Research submarine arrives at Friday Harbor

Often called Earth’s final frontier, the darkest depths of the ocean contain mysterious creatures and otherworldly habitats researchers have only begun to discover thanks to evolving submarine technology. For the first time, one such submarine will be arriving in the San Juans.

“This is a collaboration of Friday Harbor Laboratories with the SeaDoc Society and OceanGate to explore the Salish Sea. We are very pleased to have some of our researchers participating,” said Billie Swalla, executive director of the Friday Harbor Marine Laboratories.

The submarine arrived Sept. 8 at the labs and assisted with three local studies: one regarding red sea urchins, another focusing on the effects of trawling (a method of fishing and researching that scrapes the seafloor) and the third will take a look at sand lance. On Sept. 13, from 6-7 p.m., the public is invited to view the mini submersible vessel and learn what researchers discovered.

According to Joe Gaydos, science director of the SeaDoc Society, a local organization that funds scientists, the venture began because little is known about the deeper waters around the Salish Sea.

“Deep-sea research doesn’t get done because it’s expensive,” Gaydos said.

Using some creative thinking, the group came up with a plan to work with Ocean Gate to make research more accessible. Ocean Gate, located in Everett, Washington, are creators of the submarines.

SeaDoc sent out a request for proposals into the scientific world, and fewer than a dozen applications were received back. Of those, three were accepted, and Gaydos said he is excited to hear what the researchers learn.

While red sea urchins can live 150 years, they have been heavily harvested in areas throughout the Salish Sea. These creatures feed off kelp, which needs light to survive, therefore, previously it was thought they did not live below 100 meters. Deep-sea cameras, however, have captured pictures of them well out of range of scuba divers. Researchers Aaron Galloway, of the University of Oregon’s Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, and Alexander Lowe, of the University of Washington’s Department of Biology, will be studying what these deep-sea dwelling urchins eat and if they utilize drift kelp – pieces of kelp that have broken off and are free floating.

“It is important to see if the deep water acts as a nursery ground,” Gaydos added, noting that if it is, perhaps these locations need to be protected to maintain the shallower urchin colonies.

Friday Harbor Labs researchers Adam Summers, Mackensie Gerring and David Duggins will be taking a look at the effects of trawling. Bottom trawling – dragging a net over the bottom of the sea – was once a method used for fishing, Gaydos said, but due to the incredible damage it does, it has been outlawed.

“It’s like driving a tractor across the sea floor,” he said. Scientists do occasionally use it as a tool, but this study will be taking a look at old trawling tracts to analyze the damage in order to asses if trawling has impacted the structure of the seafloor.

“We need to know if this is a problem because scientists don’t want to be causing or contributing to it if it is,” Gaydos said.

For the third study, Friday Harbor Labs researcher Matthew Baker will join California scientists Gary Greene and Joseph Bizzarro. These three will be taking a look at how sand lance, a small thin fish, use waves.

“They don’t have a floatation device – a fish bladder – like other fish,” said Gaydos.

Instead, they use waves and drive themselves head first in the sand along the ocean floor to hide. They are also known as an important species of forage fish since sand lance are food for many creatures, including salmon.

“No one has gone down to see how they use the waves and sand fields,” he said, adding that, like the other two projects, the results could change what is known about the Salish Sea’s deepest waters.

Although Gaydos is not directly involved in the projects, he said he would love to jump on board the submarine if there is room. The tiny vessel only seats five, though, including ones for a pilot and co-pilot, so he isn’t holding his breath. He is, however, looking forward to the outcome.

“Deep-sea studies have been on my mind for a while, so I’m pretty excited researchers have a whole week to explore,” Gaydos said.

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