This summer, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is teaming up with Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration (GFOE) to explore Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Working aboard the Research Vessel (R/V) Manta, 100 nautical miles offshore of Galveston, Texas, scientists will study low-light (mesophotic) reef communities, investigate how corals and sponges from different areas are connected by ocean currents, observe coral reproduction, and sample mesophotic corals. They will use GFOE’s custom built ROV Yogi to observe these habitats.
For three weeks in August, you will be able to watch the expedition live on GFOE’s webpage. See specific dates below for live coverage.
August 14-18: Coral Reef Biodiversity and Connectivity
The first leg of the cruise, led by Drs. Joshua Voss and Shirley Pomponi from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, aims to identify the fish and invertebrate species that live on mesophotic reefs in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Mesophotic reefs occur from ~40 to 150 m (~130 to 490 ft), where very little light is able to penetrate through the water column. These are the deepest depths that reef-building corals are able to grow. The data collected on this leg will be compared to data collected in previous years to determine how mesophotic reef communities might have changed over time in the sanctuary. Scientists will also look at genetic connectivity (how closely related individuals are across reef sites and depths) among great star corals (Montastraea cavernosa) and giant barrel sponges (Xestospongia muta).
August 21-25: Coral Spawning
The second cruise leg, led by Dr. Sarah Davies from Boston University, aims to observe annual broadcast spawning (when corals release their gametes into the water to reproduce) for five coral species that live on mesophotic reefs. ROV footage will allow researchers to better understand whether corals on mesophotic and shallow reefs spawn at the same time. If they do, there is a possibility that deep and shallow corals are able to reproduce together to create new baby corals to help populate Flower Garden Banks reefs. ROV footage from this cruise will represent the first direct observation of spawning for these coral species on mesophotic reefs.
August 28-September 1: Genetic Studies of Black Corals
The third and final cruise leg, led by Dr. Mercer Brugler from New York City College of Technology and the American Museum of Natural History, aims to answer key questions about black corals (order Antipatharia). These corals, named for the color of their skeletons, are found hundreds or even thousands of feet underwater, and scientists still have many questions about their biology and ecology. Researchers on this cruise will collect samples from black coral colonies to identify any potential new species in the sanctuary. They will also sequence the genome of a selected species of black coral, and sample the microbes living in and on the surface of the corals to learn more about their biology. Finally, researchers will conduct age studies on a sample colony to find out how old these species might be in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Previous studies have found black corals in other parts of the world that are more than 4,000 years old!