A Month at Sea: Dr. Erik Cordes’s Great Adventure

Dr. Erik Cordes (3rd from right) and crew prepare to cast off on a month-long expedition aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s R/V Falkor. They will explore the deep-ocean coral gardens of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area in the central Pacific Ocean – Courtesy image (c) 2017 all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

Compiled on behalf of The Bedford Citizen

Dr. Eric Cordes studying coral fragments – Courtesy image (c) 2017 all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

Dr. Erik Cordes, a 1989 graduate of Bedford High School, is currently leading a month-long expedition aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s R/V Falkor to explore for the first time the deep-ocean coral gardens of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) in the central Pacific Ocean.

Dr. Cordes, an Associate Professor and Vice-Chair of Biology at Temple University in Philadelphia,  is Chief Scientist and Principal Investigator on this expedition. He received his M.S. from Moss Landing Marine Labs, his Ph.D. from Penn State University and was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University. He has worked on the ecology of the deep sea for over 20 years, spending over a year at sea on 22 research cruises and making over 30 dives in the manned submersibles Alvin and Johnson Sea-Link.

In addition to Dr. Cordes, the expedition team includes Randi Rotjan, Tim Shank, Alexis Weinnig, David Gruber, Daniel Vogt, Anna Gauthier, Abby Keller, Luke McCartin, Aranteiti Tekiau, and Thom Hoffman.

Dr. Cordes posted “If I asked you to picture a coral reef, you might think of snorkeling around warm ocean waters surrounded by curious fish. But you can’t snorkel or scuba around deep ocean corals. Thousands of feet below the sea surface, these are high pressure, intense, cold, dark environments with low oxygen levels – not exactly a great holiday atmosphere for humans. Fortunately, this is where the Remotely-Operated Vehicle (ROV) SuBastian comes in – an unmanned vehicle that will be our eyes, ears, and arms in the deep ocean, as we observe and steer from the safety of the control room, thousands of feet above. The expedition will be doing visual surveys with SuBastian’s high powered cameras, taking fluid samples, measuring pH levels, as well as sampling coral and other animals and looking at biofluorescence around coral reefs. The robot’s soft hands can delicately interact, sample and examine the corals and deep sea marine life.

Watch the Remotely-Operated Vehicle Livestream from the depths of the Pacific Ocean on Friday, October 13

“Our first stop is visiting the Kiribati Island of Kanton to get our passports stamped, exchange cultures and ideas and learn more about PIPA from those who helped create it. After that comes three straight weeks of robotic diving on deep coral sites. We are due to send SuBastian down to our first location on October 13th and we would love for you to join and listen in on the science as we live stream the dives on our YouTube and FaceBook pages.

“We will do periodic question and answer sessions and coral tours when we have specific sites of interest.” The scientists and crew on board, as well as you watching at home, will be explorers together, visiting these unseen places for the first time, certain to get closer to answering fundamental questions about our planet’s incredible deep-ocean environment.” To learn more, click the links at the end of this article.

Dr. Cordes’s work is centered around the ability of organisms to shape their environment and increase habitat heterogeneity but has increasingly become focused on the ability for humans to impact these processes in the deep sea. Questions he is hoping to answer on this trip include how are the reefs changing in an age of ocean warming and acidification, and what kind of impact is the creation of these marine protection areas having?

PIPA is the largest and deepest UNESCO World Heritage Site on Earth. Approximately the size of California, PIPA was the first Marine Protected Area (MPA) of its kind. Created in 2008, it is about halfway between Hawaii and Fiji within the territorial waters of the Republic of Kiribati. This unexplored region is so remote that it will take the R/V Falkor six days just to get there from Honolulu.

Above the water, eight low-lying islands exist in the MPA, but the real beauty is below the surface. Huge tracts of deep ocean are pierced by over 25 underwater volcanoes. Seamounts along with atolls and submerged reefs create one of the last isolated coral archipelago ecosystems on earth, virtually untouched by mankind. The biological density is phenomenal with more than 500 fish species, an abundance of sharks and turtles, and at least 120 types of coral – but that is just in the shallows. PIPA is also the first protected area in Pacific where depths exceed 16,400 feet (5,000 meters), and entirely unknown species are sure to live at those depths. Dr. Cordes and his team will explore never seen before seamounts and atolls within PIPA.

Follow these links to learn more:

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