armchair marine biologists alike.

The ability to observe deep ocean life thriving under extreme conditions, without light and oxygen, is helping researchers understand how life may have begun. Ocean Networks Canada is focusing on themes such as the implications of human-induced change in the Northeast Pacific Ocean and movement of the seafloor and sediment.

Climate change is affecting the ecosystem, while the Juan de Fuca Plate, and North American Plate are restlessly slipping and sliding and, along the volcanically active Juan de Fuca mid-ocean ridge, new ocean crust is forming — all of which make for a perfect real-life laboratory.

Here are the observatory sites:

Saanich Inlet

Two hundred metres under the waters of Saanich Inlet, it can get stuffy.

“Like any other fjord, the exit is quite shallow, so the bottom waters aren’t connected to the outside and it gets stagnant,” said Kim Juniper, Ocean Networks Canada science director.

“It’s a bit like being in an elevator with 27 people all breathing the same air until the doors are opened.”

Research on the effects of low oxygen is important because globally, the number of marine areas experiencing temporary oxygen shortages is growing.

“Two or three new dead zones appear every year around the world and we need to know how it is affecting marine life, fisheries and recreation,” Juniper said.

Strait of Georgia

Every year, huge amounts of mud and other eroded material sweep down the Fraser River and land in the delta in unstable heaps.

As the ocean moves over the top, there are undersea mudslides. The underwater landscape is shifting, exacerbated by climate change.

“When you get a big rainstorm, there are a lot of things squishing and letting go and we need to understand more about how they respond to this,” Juniper said.

One of the better-known experiments here is led by Simon Fraser University forensic entomologist Gail Anderson, who lowers dead pigs into the water to study the process of decomposition and scavenging.

The information is used to help police estimate time of death when human bodies are found in the water.

In the latest research, pigs were lowered in the water in pairs, with one carcass surrounded by a cage to protect it from large predators, so the rates of dismemberment and decomposition can be compared.

Instruments also monitor noise pollution in one of the busiest shipping lanes on the continent, research that is especially important in an area home to endangered southern resident killer whales.

“It’s like being at a bus stop and talking on your cellphone with all that roaring going on,” Juniper said.

Underwater noise has been identified as one of the threats to killer whale survival, and some groups are looking at whether the problem could be lessened by requiring ships to use mufflers.

Folger Passage

The area at the mouth of Barkley Sound, with a depth of 20 to 100 metres, has big swells. NEPTUNE’s instruments measure currents and the effect of winter storms on the ecosystem.

Folger video is popular with the public, often showing exotically coloured anemones swaying in the current.

For those preferring less action, a University of Alberta project has an array of eight cameras in a semi-circle watching sponges grow.

“It’s the daily life of a sponge on a rock,” Juniper said.

Sensors monitor growth of phytoplankton and the habits of the zooplankton that graze on them. The instruments also pick up the apparent chaos among the species when the water column is disturbed by storms.

“It’s a tough life being a copepod and at the bottom of the food chain,” Juniper said.

Barkley Canyon

Massive deposits of frozen gas hydrates are distributed on continental shelves around the planet. They’re regarded as both the world’s largest untapped supply of fossil fuel and a source of extremely powerful greenhouse gases.

In Barkley Canyon, with depths ranging from 400 to 1,000 metres, there are seven platforms of instruments, plus Wally the Crawler, all of them observing the behaviour of gas hydrates.

“We are very much interested in understanding the long-term stability,” Juniper said.

Gas hydrates are formed from a mixture of water and gas and are stable only at high pressure or low temperature.

“It doesn’t take much in terms of temperature change to destabilize frozen methane and for it to escape into the atmosphere,” Juniper said.

Global warming is a concern, as is the possibility of an underwater landslide, he said.

“If the whole slope let go and there was a massive underwater landslide, it could, potentially, be dangerous.”

In Japan, efforts are underway to extract gas from methane hydrates. Research in Barkley Canyon could reveal the dangers and benefits of drilling into an unstable environment.

Wally is connected to one of the platforms and follows numbered markers along a route known as Wallyland — allowing researchers to see exactly where he is as he sends back video and information on oxygen, salinity, temperature and methane levels.

