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Cyclops 1 submersible
OceanGate’s Cyclops 1 will take on a Salish Sea expedition in September. (OceanGate Photo)

OceanGate had to put off its plan to send a new breed of submersible to the wreck of the Titanic this summer, but now it’s gearing up for an undersea adventure closer to home.

The Everett, Wash.-based venture and its associated not-for-profit outreach organization, the OceanGate Foundation, are teaming up with the SeaDoc Society for an expedition in September.

During a weeklong series of dives in OceanGate’s Cyclops 1 submersible, researchers will study the ecosystem of the Salish Sea, the network of U.S.-Canadian coastal waterways that include Washington state’s Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands as well as British Columbia’s Gulf Islands and the Strait of Georgia.

“Just like the space shuttle provided a unique perspective for scientists to understand space, Cyclops 1 provides our only opportunity for direct human observation of these deep-sea environments,” SeaDoc science director Joe Gaydos said in a news release.

Cyclops 1 will take three teams of researchers to depths as great as 650 feet, with OceanGate CEO and founder Stockton Rush in the pilot’s seat. “We are truly honored to be a part of this survey,” Rush said. “This project is a great opportunity to inspire the next generation to explore.”

Over the past year, Rush and the OceanGate team have been focusing on the construction and testing of a next-generation submersible called Titan. While Cyclops 1 is built to go to depths no greater than 1,640 feet (500 meters), Titan is designed to dive as deep as 2.5 miles (4,000 meters) beneath the ocean surface.

OceanGate put Titan through deep-water testing in the Bahamas this spring, in preparation for a scientific survey of the Titanic wreck site. Rough weather stretched out the schedule for test dives, however. Titan was eventually validated for 4,000-meter dives, but the Titanic expedition had to be put off until next year.

September’s Salish Sea expedition will focus on three research projects:

Red urchins

Red urchin
Red urchins are an important part of the Salish Sea food chain. (SeaDoc Society Photo / Ed Bierman)

One project focuses on the feeding strategies for deep-dwelling red urchins, which play an important role in structuring seafloor communities and are also harvested for seafood markets. Kelp is the main food source for red urchins, but the feeding habits of populations that live below the depths where kelp can grow are poorly understood. No human has observed a red urchin below 330 feet (100 meters), except by using remotely operated vehicles.

The University of Oregon’s Aaron Galloway and the University of Washington’s Alexander Lowe will study how deep-dwelling urchins manage to feed at such depths — paying special attention to the role played by drift kelp, which urchins can grab with their long spines as it floats by.

Pacific sand lance

Sand lance
A sand lance plunges itself into a sand wave to rest. (NOAA Photo)

Sand lance are small forage fish that consume plankton and serve as a fat-rich food source for other fish, birds and marine mammals. They don’t have a swim bladder, which means they’re unable to float in the water column. Instead, they plunge their bodies into waves of sand on the seafloor to rest or hide.

Researchers will study in greater detail how the Pacific sand lance, also known as sand eels, make use of their rolling sand wave habitat. The team includes Gary Greene of California’s Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and SeaDoc’s Tombolo Seafloor Mapping Laboratory; Matthew Baker of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs; and Moss Landing’s Joseph Bizzarro.

Scientific trawling’s long-term impact

Trawling net
Scientists open up a trawling net to retrieve samples. (SeaDoc Society Photo / Joe Gaydos)

Scientists have trawled the ocean for decades to conduct research, affecting the seafloor environment in the process. Even scientific trawling operations can alter structure, decrease diversity and remove habitat for larger species in the ecosystem.

Three scientists from Friday Harbor Labs — Adam Summers, Mackenzie Gerringer and David Duggins — will conduct a survey of areas that have been trawled for scientific purposes up to 10 times a year for the past 30 years. Through observation and video documentation, the researchers will compare trawled sites to adjacent areas that haven’t been trawled.

The resulting data will be made available to the public with the goal of informing future policy decisions related to the effects of scientific trawling and management of the Salish Sea environment.

Dive time for all three research projects is being funded by SeaDoc as part of the society’s annual competitive grants program, with additional funding provided by the OceanGate Foundation.

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