Rare scenes of shark feeding, cold water coral in Georgia’s new Hope Spot marine sanctuary

By David Pendered for Saporta Report

October 22, 2019

A video tour posted by marine scientists provides a close-up look at life forms in the deep waters of Georgia’s newly named Hope Spot marine conservation area. Videos give first-ever glimpses of cold water corals on a sea bottom once thought to be barren sediment, and a soup-to-nuts view of sharks devouring a huge billfish – which a scientist observed was fairly graphic.

Dog sharks circle the carcass of a dead fish before they begin devouring it. Credit: NOAA, Okeanos Explorer via YouTube

“I think we’ve lost our PG rating,” said one of two scientists who controlled the camera on the remotely operated vehicle that explored the Blake Plateau in June and July.

The scientific exploration is unrelated to the Hope Spot designation of an area dedicated this month by Mission Blue and its founder, acclaimed oceanographer Sylvia Earle. The new marine sanctuary stretches from the coast all the way to international waters.

But the research trip by NOAA and its partners does provide views of an area beyond the reach of many who will be asked to help provide it with further environmental protections. The Hope Spot designation is viewed as the starting point for future preservation efforts that may eventually carry legal protections.

NOAA and its partners just happened to have conducted a research expedition in June and July in the deepwater areas off Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. NOAA observed the waters are some of the least explored areas along the U.S. East Coast.

Following is a narration of action the ROV captured in the Hope Spot that speaks to the reason environmentalists worked to have the marine sanctuary recognized by Mission Blue.

The video, Shark Feeding @ Blake Plateau, runs for nearly 8 minutes. Two female scientists handle the narration and two men, speaking in the background, can be heard directing the camera shots of sharks eating a fish thought to be a swordfish or a billfish:Hope Spot, shark feeding, 2

Dog sharks crowd to eat a freshly dead swordfish or billfish that died and sank to the sea bottom off Georgia’s coast. Credit: NOAA, Okeanos Explorer via YouTube

  • First scientist: “We’ve just happened to find this really rare sight of being able to see these sharks consuming this already dead what looks like swordfish.
  • “This is really seeing this whole cycle of carbon transfer in action, which I don’t think we’ve seen before. I definitely have not.”
  • Second scientist: “Not live. I’ve seen the Blue Planet video of it, but that was a staged thing and this is not at all. We’re getting close to the end of our dive, and to be able to observe these animals in their natural habitat, feeding, is pretty remarkable.
  • “This is great opportunity. You can kind of see the pecking order. Right now the dog sharks are tearing this swordfish apart, but we’re getting some of the other animals lurking around. We’re getting some of the eels that are waiting their turn, basically.”
  • First scientist: “We’re watching how quickly they are biting in and ripping tissue off this freshly dead swordfish. This is just lucky that we were able to find it, while there was still tissue to be eaten and consumed. Likely, in not long a time, this will be just skeleton [and] smaller organism will take every tiny bit of carbon that’s left on that skeleton and put it back in the food chain.”

This is when a male voice observed on the PG rating.Hope Spot, crab

A crab walks away with a piece of dead fish, possibly from the jaw or mouth, as dog sharks continue to devour the creature. Credit: NOAA, Okeanos Explorer via YouTube

The process to gain the Hope Spot recognition for these offshore waters has taken most of the year. The effort was led by three women who work to protect Georgia’s coastal areas:

  • Paulita Bennett-Martin, Georgia Campaign Organizer for Oceana;
  • Angela Costrini Hariche, CEO of Catapult Design;
  • Simona Perry, consultant on issues including the cultural and political consequences of environmental injustice.

The international Hope Spot designation was announced Oct. 10 at a celebration at the Georgia Aquarium. Earle’s organization, Mission Blue, created the recognition to focus public attention on protecting areas of the world’s oceans that are home to special marine ecologies or are socially significant.

Earle’s statement upon winning the 2009 TED Prize appears to support the NOAA research project that revealed unknown aspects of Georgia’s offshore waters:

  • “I wish you would use all means at your disposal – films, the web, expeditions, new submarines, a campaign! – to ignite public support for a network of global marine protected areas, hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.”

Hope Spot, urchin

A sea urchin (orange, lower left side) rests atop a cold water coral on Blake Plateau, off Georgia’s coast. Credit: NOAA, Okeanos Explorer via YouTube

The narration by the marine scientists of the cold water coral reveals that no one had expected to find such living creatures on Georgia’s Blake Plateau.

Following are snippets of the narration of the segment titled, Coral Knoll @ Blake Plateau Knolls:

  • First scientist: “This is really interesting because previous to the Okeanos [research vessel] coming out here and mapping more of the flat part of Blake Plateau, this was kind of originally thought to be soft sediment. That’s part of what the Blake Plateau is and what’s been mapped.
  • “But these mound features that were just mapped last year really do shed light on how prolific these cold water coral communities are growing out here, farther east on the Blake Plateau.
  • Second scientist: “This is fabulous. This is so much more than I expected to see.”

Hope Spot, black sponge

A black sponge is surrounded by cold water coral on Blake Plateau, off Georgia’s coast. Credit: NOAA, Okeanos Explorer via YouTube

The Hope Spot is shaded in purple on this map of Georgia’s Continental Shelf and Blake Plateau. Credit: Paulita Bennett-Martin, Angela Hariche, Simona Perry

The homes of various species of concerns are denoted by color: Blue dotted outline, Atlantic right whale. Hashed line – Atlantic sharpnose shark, infant; brown – Atlantic sharpnose shark, juvenile; green – Atlantic sharpnose shark, adult. Teal – loggerhead sea turtle. Yellow border and shading – Bigeye thresher shark. Credit: Paulita Bennett-Martin, Angela Hariche, Simona PerryHope Spot, Benthic Habitats of Importance.

Places deep in the water where creatures call home include the following, denoted by color: Black outline – rocky reef, ledges, banks; Red-yellow heat map of density – deep sea corals; yellow – artifical reefs. Credit: Paulita Bennett-Martin, Angela Hariche, Simona Perry

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