Thursday, March 3, 2011

Seamounts and the Indonesia Expedition's Mission

This post is written by Indonesia Expedition team leader Dr. Greg Stone. He is a Senior Vice President and Overseer of the New England Aquarium and Senior Vice President and Chief Scientist for Oceans at Conservation International.

Our expedition team is now on board and we are sailing towards our first anchorage in Raja Ampat. Here we hope to discover and explore seamounts — the major purpose for our collaborative and interdisciplinary voyage.

Raja Ampat Islands (Photo: Alan Dynner)

Raja Ampat Islands (Photo: Alan Dynner)


The 6,600-ton nuclear submarine USS San Francisco entered a poorly mapped area 400 miles southwest of Guam in the eastern Pacific Ocean (just to the north of where we are now). Gliding at 38 miles per hour 500 feet down, without warning the colossal submarine buckled into the side of an uncharted seamount. It was a tragic event resulted in pandemonium on the sub after the impact, but the thick inner hull protecting the nuclear reactor held and the crippled sub managed to surface. One sailor was killed and 75 injured, but the remaining crew and the sub survived the May 16, 2005, collision.

The damaged USS San Francisco (Source: MaritimeQuest)

The San Francisco had slammed into one of the estimated 60,000 seamounts that rise from the seafloor in all oceans of the Earth. Most are uncharted, only a few hundred have ever been visited, fewer than 1000 have names, and only a handful have been intensively studied.

Seamounts are extinct and active underwater volcanoes. These hidden mountains of the sea rival the Rocky Mountains in size and challenge coral reefs for biodiversity. Seamounts contain many new and endemic species and are now recognized as the last frontier in earth geography, ocean science and conservation.


The primary purposes of this project is to document and photograph Seamounts and the biology that lives on them for a National Geographic Magazine story written by me and photographed by Brian Skerry, and also to add new and important information about deep sea biodiversity in the Raja Ampat Seascape in order to enhance our understanding and conservation of this reagion. We are diving in one of the most biodiverse places in the ocean, the Raja Ampat seascape, a large marine conservation site where CI and partners works with governmental and non-governmental partners.

Brian Skerry (Photo: Alan Dynner)

Complex networks of deep and shallow currents swirling around, up and over these giant seamounts enrich the water, increasing ocean productivity and encouraging concentrations of ocean life.

Seamounts are important because fish and other forms of marine life and seafood in many shallow parts of the ocean are greatly diminished. Increasingly, commercial fishers are being forced to the deeper recesses of the sea, which has brought seamounts to center stage in the environmental debate about over-fishing because sometimes huge nets are dragged over the seamounts, which can harm or even destroy their unique life forms.

Sunset at Raja Ampat (Photo: Alan Dynner)

Our plan is to use a helicopter, Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) and SCUBA diving to find and survey seamounts of this region. We hope to find and explore previously unknown seamounts and will report back on that soon.

-Greg Stone

Further Reading:

Dr. Greg Stone is a regular contributor to the New England Aquarium's Global Explorers Blog. This link will take you to all of his posts here. He also contributes to the New England Aquarium's Phoenix Islands blog. This link will take you to his posts there.

Stone, G., L. Madin, K. Stocks, G. Hovermale, P. Hoagland, M. Schumacher, C. Steve-Sotka, H. Tausig. 2004. Seamount Biodiversity, Exploitation and Conservation. In: Defying Oceans End, L. Glover and S. Earle (eds). Island Press. 250pp.

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