When sea-life clings to lost cargo

When sea-life clings to lost cargo

When sea-life clings to lost cargo

Hundreds of containers are lost in the sea every year. So how do these containers transform from being means of transportation to homes of the unsuspecting?, writes Melissae Fellet.

C rabs and deep-sea snails crawl on a sunken shipping container that’s giving scientists a rare opportunity to study marine debris up close.

Pictured in December 2013, the 40-foot-long (12-meter-long) container is one of 15 that fell off the cargo ship Med Taipei on February 26, 2004, when she encountered rough waters off Monterey Bay, California. A few months later, scientists with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) happened upon the structure while checking on other experiments about 4,200 feet (1,280 meters) deep in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It proved a valuable discovery: No one knows how the estimated 10,000 containers that are lost in the ocean every year affect the environment.

“We’re fortunate enough to be in the unique position to study one container,” which holds 1,159 steel-belted tires, said Andrew DeVogelaere, the sanctuary’s research coordinator.

DeVogelaere and team, who studied the container for the first time in March 2011, recently went for another look, accompanied by MBARI biologist James Barry.The team surveyed the animals living on and around the container, gathered sediment to test for toxins leaching from the container, and visited an unexplored portion of the ocean.

Barry said he noticed more animals living on the sunken object now than in 2011, but he thinks the low-oxygen environment will limit any more arrivals. The low oxygen has also kept the container from degrading, so it’s hard to tell that the container has been underwater for almost a decade.

“It’s only starting to rust in places where it was damaged, maybe where it fell off (the ship),” DeVogelaere noted. “I’m thinking these containers could be down there for centuries.”

Sea gardenGray tunicates, flower-like medusae and white tube worms are among the animals that now call the piece of cargo home.

“The container is a big habitat for animals that can’t live in sediment,” MBARI’s Barry said. “Things that live on rocks can live on it, as long as they can tolerate the potential toxicity.” This new habitat may also unwittingly help invasive species spread across the ocean.

“If you provide stepping-stones of lost containers from one port to another,” DeVogelaere said, “we could be opening deep-sea highways for species to move around where they naturally wouldn’t be.”

Ocean surpriseCrabs, sponges and coral were among the surprises found on Sur Ridge, a little-explored area about 28 miles off Point Sur, California.

Barry and DeVogelaere decided to spend the last day of their December expedition exploring this ridge, which, at about 11 miles long and about three miles wide, is roughly the size of Manhattan.

A geologist had visited some areas on the ridge about 10 years ago, but the team set out for other areas so far unseen by people, including a steep slope on the northern end of the ridge.

The team’s remotely operated vehicle spotted colourful gardens of coral, sponges and other life, including a large bubblegum coral that wasn’t known to live in this part of the region.

DeVogelaere felt a sense of wonder while looking at the terrain: “You know that you’re the first human eyes to ever look there. The whole ship has this sense of exploration and excitement that builds on itself as you see one cool animal after another.”

Mind-blowing coralBundles of polyps on deep-sea bubblegum corals (Paragorgia arborea) look like wads of chewing gum in a recent picture taken at Sur Ridge. Once colonised on hard rock, these corals can grow for hundreds of years, reach up to 20 feet (6 meters) tall, and provide an important fish habitat.

They’re also plentiful in the area: “From 1,200 meters deep to 800 meters deep, we saw them in just about every frame,” DeVogelaere said. “That just blew our minds.”Scientists also spotted a young vampire squid near Sur Ridge. When threatened, these squid peel back their webbing and stretch their tentacles along the length of their bodies, revealing threatening rows of spines.

“It’s a shame we can’t visit these places several times a year,” DeVogelaere noted, adding that there are many mysteries left when it comes to deep-sea exploration.“I’m sure we’ll get back to Sur Ridge and find all sorts of other things.”