Scientists find exotic life in ocean depths off Sonoma Coast

Using a remotely operated diving vehicle, scientists explored the depths of the Cordell Bank Marine Sanctuary to check out the ecosystem's health. What they found is amazing.|

Thirteen years ago, he made history by filming the sunken RMS Titanic where it lay broken on the Atlantic seabed.

Since then, he’s dived in nearly every ocean on the planet. On a good day, he can swim for ?24 hours - but at 2 tons, he needs help getting out of the water.

His associates call him Hercules.

And this month, the bright yellow, remotely operated diving vehicle was in the Pacific off Sonoma County to explore, for the first time, the deep-water life in the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 6 miles west of Bodega Bay.

For ROV Hercules, that meant commuting an hour-and-a-half to work, driving nearly 6,000 feet beneath the rolling ocean swells. With two flexible arms, dazzling lights, video cameras and a long, long tether, Hercules was designed to go where humans cannot - to peer into the unknown.

On a clear day when the fog lifts, you can see the Cordell Bank Marine Sanctuary from shore, from either Bodega Head or Point Reyes. On the surface, it’s an unremarkable patch of blue ocean. But go 115 feet down, and you’ll find a submerged rocky island, 9 miles long and 4 miles wide, teeming with fish and a riot of colorful marine life.

The shallow bank is actually the peak of an underwater mountain sitting in what scientists call a biological hotspot. Surrounded by deep, steep walled canyons, the rocky seamount perches on the very edge of the continental shelf, which falls away in a vertical cliff another 2 miles down. No sunlight can penetrate that deep, so the walls and bottom are in permanent blackness, the water is nearly as cold as ice, and the sheer weight of the ocean above creates crushing pressure, nearly 5,000 pounds per square inch. That’s equivalent to two fully loaded ?747 jumbo jets sitting on your chest.

So what’s special about Cordell Bank? Jennifer Stock, the enthusiastic Outreach Coordinator for the Marine Sanctuary, answers that question a lot from her headquarters at Point Reyes. Jennifer was also one of the lucky few pulling watch on board the Nautilus during Hercules’ dives.

Cordell is unique, Stock says, because of its position on the lip of the continental shelf, and the dynamics of the Pacific Ocean there. The undersea mountain sits in the flow of the California current. Every spring, up on the surface, the prevailing winds blow strong, and drive the surface water away from the shore. That draws in water from far deep below, pulling it up and over the bank.

“That seawater, upwelling from the depths, is loaded with organic nutrients,” she explains. “Currents spread it like fertilizer in the water creating a bloom of life, particularly small marine planktons, and teeming numbers of tiny shrimp called krill.”

The clouds of krill are the favorite dining choice for a wide diversity of life, including ocean-going salmon, and blue whales. Along Cordell Bank, the bloom supports more than 240 species of fish - 40 species of rockfish alone. All that sea life attracts predators, including seabirds, sharks and dolphins, and even the giant sunfish called Mola.

Leatherback turtles and black-footed albatross make their way here from thousands of miles across the Pacific for the annual feast. More than 25 species of marine mammal frequent the bank.

And remarkably, this is one of only four locations on the planet where such major upwelling events occur. The cycle of abundance in Sonoma coastal waters also feeds the local onshore economy, Stock notes, with rich fisheries of salmon, crab and other seafood.

On this trip, Stock and the Nautilus team guide Hercules down deep to where the upwelling starts, into giant Bodega Canyon, and down along the steep cliff of the continental shelf, to the bottom. It’s an otherworldly place. Fine drifting white specks are reflected by Hercules’ lights in the blackness.

“We call it ‘marine snow,’” says marine biologist and coral specialist Gary Williams, one of a handful of local scientists working on board the Nautilus. The tiny flakes are actually bits of organic material and the remains of creatures that have died, falling in constant slow motion from up above. The rich snow is the primary source of food for life further down. And that’s what Williams hopes to find.

Before the dive, no one is sure what Hercules might encounter. But as the flat screens reveal glimpses of life, what appears draws oohs and ahhs and a flurry of excitement in the control room.

Amid the drab gray mud and silt, Hercules’ wandering pool of light illuminates strange and beautifully delicate creatures. Pink rock prawns, bright yellow sponges, swimming flatfish and catsharks, spider-like orange crabs, the long feathery fans of sea pens.

There is a small, tan octopus and brittle sea stars amid finely branched outcrops of white and pink corals that come into and pass out of view.

It’s amazing how much life there is, so far beyond the reach of sunlight.

To William’s delight, the corals are doing well. Corals, he explains, are an ancient type of animal, closely related to jellyfish and anemones. One group of corals, for protection, construct a hard exoskeleton around their delicate, tentacled polyps. These hard houses assume fantastic shapes, sizes and colors, and anchor the coral colony to rocky outcrops, while extending them into the currents which carry food. The polyps emerge like flowers.

“When most people think of coral,” Williams says, “they’re thinking of the hard reef corals found in shallow tropical seas. But they only account for about 25 percent of known corals. Nearly 75 percent of all corals actually live in the deep ocean.”

And in the oceans, Williams stresses, deep water corals play a critical role we’re only just beginning to appreciate. Corals are the nurseries of the sea. Their hard, anchored structures provide safe harbors where fish and other sea life can lay their eggs, protected from hungry predators ever on the prowl for a meal. Without them, the world’s population of fish would plummet.

Using Hercules’ flexible arms and skilled pilot, Williams, also Curator of Invertebrate Zoology of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, manages to collect dozens of coral samples from the Marine Sanctuary. Many, he suspects, may be entirely new to science. Given their link to fisheries and ocean health, understanding corals may be critical not only to protecting marine habitats, but humans as well. Small changes in ocean temperature, disrupted currents, acidity, or oxygen levels - effects we’re now witnessing due to climate change - can impact the health of corals in the sea. That’s another reason marine scientists are eager to explore and study regions like the Cordell Bank, and why their protection is needed, according to Stock.

Cordell is one of ?14 federally designated ocean sites in United States territory, set aside to protect unique sea life and habitat from commercial exploitation and damage, and for scientific study. The Cordell Bank sanctuary was established in 1989 following years of community activism, and then expanded by President Obama. Today it encompasses 1,200 square miles, much of it unexplored. The Trump administration has called for review of previously protected areas that could impact the Cordell National Marine Sanctuary signed by President Obama in 2015.

“Seventeen thousand years ago, when the last ice age covered much of North America, the sea level off California was ?300 feet lower,” Stock explains. “Then, Cordell Bank was a mountain on a coastal prairie. Rivers draining to the sea left canyons.” Then, when the glaciers melted, the sea rose and covered it all.

Today, scientists are engaged in monitoring new changes in the ocean along the California coast, as warming and rising seas begin to alter the delicate balance of currents, life and their interwoven relationships.

The crew of the Nautilus –– The Corp of Explorers, as they’re officially known –– belong to the Ocean Exploration Trust organization, founded and chaired by Dr. Robert Ballard, the charismatic marine scientist who first found the Titanic. An outspoken advocate for ocean exploration, Ballard has advanced the design and use of remote diving vehicles like his Hercules for just that purpose. “Fifty percent of our country, our legal territory,” Ballard notes, “lies beneath the sea, and we have better maps of Mars than that.”

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at

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