The continental shelf off Washington state is home to a newly discovered marine treasure. Hundreds of meters below the surface of a popular commercial fishing area called Gray's Canyon, grows an array of picturesque sponges. These sponge, named glass sponge for their integration of silica into the porous body, require very particular substrate, nutrient and current conditions. Glass sponge growing on reefs were discovered off the coast of Canada in the 1980s, but researchers were fascinated to see if this might be the first sponge reef to be observed off the coast of Washington.
A team of ocean explorers aboard the E/V Nautilus including engineers, scientists and educators used ROV Hercules and Argus to get a closer look. In collaboration with experts on shore, researchers were able to collect substrate and sponge samples to give clues about the glass sponge's growing habits, morphology and species variety. The team also noted any damage to the sponges potentially caused by local trawling activity. In Hercules' headlights, the sponge's white, beige and orange colors stood out in stark contrast to the dark background of the underwater twilight zone which occurs in depths beyond 180m.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and an important commercial resource that fuels many elements of our lives on land. Scientists are beginning to understand the complex and varied ways methane fuels life beneath the sea as well. Nautilus will study methane seep habitats along the length of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, from southern British Columbia to northern California. Several sites along the Washington coast are well-studied ecosystems fueled by gas hydrate - a crystalline, consolidated chemical ice made of methane.