HURL submersible ready for launch. Credit: Jana Light

The deep sea is a dark, cold, remote place—yet many Earth processes, and likely the origin of life itself, occur uniquely there. Few have been able to study its wonders in person. The Hawaiʻi Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL) based at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) maintains two of the last manned submersibles in the world, the Pisces IV and the Pisces V. Even during tight budgetary times, the subs have enabled incredible research, discovery, and exploration—not just for researchers but for students, as well.

“We have just completed a banner year,” said Terry Kerby, director of facilities and submersible operations at HURL. “It is hard to believe all that happened in 2016.”

During test dives in March, HURL was fortuitously able to recover the bronze bell from the I-400, a World War II-era Imperial Japanese Navy mega-submarine, lost since 1946 when it was intentionally sunk by U.S. forces after its capture.

Following that, HURL secured a contract with the Navy to train U.S. Navy Special Operations Command divers how to pilot the Launch, Recovery and Transport platform.

“This was what allowed us to keep our excellent crew intact for a few more months and gave me time to put together more Pisces dives,” said Kerby.

Capturing video of deep coral bioluminescence

HURL originally had on its September schedule two dives focused on NOAA’s study of deep sea corals with Frank Parrish, a research marine biologist, at the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. Then four more dives were supported by National Geographic for Sylvia Earle to bring new lowlight camera technology down and capture the first video images of deep coral bioluminescence on bamboo and gold coral. As these were coral species that Parrish was working on Earle invited him collaborate on the dives. During the dives, Kerby, who is an expert submersible pilot and artist, used the sub’s robotic arm to hold a paint brush to stimulate the bioluminescent response in deep sea corals.

“It was as if Terry was painting the bioluminescence on a coral colony like it was a canvas,” said Parrish. “It was a stunning effect!”

Exploring seamounts and the Monument

Dumbo octopus near McCall seamount. Credit: HURL/CI.

Purple Chimaera, HURL/Conservation International


Dumbo Octopus, HURL/Conservation International

HURL got help once again. This time from Conservation International (CI). In September, with support from CI, HURL submersibles dove on seamounts near Hawaiʻi—two of which have never been explored by human-occupied submersibles. Cook and McCall seamounts—part of the Geologists Seamounts, located 100 miles southwest of the Big Island of Hawaiʻi—and Loʻihi were the destinations for this three-day series of dives using the Pisces IV and Pisces V, HURL’s two submersibles. Among the impressive volcanic formations, the team spotted such wonders as a rare Dumbo octopus with large fins that look like Dumbo’s ears at Cook Seamount, and a potentially new species of violet-hued coral they dubbed Purple Haze. At McCall Seamount, which is home to a large number of small deep-sea sharks, the team saw a purple chimaera.

“I’m proud to say that we went out in September and pulled of 18 dives in 10 days and accomplished every scheduled dive,” said Kerby. “On top of that, we’ve built a partnership with Conservation International—they’re asking for more dives in 2017! We are all excited about doing these exploration dives of seamounts in 2017.”

In October 2016, with National Science Foundation-funded researchers, the Pisces crew explored the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a monument recently expanded by President Barack Obama to cover three times its previous area. During this month-long trip, the team explored deep corals and collected important samples and images of seamounts that had been ravaged by coral dredging activities—area that will now be protected in the new expanded monument. Next fall, the subs will go out to Papahānaumokuākea again with the same NSF group.

Submersibles provide unique access and exploration capability

In a world that seems to be moving towards remotely operated vehicles for deep sea exploration, “There is no substitute for being down in the environment, for being able to react to the environment in real time. These are things only humans can do,” said Michael Bruno, UH Mānoa vice chancellor for research. “I hope we never see the day that we replace, rather than supplement, manned submersibles.”

“There is so much more to explore in the deep sea,” said Brian Taylor, SOEST dean. “We want to be able to provide our researchers with eyes and hands-on access to these inaccessible marine environments for as long as we can.”

The opportunities afforded by the Pisces subs enable greater exploration and innovation—a cornerstone of SOEST’s and UH Mānoa’s academic and research vision.

“A lab like HURL is always innovative, in equipment and in bringing research to the public,” said Kerby. “The great thing about a university is you get students, faculty, and industry coming together to advance our understanding and progress, and HURL is a great example of what that can look like for the marine environment.”

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