This year, the robot is being upgraded with technology previously used for space exploration in machines such as the Mars Rover.

“We are installing a computer system and laser scanner to allow him to recognize obstacles and go around them,” Juniper said.

The soft sand and sediment is home to organisms and fish that have adapted to their environment. Videos show areas of sediment that are regularly turned upside down by creatures such as sea urchins and sea stars.

In one corridor, animals are living in the equivalent of an avalanche path — something being avidly studied by sedimentologists.

Cascadia Basin

The deepest of the sites — known as the abyss — has surprised scientists by providing evidence that some creatures can thrive at such depths, 2,660 metres below the sea surface.

“It’s true deep-sea flat mud and there’s an amazing diversity of organisms,” Juniper said.

A deep-sea camera will be included in the instrument array in the next couple of years, adding to information from remotely operated vehicle expeditions.

Instruments measure the pressure in the earth’s crust and boreholes monitor under the seafloor to estimate the response to ocean waves.

Super-sensitive tsunami detectors are designed to support early-warning programs, providing information that helps coastal communities assess their risks.

They have detected two or three tsunamis a year. “But they are about six inches by the time they get to us,” Juniper said.

Even those tiny tsunamis allow computer models to be improved. Better models mean better forecasting of hazards presented by tsunamis.

Endeavour

The true wild west of the NEPTUNE loop has smoking chimneys, sulphide towers and undersea volcanoes.

Endeavour, with depths ranging from 2,200 to 2,400 metres, is on the boundary of the Juan de Fuca and Pacific plates. When they move apart, the gap is filled by volcanic eruptions.

As the lava rises and crystallizes, it is continually forming new ocean crust.

Along the ridges are hydrothermal vents — fissures that spew out geothermally heated water.

The ecosystem, with substantial deposits of minerals such as lead and gold, is unlike anything else found on earth.

“Super-hot fluids come out and dump minerals all over the sea floor and they form mineral chimneys,” Juniper said.

The spectacular smokers were instrumental in Endeavour becoming Canada’s first offshore Marine Protected Area.

“It is a special site for research and education. It’s a wonderful site to teach people,” said Juniper, who was one of the researchers who pushed for the protected-area designation.

“This is all about how the earth works.”

Despite the extreme conditions, organisms such as tubeworms, sea spiders and limpets manage to survive.

Unique conditions at Endeavour have attracted U.S, French and German scientists, and plans are underway to triple the number of instruments at the site.

Clayoquot Slope

The Clayoquot Slope site lies about 1,250 metres below sea level and approximately 18 kilometres landward of the toe of the Cascadia subduction zone.

The Cascadia subduction zone is the area at which the Juan de Fuca plate is subducting, or descending beneath the North American plate. This is a zone where a thick layer of sediments is naturally increasing as tectonic plates converge. As sediments thicken and compact from accretion, pore waters are expelled from the sediment, and gases — primarily biogenic methane — contribute to the formation of gas hydrates in the upper few hundred metres of the sediment. At this site, a cold vent, known as Bullseye Vent, has formed along with significant concentrations of gas hydrates.

Clayoquot Slope is home to a variety of deep-sea organisms. Many demersal fish — those which live very near the bottom, such as rattails and thorny heads — are observed here, along with brittle stars, octopus, crabs, anemones and bacterial mats. In the water column, organisms such as squid, krill, and jellyfish have been observed during installation and maintenance work. Major studies here include seafloor fluids and gases, earthquakes and deep-sea organisms.

Middle Valley

Middle Valley is another active area of volcanic activity, but so far without instruments.

“We are working towards putting instruments in there and this is the jumping off point to send spur cables into two other tectonic plates. We really want to understand earthquakes in this region,” Juniper said. “We are several million dollars away at the moment.”

The area, reaching a depth of 2,400 metres, is believed to be where many earthquakes are generated, so scientists are anxious to get a close look at activity around the tectonic plates.

“There’s a lot of interest in this. It will maybe help us understand when we are approaching the Big One,” Juniper said. “We should be able to give a warning if we can understand the message.”

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

For an extensive photo gallery, visit Ocean Networks Canada's Flickr page.

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