Robots over regulators: how ROVs make deep reef habitat more accessible to researchers

Written by Brooke Benson

Approximately 115 km off the coast of Galveston, Texas, and in one of the most active oil and gas production areas in the United States, lies the unexpectedly pristine Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS). The ecosystem at FGBNMS is recognized for its vibrant tropical coral reefs, which support healthy populations of  sponges, fishes, and benthic invertebrates. The reefs rest atop geological formations called salt domes, which are sufficiently elevated above the local seafloor for light to penetrate and support photosynthesis by the corals’ symbiotic algae. These banks ascend upward from nearly 500 feet to within 55 feet of the surface (FGBNMS, 2008). The reefs at the coral cap are some of the healthiest in the Caribbean, with coral cover typically at 50% or higher (FGBNMS, 2008). These habitats have been closely monitored since the 1970s, and the regions of the reef that are accessible to recreational scuba divers have been extensively monitored as a result. However, little is known about corals residing in the deeper habitats (~30-50 m) contained within the Sanctuary, which harbor many similar species as near the reef cap.

Fig. 1 Colonies of Orbicella franksi (left) and Montastraea cavernosa (right) in the mesophotic ranges of FGBNMS, imaged by ROV Yogi. Photo courtesy of the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration.

This past August, I was lucky enough to visit the Sanctuary alongside three other researchers, five engineers, one research coordinator, and four crewmembers with the aim of studying coral spawning and reproduction of key reef-building coral species at the FGBNMS in these deeper habitats. While shallower habitats at the Sanctuary are often studied via scuba diving, divers are limited by the amount of air they can carry with them and the time required for the body to adjust as they return to the surface, complicating efforts to study deeper habitats. To bypass these limitations, we partnered with the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration (GFOE). The GFOE seeks to advance deep ocean discovery and science, and their engineers comprised the intellectual force behind the star of our research cruise–remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Yogi–which was designed specifically for ocean exploration and marine science research. The GFOE pilots are able to communicate with Yogi during dives through a specialized fiber optic tether and receive continuous video feed while controlling the ROV from the boat for up to 8 hours at a time. This video can then be live-streamed back to shore using telepresence technology, where it can be viewed online. Diving with Yogi afforded two major benefits over scuba diving: first, it enhanced data collection (described further below). Second, it increased the accessibility of our science by allowing us to communicate our research to the general public in real time.  

Fig. 2 ROV Yogi. Photo by Daniel R. Rogers, courtesy of the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration

One of the greatest benefits Yogi provided in data collection was the opportunity to continuously monitor gamete release across several of the most important reef-building species at FGBNMS–Orbicella franski, Montastrea cavernosa, and Pseudodiploria strigosa–despite their differing spawning times. This allows us to compare spawning times of shallower corals with their deeper counterparts and assess the potential for genetic exchange across depths (i.e. could their gametes meet at the surface for fertilization). Through the use of the live-stream, we were also able to draw on the expertise of researchers that were not on the boat as we explored. One major objective of the project is to understand how thermal tolerance differs between deep and shallow corals at Flower Garden Banks. Using Yogi’s manipulator arm and with the shore-side guidance from Dr. Sarah Davies at Boston University, we collected fragments of Orbicella faveolata colonies residing at > 45 m, well beyond recreational dive limits. These fragments are now in care at Boston University, and future experiments will compare the thermal tolerance of the deep corals collected on this trip with corals of the same species that were previously collected from shallower depths on the reef cap.   Results of these experiments will help reveal if corals in deeper reef habitats of the FGBNMS could serve as a refuge for shallower coral populations as climate change continues to warm the Gulf of Mexico waters.

However, researchers weren’t the only shore-side listeners. Having a publically available live-stream meant that anyone with internet access had the ability to tune in during the ROV dives, and viewers had the chance to pose questions and receive responses from the science team through hashtag use (#seathegarden) on Twitter and Facebook posts. Direct experiences with organisms and ecosystems are known to play an important role in the development of public concern over environmental affairs (Rickinson 2001). Yet access to experiences in nature are not always readily accessible to people due to a variety of constraints (socioeconomic, physical disabilities, location etc). The capacity for interactive science communication has burgeoned dramatically in recent years, and research suggests that it may play an important role in engaging broad audiences with environmental issues and scientific research (Dahan et al. 2019, Seidelin et al. 2018). 

Additionally, several public aquariums hosted viewing events to maximize the outreach potential of the stream and to engage local communities in an effective way. One such event at the Tennessee Aquarium drew together 40 middle school students from the Chattanooga area to watch the live-stream. From the aquarium, students phoned into the boat and asked science team representatives Hannah Aichelman and Dr. Marie Strader questions about the project as we began our first night dive. To the excitement of both the viewers and our whole team onboard the R/V Manta, we made our very first observation of spawning via Yogi’s video feed during this outreach interaction! 

The achievements of this trip were uniquely possible through the use of Yogi and revealed how exploratory research can benefit from real-time dissemination of knowledge. Overall, there remains a lot of unexploited potential to enhance the quality and impact of scientific research through telepresence and other remote engagement tools. This will become increasingly critical as environmental degradation, resource use, and climate change intensify, impacting more people and the habitat on which we all rely. If you missed out on our expedition this time, check out the GFOE Youtube channel for previously recorded footage from the trip.  

References

Dahan O, Dorfman B-S, Sayin S, Rosener B, Hua T, Yarden A, et al. (2019) Harnessing robotic automation and web-based technologies to modernize scientific outreach. PLoS Biol 17(6): e3000348. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal. pbio.3000348

Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. (2008) Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary Condition Report 2008. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Silver Spring, MD. 49 pp.

Rickinson, M. (2001) Learners and learning in environmental education: A critical review of the evidence. Environmental Education Research, 7(3), 207–320. doi:10.1080/13504620120065230 

Seidelin L, Wahlberg M, & Holmer, M. (2018) Using Live-Stream Video from an Artificial Reef to Increase Interest in Marine Biology. Journal of Marine Science and Engineering, 6(2), 47. MDPI AG.

1 thought on “Robots over regulators: how ROVs make deep reef habitat more accessible to researchers

  1. We watched the dives and appreciated this well written article. Very informative and professional.
    —Bob Banks

    Like

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